A week away from the Oscars means a rumination on a nominated movie is a great idea. A good friend and writing mentor, Jeff Meyers, has a take on “Get Out” I find extremely thought provoking and fascinating, so much so I asked him to let me post his ideas here. Whether you liked the movie or not (I realize as much as it invigorates many of us it befuddles others) , I think you will find his essay worthy of consideration and discussion.
It’s no secret that, historically, horror has been regarded as junk entertainment, a genre that relies on cheap thrills and lurid subject matter to draw audiences. And while critics have been willing to extoll the technical and cinematic achievements of the genre, they typically overlook the thematic, intellectual, and emotional resonance of the genre.
The well-deserved nomination of Get Out for this year’s Best Picture Academy Award is only the sixth time a horror film has been considered for such an honor. The first, 1973’s The Exorcist came 45 years after the Oscars were first introduced. Since then, only The Sixth Sense, Black Swan, Pan’s Labyrinth (Best Foreign Language Oscar) and Silence Of The Lambs (the only one to win… and regarded, by some, to be a thriller rather than horror), have been given such regard. Classics like King Kong, Bride Of Frankenstein, Psycho, Alien and The Shining were all, notably, overlooked.
This dismissal of horror as a serious-minded expression of cinematic art and opinion has such a long and pervasive history that even some its own practitioners feel a need to distance themselves from the label, lest they be devalued as artists.
In the introduction to The Walking Dead graphic novel, creator Robert Kirkman insisted that his goal was not to scare anyone, and that he wasn’t writing horror but rather “social commentary and character.” Writer-director Jordan Peele asserted that Get Out is not a horror film but rather a “social thriller.”
With all due respect, Kirkman and Peele are wrong. While genre labels are often fluid and inexact, there is little doubt that a graphic novel that involves hordes of flesh-eating zombies, and a movie about a mad scientist that cuts out the brains of his victims in order to replace them with someone else’s brain qualify as horror. The rejection of the label is undoubtedly the result of those long standing dismissals of the genre.
Nevertheless, horror’s artistic pedigree is well-established in literature. The works of Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Shirley Jackson, Mary Shelley, Henry James, and others are considered true classics that confront matters of ethics and morality, politics and philosophy with the same force and vitality as the rest of the literary canon.
To confront the reasons why horror films are so often dismissed it may be prudent to first consider why so many people have such a visceral aversion to the genre. Though gore and violence may occasionally be cited as a reason, what often becomes the deal-breaker for filmgoers is that they don’t like the way horror films make them feel. Ie. They don’t like to be scared.
And this reaction is completely understandable. In fact, as far as genre labels go, only horror uses an emotion to define itself. The genre describes the very feeling it intends to evoke. But this is also part of the underlying reason why the genre should be held in higher regard.
When an audience member goes to see a comedy or an action-adventure or even most dramas there is an unspoken social contract that no matter what happens during the film, the story will ultimately deliver a resolution, and the audience will experience catharsis. There may be hardships and dangers along the way, but ultimately justice, victory, true romance, or personal growth will be achieved.
Of course, not all films deliver a reassuring outcome–and some of the best throw the audience a curveball–but by and large, your average film-goer expects to leave the theater feeling that all is right in the world.
Horror films offer no such guarantee of safety. They do not blanch in the face of evil. And by their very nature rely on our discomfort to generate fear or anxiety. The underlying supposition of the horror film is that all is not right in the world.
So, is it any wonder that so many filmgoers are reluctant to embrace the genre?
But horror also has the ability to provoke feelings of anger, empathy, disappointment or injustice that resonate more deeply than simple startles or scares. In fact, those darker more uncomfortable emotions become a vital part of genre’s thematic power.
Horror, through its tropes, instills in us a sense of humility, the recognition that we are flawed, fragile, sinful and vulnerable beings in an infinitely dangerous universe. It ruthlessly reminds us that we are not the indomitable species we think we are, that despite all our achievements we are, to something somewhere, just another meal, womb, or body to possess. Because horror relies on the inherent uncertainty of life and the dark projections of both the conscious and unconscious mind, it is ripe to examine humanity’s deepest fears and doubts. Horror is not expected to be respectable, and so it can confront matters of social justice and ethical responsibility in ways other genres of film would fail to be convincing. And it can attract audiences that might otherwise avoid those topics.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out is proof positive of horror’s unique and vital power to address serious thematic issues… and is, in my estimation, the nominated film most deserving to win.
A devious critique of liberal racism disguised as a horror-thriller, it is, essentially, a dark mash-up of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and The Stepford Wives. Much has been written of the film’s savvy mix of social messaging, creepy genre thrills and racial satire, but what is equally impressive is the number of meaty issues it manages to reference: Mixed race relationships, suburban racism, police brutality, eugenics, the slave trade, and even Hollywood’s treatment of minority characters all come under review.
What is truly remarkable about Get Out is that it is less about race than it is about racism. Peele rejects the role Hollywood often bestows upon black filmmakers—as artistic ambassadors of the black-American experience—and instead looks at what scares black Americans today. He has both inverted and subverted normal horror film conventions in ways that are wickedly smart. For instance, notice how his plot flips the script on the all-too familiar white woman in inner-city peril fantasy. Instead, he strands a black man in an affluent (and politely hostile) white community. And do we need to spell out the symbolic underpinnings of the silver spoon Rose’s mom uses to subdue her victims? Or the ‘cotton’ that Chris literally picks to save his life?
While several articles could be dedicated to Get Out’s confrontation of liberal racism and social microagressions, the genius of Peele’s horror film is best summed up by the choices he makes for his protagonist and how enriched with metaphor they are. In particular, it’s interesting to look at Peele’s decision to cast his protagonist as a respected photographer and how that single, seemingly simple choice allowed him to masterfully exploit his thematic conceits.
Consider the way we first meet Chris, the film’s protagonist. The photographs on his apartment walls are raw and spontaneous—candid moments of urban street life—the kind of work show that Chris is an artist attuned to his surroundings, as he looks for that perfect shot. In other words, he is a trained observer, not only as a black man in a white man’s world but also by profession. This skill will prove vital to the plot.
A creature of habit, Chris brings his camera to Rose’s house, and it’s through his camera lens that he first spots the another young black man, a party guest who seems both familiar and oddly out of place. At first, Chris is excited to find someone he can bond with. But when he snaps a picture, the flash causes the man’s nose to bleed. He charges at Chris, screaming, “Get out!” and as we will later learn, it is a warning rather than a threat.
Now consider the symbolic power of Chris’s camera— which quite literally exposes the truth of Rose’s family’s victims —and how cellphone cameras have become the proof of longstanding complaints (often dismissed by white America) that African-Americans are being racially profiled, unjustly brutalized and even killed by law enforcement. Chris’ camera, just like the cellphones that filmed, say, the murder of Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station in San Francisco, has the ability to r eveal the truth. Peele is a smart enough writer to realize both the plot utility and thematic depth of such a character choice and exploits it to its fullest potential.
It is ironic, then, that Jim Hudson, the blind white man who has bid to own Chris’ body (in a creepy slave-style auction that’s disguised as a game of bingo) cares nothing of Chris’ black skin. He only wants his eyes– not just the ability to see, but to ‘see’ life as Chris-the-artist does. This is the very definition—and a gross perversion—of cultural appropriation. Hudson assumes that he can step into Chris’ body and, absent all the things Chris has experienced as a black man, see the world with new eyes. Hudson’s desire also lays bare the sins of white American history. Whether it be the slave trade, the Tuskegee experiments, or our current for-profit prison system, whites continue to exert ownership over black bodies with little consideration for the people they belong to.
By choosing the horror genre, Peele has selected a vehicle that gives him the freedom to present his ideas without accusations of being pedantic or on-the-nose. While a dramatic treatment of the same material could work, the odds are against it successfully reaching a wide and diverse audience. The calculated chills of horror offer us the promise of entertainment first, messaging second.
One final point about Get Out … and its ending. After escaping the Armitages’ nefarious plans and killing each member of Rose’s family, Chris flees from his murderous girlfriend only to be intercepted by a car with flashing lights. It is here that the mainly white audience at Get Out’s Sundance premiere let loose an audible groan. They could see where things were headed, what videos on the Internet and a history of systemic racism had taught them to expect: Rose would plead to the police officers that Chris—a black man– had attacked her defenseless white, up-standing suburban family in a fit of rage, and our hero would either be gunned down or imprisoned, yet another black man consumed by American racism.
And even then, Peele surprises us, allowing his black hero to walk away victorious. The police car turns out to be the work vehicle of his wise-cracking best friend Rod, a TSA agent. The audience’s laughter during the final scene was as much about Peele’s gift for comedy, as it was an expression of relief: for once, a horror film was less horrible than the world outside the theater.
Get Out’s ending is a both a distillation and illustration of the true power of the horror film–to disturb an audience in such a way that they recognize the unsettling issues that fuel the film’s subtext.
Great horror films refuse to let the audience off the hook, they tell us that no one is safe and that a happy ending is not guaranteed. Though we have been rooting for Chris to escape the clutches of the evil racists (that sort of look just like us… but surely couldn’t be us), horror suggests that he might not make it after all. And this is why the best examples of the genre resonate so deeply. They challenge us to see the fragility of civilization and the hollowness of moral certainty. Horror demands that we appreciate that acts of evil and injustice are a permanent, ineradicable aspects of our world. And maybe, if the film’s message disturbs us deeply enough, we can begin the slow process of change.
For the horror writer, Get Out offers a very clear lesson in craft–and most especially the power of creating unity between story choices and thematic subtext. But beyond those mechanics, it’s important to remember that the best horror is not just about ghosts or zombies or evil cults or mad brain-swapping scientists. Good horror recognize that we are the zombies that mindlessly devour. We are the monsters who prey upon women. We are the race that claims ownership of black lives. Consumerism is the monster. Sexism is the monster. Racism is the monster. Humanity is the monster.