By Allison Naumann
Whether in the written word or in film, the horror genre has long been considered disreputable compared to other more recognized genres like drama. Horror films rarely win awards at major ceremonies and they don’t receive much scholarly attention, though Get Out managed to successfully snag recognition for Best Original Screenplay in the 2018 Academy Awards. Perhaps the reason for horror’s poor reputation is that most horror films, like The Void, employ overused clichés — lights that flicker pointlessly, jump scares, tense music when a scene isn’t particularly scary, or a character choosing to stay in an unsettling place until it is too late to leave — all of which operate with the sole purpose of manipulating the audience to respond in fear. These clichés act as a shortcut to the audience’s emotions. The manipulated reaction ultimately is without substance, leaving the audience unable to engage intellectually with the film. However, Get Out, by director Jordan Peele, through the portrayal of modern racism, marks the beginning of a push to revive the genre in a way which seeks to engage its audience both intellectually and emotionally.
Peele opens his film with an unexplained kidnapping and with the lead characters, Chris and Rose, hitting a deer with their car, subtly unsettling viewers from the start. This odd discomfort intensifies exponentially when Chris and Rose arrive at her parents’ house, a stereotypical rich, white estate where the only other people of color are two black servants who behave abnormally. The welcome Chris receives, however, is the most eerie part of the whole place. Rose’s father makes Chris especially uncomfortable, calling him “my man” and stating that he would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could have. The father’s comments, though they seem aimed toward establishing a connection, instead alienate Chris because the father’s attempts to ingratiate himself expose his prejudice instead.
These uncomfortable greetings are only at the surface of the true issue Rose’s family has — their desire to appropriate black culture (without, of course, sharing any of its historical trauma). The first instances of this desire are uncomfortable and awkward because the father clearly objectifies Chris. He struggles to treat him like a human being. And as the film progresses, the family’s true intentions make themselves even clearer: Rose’s father tells Chris the story of the Olympic racer, Jesse Owens, who outran every white contestant, and later a woman at a large gathering of the townspeople asks Chris if black men really are better in bed; these people’s comments are less like compliments and more like the comments made by someone checking out a new car. Peele is playing with the backwards expression of racism in modern culture. This is not a racism that always shows itself in blatant hatred, but a type that is subtly disclosed before it bursts out boldly. By the end of the film, it’s apparent that Rose’s family longs for a world in which they can appropriate the culture, achievements, and status of African-Americans without having to bear any physical, spiritual, or cultural wounds. With this masterful set-up, Peele engages his viewers both through the discomfort they experience with Chris and as they consider the twisted form of racism which is prevalent in current culture.
Peele obviously knows the territory of the horror genre intimately because he utilizes the tropes of horror to escalate racism to its final end — literally stealing another person’s body, which is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing. Because Chris spends so much of his time in Get Out trying to reassure Rose that it’s okay that her family is racist, he fails (but only for a bit) to recognize the family’s true agenda, to steal and assimilate his body as one of their own. The horror genre, which often depicts psychopathic killers who dissociate humans from their bodies, is the perfect vehicle for this story about racism because, just like killers, racists see people of other races as objects and not real people. Peele seizes the opportunity to show racism taken to its extreme, likening it to the mindset of horrific murderers, with full force. The horror genre brings out what’s truly scary about racism — that people aren’t seeing other people as people.
Get Out is a promising film in regard to the future of the horror genre. For the first time in a while, scholars have begun to talk about modern horror films again, particularly at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies where classes on all types of horror, both film and literature, are taught in a lecture format by scholars and writers who are passionate about horror (all of which the New York Times covered in greater detail here.) With a promising film like Get Out, the academic embrace of the genre has only grown stronger. The film’s look into the societal issue of racism married with the tropes of horror creates a truly thought-provoking film that will remain in the minds of the viewers and critics as more than just a cheap scare. At last, the horror genre has won some of the recognition it deserves, and hopefully it will continue to win more.