The most terrifying films are the ones that reject the use of monsters and supernatural entities, and instead reflect our own societal flaws back at us. These flaws are made a thousand times larger under the magnifying glass of horror and suspense. The message at the core of Jordan Peele’s jaw-dropping directorial debut Get Out is that white people love black culture and black bodies, but they do not value black lives.
Our bodies and culture are exploited for profit as trendy consumables. However, things typically associated with blackness are only “good” when present on non-black bodies. To name a few examples: In 2016, Marc Jacobs sent an array of white models down the runway with dreds; a culturally appropriative decision he later defended on Instagram. Meanwhile, black people are still demonized for their natural hair. Kylie Jenner mysteriously sprouted big lips after puberty, while the same naturally occurring feature is considered ugly on black women. A 14 year old black girl invented the word fleek, changing the way the world speaks, but she has yet to be interviewed on Ellen (like the Damn Daniel kids) or given any kind of recognition at all.
To add injury to these many insults, while our culture is being consumed, our blood is being spilled in the streets. The list of unarmed black men and women slaughtered by police with impunity is endless. For us the horror movie is real life. We’re the audience, paralyzed with fear as we watch our bodies litter the nightly news over and over again.
As if to solidify the notion that art imitates life, horror films have never been a safe haven for blackness. When black characters are not excluded completely, we’re relegated to the role of comic relief driven sidekick who dies quickly and has no real stake in the narrative. In Get Out Peele’s subverts the way the genre typically treats black characters. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is forced to the forefront of his own story when a seemingly innocent trip to meet his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents takes a turn for the worst. Peele relies on horror conventions as well as staples of the psychological sub-genre to flesh out Chris’ story.
Psychological horror is a sub-genre that focuses on the bizarre mental state of its characters. In these films it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s fake. Rose’s mom hypnotizes Chris and sends him to “the sunken place”. Yet, he jerks awake in bed as if it was all a nightmare. This leaves Chris and the audience to question whether one of the film’s most important moments even really happened.
Classic psychological films like the The Stepford Wives capitalize on this blurring of imagination and reality. The protagonist Joanna feels as if she’s losing her mind among the suspiciously submissive housewives in her idyllic suburb. Then it is revealed that their husbands turned them into robots, and Joanna is next.
It’s this that comes to mind when Chris meets the other black people in the neighborhood. It’s obvious that there’s something not quite right about the forced smiles and almost cyborg-like nature of Georgina, Walter, and Logan. However, none of the white characters seem mystified by their strangeness. The audience is left to wonder if maybe it’s all in Chris’ head.
Peele also incorporates body horror into the film. Like the name implies, this mechanism of terror is all about graphic mutilation of the body, and has been grossing audiences out for decades. A prime example is The Human Centipede franchise. These films feature a crazed scientist who sews humans together mouth to bootyhole to create (you guessed it!) a human centipede. The Human Centipede 3 takes the grossness factor to another level with a scene where the evil mastermind draws strength and sexual pleasure from snacking on a bowl of dried human genitalia. While Get Out doesn’t quite take things that far, it does present the idea of a new hybrid that focuses on the black body. This one is arguably scarier because of what it analogically represents.
This new take on body horror and psychological thrills combines to deliver an allegorical look at cultural appropriation and a scathing critique of performative white allyship. The black body is the focal point of terror in this film. Chris discovers that Rose’s family sells black people to the highest bidder, then performs an operation on them both, placing the white buyer’s brain into the black person’s body. Essentially, Chris would be trapped “in the sunken place” forever and some white stranger would literally become him, gaining access to the supposed physical prowess and coolness that black people possess. This is white desire to harness and Columbus black bodies and culture magnified to the umpteenth degree.
Throughout the film, Rose feeds into the psychological mystery by continuing to insist that nothing is wrong even as Chris begins to question his own sanity. Allegorically, Rose fails as an ally. Her support of black people, in this case represented by Chris as a whole, is superficial and performative. Early in the film she stops a police officer from racially profiling Chris and assures him that her family can’t be racist because her father “would have voted Obama for a third term” if he could have. She plays the part of the “good white person” right up until Chris is strapped to a chair, awaiting the hybrid operation, just like every other black boyfriend (and girlfriend) she has lured to her parent’s home.
In the end Chris is rescued by his black best friend, perhaps sending out the film’s most powerful message of all: Nobody knows what it’s like to be black in a world that uses and abuses our gifts and bodies, then discards our lives. Nobody except us. Even good white allies still experience the world as white people and thus can’t experience the kind of marginalization that we do. So it’s up to us to protect and radicalize for each other. If we don’t have our back who will?