(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills
For any of you who have ever watched a horror film, the movie “Psycho” probably stands out as one of the most frightening. The building of tension, the social commentary on supposedly virtuous America, and the heart-stopping murder scene all help make “Psycho” one of the greatest films ever.
Prior to it, however, horror movies almost universally used supernatural, unreal monsters to create fear and terror. Godzilla, Dracula, Frankenstein, a giant ape – these were all fictitious monsters who symbolized human failures and disasters. Horror films remind us of our impending deaths. We are all doomed, these films tell us, and while we await our demise, we have no idea the calamities that will suddenly surprise us.
It’s for those reasons that horror films are popular. They are often rich in symbolic meaning that subtly point to scary things in real life. The psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung believed horror films tap into primitive fears buried deep in our subconscious. Because horror films often have unreal plots or characters – a supernatural alien from outer space for instance – we are frightened but can still distance ourselves. That distancing keeps us watching. We’re pulled into the story but we’re detached in a way we feel safe. Nevertheless, the monster and the implied message get under our skin and mentally stay with us.
Most of us vividly remember the shower murder scene in “Psycho.” Many people are like Janet Leigh, the star of that film, who was deeply shaken by the scene – in which she plays the victim. She refused, for the remainder of her life, to take a shower without her bathroom door securely locked. The scene reminded her, she said, of how vulnerable women feel.
“Psycho” was thus the first horror film that did not allow as much detachment from reality as audiences might want. Instead of an unreal, supernatural monster, “Psycho” tells us that true monsters lurk inside of every person. Janet Leigh’s character Marion is outwardly a beautiful and virtuous woman – an archetype of American 1950’s females. And yet Marion was raised by an unloving mother, she has an illicit affair, and she steals her bosses money and flees to California for a new life with her lover. As “Psycho” subtly asks, is that the frightening truth within us?
Despite her flaws, however, Marion is the hero of the film. It’s her murder that eventually exposes Norman. And her murder comes in a shower – one which she takes after deciding she will return to her boss and give back the money she stole. She symbolically showers to purify and redeem herself. She’s like many of us who make a mistake, but repent for it.
Norman Bates, however, is a seemingly good man who is inwardly evil. He runs a family business while taking care of his invalid mother. Beneath that external veneer, however, he has a disturbing hatred for women. Norman cannot separate filial love for his mother with attraction to women. He hates his mother’s power over him, and thus implicitly hates the power all women have over him. He killed his mother and he kills any woman to whom he’s attracted. Does such monstrous misogyny hide within men?
Hitchcock used the horror film genre to ask these unpleasant questions. Are we as good as we like to think? Underneath America’s facade of supposed goodness, “Psycho” implicitly says there lies a brewing cauldron of lust, greed, sexism, and dysfunction.
But, millions of Americans watched the movie anyway. It made the most money of all Hitchcock films and cost the least to make. Audiences were captivated by its suspense, the shock of its shower murder scene, the sexuality of Marion, and the psychosis of Norman Bates. It exemplified the power of horror films to remind us of our failings – while nevertheless entertaining us.
Last Sunday, as a part of my February message series entitled “Black History Month and Oscar Worthy Black Films of 2017,” I looked at the documentary “13th”. It details American history of using black labor through slavery, Jim Crow, and mass imprisonment. The motivation, the film reveals, is a continuing effort to control black bodies for profit.
Today, I’ll examine the film “Get Out” which has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor Academy awards. Like “Psycho,” it is clearly a horror film. By using effective symbols, the movie’s director and screenplay writer Jordan Peele reminds viewers, like Hitchcock did, of human shortcomings – in this case racial bias and discrimination. Peele crafts his message not with lecture type facts, but with implied questions about humanity that “Psycho” also asks. America seems to have good intentions, but is it as virtuous as we like to think?
Peele likely chose to depict African-American history as a horror film for a reason. Black history, as we know, is full of frightening, real life images – whipped African slave bodies, a lifeless black body with a twisted neck – hanging from a tree, Emmet Till’s lynched and disfigured body, or a black child’s body lying in a playground, toy gun clutched in hand, killed by a policeman. In other words, as Peele implicitly says in “Get Out,” black history IS a horror movie.
And Peele, like Alfred Hitchcock, masterfully employs horror film methods to both scare and shock. What I’m about to say will reveal many of the symbols and methods Peele uses. Even so, I’ll try not to ruin the film for those of you who have not seen it.
The movie depicts a black man, Chris, as he visits his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. Almost immediately, Peele uses his characters, their words and their behaviors to symbolically represent larger issues in black history. Chris is an Every Black Man who slowly realizes that he is both feared and desired. Many white men fear him and thus want to control and exploit him. Many white women are attracted to him but they too only want to use him.
Peele suggests that Rose, Chris’ white girlfriend, is someone who uses her seeming innocence to claim she is an ally of blacks and has no personal responsibility for their oppression. That’s symbolically exposed as a lie when, during Chris and Rose’s drive to her parents house, she hits and kills a deer – a symbol Peele effectively uses. Chris gets out of the car to investigate. He comes across a large male deer, with a large rack of antlers, bleeding to death. Chris is visibly upset but Rose is unmoved.
The death of this deer, what hunters call a “buck,” is foreboding and racially symbolic. Chris is further unnerved when Rose’s father, Dean, later shows him a mounted male deer head on his home wall. It’s a trophy he had hunted and killed. Representing all black men who have historically been called “bucks,” Chris must wonder if the deer’s fate that Rose hits, or that her father hunted, is also his?
This killing of deer is explored by the lack of empathy Rose has for the one she struck and killed. Her father, Dean, shows a similar lack of empathy when he’s told about the accident. He says he’s happy Rose killed the deer and opines that they ruin neighborhoods. To eradicate them is a service to the community, he says. Such words echo those of many racists who oppose African-Americans moving into their neighborhoods. Keep them out. Kill them.
After Chris arrives at Rose’s parent’s home, the film’s tension builds even more. Viewers meet the odd acting black couple who are the servants – Georgina and Walter. They act as if they are possessed while they dutifully serve their white employers. Walter is the groundskeeper and he shows open hostility toward Chris – a fellow black man. We wonder, “What is up with that?”
Chris is later hypnotized by Rose’s mom, a therapist, by the clinking of a silver spoon against her china tea cup. Once again a black man is controlled with privilege and elitism. During his hypnosis, Chris mentally plunges into what the movie calls “the sunken place” – a fitting symbol for black history. He free falls into a dark hole of the mind in which he is fully aware of what is happening to him, but he cannot control his body. Chris recalls his childhood and the guilt he feels for not having better cared for his sick mother. This too symbolizes black trauma and the guilt many carry for the hurts their loved ones face – even though it is whites who cause the pain.
Daniel Kaluuya, the Oscar nominated actor who plays Chris, later said about the symbol of the sunken place, “You’re paralyzed in your life, you want to express an emotion, and then it comes out in rage elsewhere, because you internalized it, because you can’t live your truth…”
There are other meaningful symbols in the movie. Many of the white people wear some form of red clothing. Chris wears blue. That is a clear political message. Rose is shown at one point watching TV while drinking a cup of milk and eating from a separate cup of multi-colored fruit loops cereal. The symbol is clear – one does not mix white with other colors.
Chris is able to momentarily shake the weirdly possessed black servants out of their obedient stupor by using the camera flash on his cell phone. It’s a symbol for how cell phone cameras, and their videos, have helped blacks and others see the light of their oppression.
Rose’s parents’ home has the Greek letter Omega displayed on its entrance gates. Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet and is used in the Bible to represent the Apocalypse. When Chris enters the gates, is he entering his own Apocalypse? Extending religious symbolism further, Peele likely named his hero ‘Chris’ intentionally. The name conjures the name of Christ, also a man of color, and tells us that Chris, as an Every Black Man, will be crucified by evil doers.
The terror Chris encounters fits perfectly with its horror film unreality. Chris is tied up and readied to have his brain removed and replaced by that of a white person. It’s the ultimate symbol of control over black bodies. Rose’s parents, Dean and Missy, use black people as vessels into which white brains are put – so that whites can continue living. That, we find out, was the fate of the servants Georgina and Walter whose brains were replaced by those of Dean’s parents. This explains why Walter is so hostile toward Chris – his brain had been in Dean’s dad, who was a racist.
Chris does escape and the movie ends in a satisfying way – as do most horror films. The terrorized hero, who we root for during a story, finally kills the monster – both literally and symbolically. Audiences cheer that the monster is not all powerful, and that justice and good prevails.
As I said earlier, horror films are intended to frighten and disgust while still allowing viewers to maintain a psychological distance. The plot, the monsters and the gory images are overly exaggerated in how scary they are. But all great horror films give audiences a hero for whom they can empathize. We identify with him or her. We want them to survive and win because we have, in our minds, put ourselves in their position.
By using a horror film genre that audiences enjoy, Jordan Peele was wise. Some people dismiss documentaries about racism. They reject them as boring lectures, or fake news. But a fictional horror film, directed by someone with skill, thrills many viewers – especially young people – with a scary plot and horrifying scenes. It also invites viewers to emotionally empathize with its victims. Horror films subtly get under a viewer’s skin and make them squirm. Peele does that masterfully in “Get Out.”
African-Americans can cathartically nod at what Chris experiences as they relate to the foreboding and racially charged events happening to him. They know early on what it takes him too long to realize – get out of that horrific place!
White people, on the other hand, also feel for Chris. He’s a good man put in a terrifying position everyone can relate to. Viewers want Chris to win, even as they think that his girlfriend Rose, her mother and father represent racists that they are not. But Peele does not let white people off that easy. His monsters outwardly express sympathy for blacks. Rose prides herself for dating a black man. Her parents warmly welcome Chris and tell him they voted for Obama. But they inwardly fear Chris and want to control and deny him.
The terrifying thing about “Get Out,” for me, is my realization that its monsters – like the monster in “Psycho” – could also be in me. My privilege, my ignorance about cultural appropriation, my sometimes indifference to poverty, discrimination and the hurt of blacks, these can make me a monster too.
That’s a message that haunts me. I pray however, the horror of that realization will prompt me to do my part to change myself and change society.