‘We’re on your side’: white violence and the horror of representation

*This article contains (limited) spoilers.

QUESTION: Why are there no Black people in horror movies?

ANSWER: Because when the ominous voice says, ‘GET OUT!,’ we do!

Steven Torriano Berry’s opening riddle, from his foreword to Robin R Means Coleman’s 2011 book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, surely can’t have been missed by unexpected horror-darling-of-the-moment Jordan Peele.

Ontological issues lie at the heart of Peele’s recent genre smash hit Get Out, just as they lie at the core of much provocative horror cinema: protagonist Chris’s (Daniel Kaluuya) journey is marked by the discovery that his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) and her liberal family are luring black people to their rural retreat to auction off their bodies to rich white people in a macabre brain-swap procedure reminiscent of cinema’s long history of mad scientist films.

In the frenzy of critical attention surrounding Get Out, many have been quick to point out these generic predecessors, alongside Bryan Forbes’s The Stepford Wives (1975) and Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989). Get Out’s interest in class arguably finds its strongest ancestor in John Frankenheimer’s grossly underrated collaboration with Rock Hudson Seconds (1966), while its racial politics feels like a corrective to the ideologically icky Skeleton Key (Iain Softley, 2005).

But Get Out’s real history is found in a notably different lineage: the comparatively small number of American horror films to feature Black protagonists including George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973), Torriano Berry’s Embalmer (1996), the anthology Tales from the Hood (1995), and Wes Craven’s 1991 film The People Under the Stairs (Craven’s 1999 novel Fountain Society also follows rich white people cloning ‘hosts’ in order to gain immortality).

But unlike these films, Get Out is above all else a horror film about representation itself. A photographer by trade, Chris’s character is intimately connected to a field of representation and it’s through his work that Peele introduces him to the audience. Opening on a black and white photograph of a pregnant African American belly, Peele cuts to an image of a white dog, straining on a leash to attack an unseen party. The juxtaposition between blackness, subjectivity and white violence not only pre-empts the later events of the narrative but slyly gestures to the way representation orders our understanding of racial identities.

Throughout Get Out, Peele repeatedly focuses on issues of appearance – how characters act and look, how they dress and talk – drawing attention to representation in order to defamiliarise traditional depictions of monstrosity within the genre. Confronted with an off-key and increasingly menacing white liberal elite, the normalising status attributed to Chris’s Black identity highlights Peele’s reflexive approach to the horror genre and representation more broadly. The film generates a sense of menace not only from our fears over Chris’s wellbeing but also through Peele’s violation of the established ways genre traditionally approaches race and class.

Get Out’s focus on cultural constructions of subjectivity – how race, class and gender are negotiated through representation and lived realities – is also a consistent theme within Peele’s work with Keegan-Michael Key in their sketch comedy series Key & Peele. Inhabiting numerous characters across the show’s five-season run, Key and Peele frequently took aim at the cultural assumptions surrounding stereotypes and the relations of power embedded within and upheld by those representations. Unsurprisingly, genre repeatedly played an important role in their work. In sketches such as ‘Negrotown’ and ‘White Zombies’, Key and Peele employed the recognisable forms of the musical and horror genre respectively in order to satirise the social status attributed to Black racial identity.

The latter sketch is particularly illuminating in terms of Peele’s work in Get Out. Set in an affluent middle-class neighbourhood overrun with zombies, where the white undead recoil in fear at the sight of non-whites, the sketch overturns notions of monstrosity in order to reflect on the status of blackness within both the horror genre and society more broadly.

Here, as in Get Out, Peele’s take on representation serves to hold up a mirror to the ideologically laden depiction of power relations within US culture. Get Out is by no means the ‘first’ horror film to focus on a Black protagonist, but the film’s success alone renders it significant. As with Night of the Living Dead, by having a central, sympathetic non-white protagonist, Peele actively inverts the entire history of subjectivity that dominates US cinema more generally. It is a distinctly white ‘we’re on your side’ brand of hypocritical liberalism represented by Rose and her family, playing out as a ‘weirdness’ that is rendered outright monstrous.

The abuse of power that marks their ascendency manifests in one of the film’s most powerful images: that of The Sunken Place, an abstract realm where Chris and other victims are sent as their bodies are sold into the service of wealthy old white people. In Get Out, Peele makes it impossible to escape very real – and explicitly ideological – tensions between preconceived binaries of black/white, lower/upper, and invisible/visible.

But it’s more than that: the Sunken Place could be perceived as the very realm of representation itself. Chris significantly travels there via a resurfaced memory of watching television on the night of his mother’s death. When inside The Sunken Place, Chris maintains a window into the ‘real world’ that has the dimensions and aesthetic of a television screen, and is forced to watch the world as a representation, unable to influence his surroundings or control his identity. In effect, he becomes an audience to his own existence.

The Sunken Place is an allegory to the mainstream media’s control over representation itself, particularly its appropriation of Otherness and the represented subjectivities of non-white bodies. This experience of The Sunken Place, more so than the ulterior desires of the white family, is perhaps the film’s real source of horror: the experience of having one’s own identity entirely at the mercy of another. In turn, Peele’s (re)appropriation of the horror genre in Get Out – with its narrative of potential mind-body enslavement – might be understood as an act of escape from a ‘cultural’ Sunken Place in which control over the representation of race and class is wrested away, however briefly, from the mainstream.

By rendering this space literal through the fantastic possibilities horror affords, the potency of the film’s title (and the knowledge it offers its audiences) becomes apparent: addressing, exploring and challenging power hierarchies of representation itself offers one potential way of escaping the tyranny of stereotypes.


Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, research academic and the author of seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She has recently co-edited the book ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press, and her forthcoming book 1000 Women in Horror has been optioned for a documentary series. Alexandra is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

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Josh Nelson

Josh Nelson is a writer, broadcaster and academic with a background in cinema and cultural studies. His writing has been published in a number of journals and on his website, Philmology.

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