THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Sunken Places

The embodied horror of Get Out

by Marianne Verrone

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published March 17, 2017


content warning: anti-Blackness, misogynoir

 

 

“I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

               - Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

 

In his review of Jordan Peele’s horror-satire Get Out, film critic Brian Tallerico remarks that the movie “feels fresh and sharp in a way that studio horror movies almost never do.” Previously, horror films have placed the audience in the frustrating, anxiety-ridden position of following the protagonist as they make unwise, and often outright dumb, decisions in paranormal scenarios. In a scary movie, there is the constant urge to cry out to the protagonist, to warn them to remove themselves from the situation at hand: Call for help! Don’t go in the closet! Get out! 

But protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) keeps his safety and comfort in mind as he navigates visiting the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). At the start of the film he hesitates when he learns that Rose has not informed them of his race, remarking, “I don’t want to get chased off the lawn with a shotgun.” His stay with the Armitages includes a strangely confrontational family dinner, a nightmarish garden party, and several run-ins with the zombified Black household servants. In the final act of the movie, upon realizing the violent intentions of the Armitages, Chris attempts to escape the family’s home. By responding to each bizarre occurrence with reasonable concern and to each threat with direct action, Chris is a refreshing break from the senselessness of horror protagonists of the past.  

Get Out complicates the classic structure of horror films such as Halloween (1978), Poltergeist (1982), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), in which the comfort and familiarity of suburbia is made eerie and unsettling. The opening sequence in which Lakeith Stanfield’s character is abducted from a white suburb promptly establishes that, for Black people, there is (and has always been!) fear and unease in predominantly white spaces. Moreover, Stanfield’s trepidation in what most consider a ‘safe’ neighborhood subverts the American cinematic trope of the ‘dangerous Black/brown neighborhood.’ 

The film is saturated in horror flick imagery, constantly referencing clichés like jump scares, cracked doors, and television static; but the brilliance of Get Out stems from its recontexualization of traditional elements of the horror genre to accentuate Black American experiences. Horror movies necessitate supernatural themes and surrealist techniques to transport audiences to unknown, otherworldly spaces. Yet the supernatural is what grounds Get Out in reality, allowing the film to comment on the continuity between historical and modern anti-Blackness. It is both the absurdism of scary movies and the fear they provoke that extends to the absurdism of racial stratification and the very real horror and trauma produced by racism. Perhaps the most frightening part of Get Out is its proximity to reality. 

 

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The ‘mad scientist’ character is a familiar archetype of horror and science fiction movies whose earliest cinematic depiction appears in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) as Rotwang: a talented scientist who invents a robot to replace his lost love. From Dr. Frankenstein’s aspiration of playing God to Frank N Furter’s desire for a hunky companion, the scientific use of others’ brains and bodies to satisfy selfish inclinations recurs across the cinematic canon. The ‘mad scientist’ archetype arises in Get Out as Rose’s father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), a neurosurgeon who repeatedly asserts his unconditional support for Obama. After the Armitage patriarch was defeated by Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympic trials, the Armitage family formed the Order of the Coagula: a cult that abducts and auctions off Black bodies to be used for brain transplants. Dean’s operations result in an extended lifespan for the white brain donor and a state of stifled consciousness for the Black victim. Members of the order have a variety of reasons for participating—motives which mirror the ways Black bodies have been desired and exploited throughout U.S. history in the forms of slave labor, sexual objectification, athletic prowess, and cultural capital via appropriation. Just as Dean prepares to extract Chris’ brain from his skull, so too are expressions of Black intellectualism, political participation, and humanity routinely disposed of. 

Dean’s role as the ‘mad scientist’ directly parallels the extensive history of medical experimentation on Black bodies. Scientific racism has been used to substantiate biological difference between the races, support the institution of slavery, and justify the use of Black bodies in research. Slaves were regularly sold as specimens to undergo cruel and inhumane studies. For example, J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” would conduct operations on the genitalia of enslaved women without using anesthesia.

The supposed ‘savagery’ science attributed to Black women had convinced scientists of their perceived inability to feel pain, making them ideal subjects for the obstetric and gynecological experiments of the 19th century. Abuse under the guise of research spans from before the colonial era into the modern day in the dissection and exhibition of Saartjie Baartman’s body, the non-consensual extraction of Henrietta Lacks’ cells, the unethical Tuskegee Syphilis Study, private pharmaceutical companies testing on inmates in prison, and numerous other disturbing instances. Peele’s use of the ‘mad scientist’ trope serve as a reminder that agonizing experimentation on the bodies of Black people was justified through pseudo-scientific language, means, and purposes advanced by white people for the ‘common good.’

 

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During Chris’ first night in the Armitage home, Rose’s mother Missy (Catherine Keener) hypnotizes him, giving her the ability to paralyze him at will simply by stirring a spoon in a teacup. In harnessing Chris’ vulnerability—the death of his mother when he was a child— Missy discovers an entry point into his mind. Specifically, Missy directs Chris’ attention to his failure to save his mother, even though he had no power to do so. This hypnotic induction is not dissimilar from the manipulation of the Black psyche throughout US history. For example, 19th century ‘experts’ pathologized slaves who expressed desires for freedom, as in the case of physician Samuel Cartwright’s invention of drapetomania: a mental disorder of slaves who tended to run away from their owner. Or today, in the way the systemic oppression Black people experience is fallaciously attributed to ‘black on black’ violence, criminality, and broken families. Iterations of white supremacy work to place Black people in positions of inferiority and then to convince them that these inferiors position are innate and self-attributable.

Chris soon finds himself unable to move his body. Missy demands that he “sink into the floor,” sending him to the “sunken place”—a state of consciousness in which Chris retains sensory awareness, but entirely looses bodily agency. Her process is quick and not easily noticed: in one moment, Chris laughs in disbelief at the notion of mind control; in the next, he sits wide-eyed, frozen, tears streaming down his face. In a comparably insidious way, anti-Blackness manifests itself cognitively in the form of implicit racial bias that not only impacts how other racial groups perceive Black people, but becomes internalized by Black people themselves. Internalized prejudice is exemplified by Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s infamous 1960 Doll Test, in which Black children overwhelmingly assigned positive characteristics and preference to a white doll over a black doll (identical in all respects except skin color). Racism functions explicitly in overt violence and discrimination and implicitly in psychological harm—with all levels working to lower the self-esteem and self-worth of Black people.

The horror genre offers a lucid and incisive representation of the constant sense of fear and paranoia that white-dominated societies instill in Black people: you never know when you are in danger, because you always are. After being hypnotized, Chris begins to experience an uncanny feeling that something strange is occurring, but tries to rationalize this uneasiness. At the Armitage’s annual garden party, he encounters numerous microaggressions and abnormal occurrences, but blames himself for causing them. He assumes that his perception is distorted, when, as the plot reveals, he is accurately interpreting his dangerous surroundings. However, when legitimate distress and outrage are expressed by Black people, they are unfailingly accused of playing ‘the race card,’ misreading situations, and ignoring the faux color-blind, post-racial America we now inhabit. Respectability politics are enforced on Black people, often by the ‘nice white liberals’ villainized in this film, to limit and police their self-expression. Black people, meanwhile, are brainwashed to regard themselves as lesser, and are then considered paranoid for being conscious of their subordinated position. 

 

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Perhaps the most surreal element of Get Out is the “sunken place” to which Chris is sent during hypnosis.  In one particularly haunting moment, we see Chris is depicted falling slowly, backwards into a dark void. He screams endlessly as he falls, but cannot be heard. He desperately attempts to grasp onto anything, but is suspended in empty space. The only source of light comes from a window above through, which Missy peers through. She then shuts the eyes of his paralyzed body, closing this window and leaving him in encompassing darkness. 

The sequence echoes the finale of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. As the narrator of the book attempts to escape a mob, he accidentally plunges down the open manhole of a coal cellar. Two policemen mock him and put the manhole cover back in place, trapping him underground in complete darkness. The narrator then ruminates, “this is the way it’s always been, only now I know it… it’s a kind of death without hanging, I thought, a death alive.” 

Peele describes the “sunken place” as a metaphor for the “suspended animation of how we look at race in America.” Chris’ paralysis and voicelessness take on symbolic significance, representing the lack of economic and social mobility, inability to participate fully in democratic society, and even incarceration. In an interview with Slash Film, Kaluuya describes his experience filming these scenes: “That’s how being black sometimes feels like,” he says. “You can’t actually say what you want to say because you may lose your job and 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… Yourself is being controlled and being managed, by someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart.” The “sunken place” is visually indicative of expulsion from society, evoking feelings of absolute social exclusion, intense otherness. Chris floats aimlessly in empty space, robbed of his agency and powerless to the will of others.

I read the “sunken place” as a cinematic representation of W.E.B. Du Bois’ theory of double-consciousness: a sociological concept which refers to the internalized “twoness” experienced by Black people whereby they view themselves as they are, and additionally as they are perceived by white people. In Du Bois’ words, it is, “a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” This duality is visually depicted as Chris’ consciousness suspended in the “sunken place” as Missy’s white gaze surveils him. 

 

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In Get Out, Peele connects his fluency in horror tropes to the extensive history of anti-Black violence. In an interview with Complex, Kaluuya discusses how the film brilliantly captures the terror of racism: “This is a social demon that people have to navigate. And it's a horrifying experience living it." The film is exceptional in its portrayal of how deeply entrenched racism is both in the structures of our society and in our psyches. In doing so, one of the difficulties this film poses is that of demonstrating that racism is a demon which is not so easily exorcised. There is no wooden stake through the heart, garlic clove, or silver bullet. 

“Racism is within each and every one of us,” Peele says in an interview with Mother Jones. “It's everyone's responsibility to figure out how they deal with this kind of obsolete instinct.” The film provides some commentary on where we must go, leaving the Black audience with a resounding imperative to “stay woke.” The flash of phone cameras used to awaken people from the “sunken place” emphasizes the importance of media in raising critical social awareness. Respectability politics are thoroughly critiqued, instead upholding Chris’ vigilance, militancy, and direct action. However, while Chris escapes, the Black servants, Walter and Georgina, do not. The audience must confront the devastating question of how many people have been lost to the “sunken place,” and how many more await.  

 

MARIANNE VERRONE B’19 is still creeped out by Allison Williams eating Fruit Loops.