Finding Grace in Screen Violence

Sarah Welch-Larson

On Chvrches’ newest album, Screen Violence, guitars crunch and synths echo, like the audio equivalent of a VHS tape that’s gone slightly fuzzy. The material is dark, but the band’s vision sheds a small ray of grace and light into a shadowy place. In contrast with their sound and subject matter, the band’s aim is crystal clear: they take the imagery of horror movies and use it to repudiate the trap of legalism.

Screen Violence dials back on the brightness and energy from Chvrches’ previous work, delving instead into a grungier, more analog sound. It's a perfect fit for a concept album built around the slasher movies popularized in the 1980s, which would have lined the walls of the horror section in video-rental stores. Old VHS can tapes have a muddy look to them, which fits the horror theme of the album; the band is exploring darker themes, ones listeners might not want to look at directly.

Chvrches’ exploration of horror is more than just skin deep. The movies that their songs reference tend to follow a strict, simple structure, which the band dissects with their lyrics: “In the final cut / in the final scene / there’s a final girl / and you know she should be screaming” (“Final Girl”). Background synths for this song climb to a crescendo, layered under echoing electric guitars. The effect is a deceptively simple sound that reveals new depths on repeat listens, much like the horror movies that the songs deconstruct.

In slasher movies, behaving badly usually spells certain doom. The only survivor is usually an innocent teenage girl (called the “final girl”) who is able to escape the monster because she behaves the way she’s expected to. She does her homework, she doesn’t sneak off with boys, and she listens to authority figures. Lead singer Lauren Mayberry paints herself in her lyrics as a woman trapped in a slasher movie, but she refuses to claim the innocence of a “final girl” because she knows she’s been unable to live up to the rules laid out for her: “good girls don’t cry / and good girls don’t lie / and good girls justify / but I won’t” (“Good Girls”).

Chvrches uses the horror-movie framework to talk about the way society can be legalistic and hypocritical in its expectations about how people should behave—especially women. “He Said She Said” lists a litany of things women are expected to do: “look good but don’t be obsessed” . . . “you need to be fed / but keep an eye on your waistline” . . . “get drunk but don’t be a mess.” Mayberry’s lyrics describe any woman who has felt as though she’s walking a tightrope between society’s expectations for her and her inability to live up to those unforgiving standards. She has to be a fun party girl with no personality, following a set of paradoxical rules that no one person can fulfill completely. “I try, but it’s hard to know what’s right,” sings Mayberry. She knows the rules, but can’t—and won’t—follow them.

Chvrches uses the horror-movie framework to talk about the way society can be legalistic in its expectations about how people should behave — especially women.

The trouble with slasher movies is not that they are violent, but that they can be legalistic to the point of cruelty. Characters who break the rules—splitting up, or going through a door they’re not supposed to open, or sneaking off to have sex or to drink—usually don’t make it out alive. The punishment is disproportionate to the crime. If they want to survive, the “final girls” of slasher movies are supposed to both maintain their innocence and fight for their lives; they are often pictured wide-eyed or holding a knife. Chvrches presents the problem of slasher movies as a problem that women everywhere face, because both involve rules that are impossible to live by. The same could be said of Christian communities that emphasize the law over grace. “I’m getting tired of the alibis . . . I’m terrified of falling faster,” sings Mayberry. She’s done with trying to adhere to society’s unreasonable rules for her.

Some of the songs on Screen Violence express a desire to respond to violence in kind (“These violent delights / keep creeping into my nights . . . and I’ll never be right”). But in “Nightmares” the band recognizes that repaying harm with harm is a trap, one that will maintain an ongoing cycle of hurt and sin (“I’ll be singing that song again . . . it’s been giving me nightmares again, and they don’t end”). Slashers, with their simple plots, can come across as repetitive, and if they’re successful enough to earn sequels, the cycle of violence repeats itself across more than one movie. The music videos for all three singles from Screen Violence present the cycle of harm as a massive revolving door with no exit, a giant glass tube that Mayberry cannot escape, like the heroines of the movies she sings about. The album’s soundscape mirrors the image of the revolving door as well: booming drum machines and echoing synths, all repeating themselves in loops, as cyclical as the issues and movies the album explores. Violence (in slashers) and impossible rules and expectations (in society and the church) spin themselves into a trap.

To be clear: laws are not always bad. Jesus even declared that he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. We can’t fulfill the law ourselves—that’s what Jesus came to do. Trying to uphold God’s law on our own—and trying to force others to do the same—leads to cycles of control and abuse. The grace that Christ extends provides an escape from the cycle, a release from the obligation to live up to the law’s unyielding standards while also providing the space to return, again and again, to righteousness. Loving the law becomes an expression of gratitude for that grace, rather than a burden we can't carry.

Screen Violence ends with a shred of that same grace. The final song, “Better If You Don’t,” brings an acoustic guitar to the front, with the synths that shape the rest of the album’s sound faded far into the background. The result is an introspective tone, the calm after the storm and the violence of the entire album before it. Mayberry sounds pensive as she sings, “I drink and I think too much / I should quit one of the two . . . I won’t follow you again.” The sentence is an acknowledgement that she’s a work in progress—the “should” implies that she hasn’t quit her vices yet—but the song’s thoughtfulness leaves the door open for the ongoing work of grace.

Topics: Music