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In 'Get Out,' it's not just who's scared—it's who's scary

By Julia GoodmanFebruary 28, 2017

Get Out
Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams attend AOL Build Series to discuss their film 'Get Out' at Build Studio on February 21, 2017 in New York City. Jenny Anderson/WireImage

A man is walking along a darkened street when he is suddenly attacked by a hooded stranger. A happy couple driving in upstate New York hits a deer, leaving it wounded but alive. A reticent, eerily-smiling maid pours tea for an older white woman as she extols the virtues of hypnosis. Jordan Peele's new film Get Out opens, in short, with a series of recognizable horror tropes—foreshadowing scenes of violence against animals, cavernous homes filled with tight-lipped servants, mysterious disappearances.

The heaping of imagery from various horror subgenres is a smart move that allows the film to immediately evoke horror while still turning a critical eye upon it. Horror movies are notorious fodder for parody—they embody a conservative moral code that places the blame for evil on things like one-night-stands, recreational drug use, or just being rude. According to horror films, personal failures to follow laws and other social norms are what causes all of society's problems. Get Out pulls apart those governing principles, but it’s not just a satire. Its explanation of where evil comes from is far more nuanced than one you’d be likely to find in either a straight horror movie or a parody of one.

Rather than just poking fun at the tropes it embodies, Get Out presents them alongside more everyday horrors, allowing the two forms of discomfort to enhance one another. An early scene in which Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) hit a deer has the potential to be simply a wry wink at the audience. It recalls an almost identical scene in The Invitation (2015)—another horror movie about a black partner being introduced to their white partner’s family and friends. In The Invitation, the couple rather melodramatically decides to kill the deer themselves, putting it out of its misery. Here, instead, they make the far more realistic choice to report the incident and let someone else deal with it. This leads to an encounter with an aggressive cop who demands to see Chris’s license even though he wasn’t the one driving. What begins as classic horror film imagery is quickly matched with the real-life horror imagery of an angry cop facing down a young black man.

As the film progresses, Chris is introduced to the increasingly off-putting world of Rose’s family and friends. It begins with the sort of comments that Rose warned Chris about when promising that her parents “aren’t racist.” Her father apologizes for the “optics” of a white family employing two black servants, praises Obama, and brags about how his father lost an Olympic medal to Jesse Owens. It gets a little weirder: Rose’s brother challenges Chris to a fight and questions him about his “beast”-like physique. Then, the entire wealthy white neighborhood shows up for an annual get-together, with a host of inappropriate comments about what they imagine it’s like to be black. The thing that throws off Chris most at this party is exactly what you’d expect in a horror film—no one else will acknowledge how strange it all is. Both Rose’s parents’ maid and the one other black guest at the party react badly to Chris voicing his discomfort in this all-white environment. The very people he expects to be on his side seem to be somehow in on the mystery. Finally, when the other black guest momentarily snaps to reality, shouting at Chris to “Get out!”, Chris decides it’s time to take his advice, kicking off the petrifying final act of the film.

 

What begins as classic horror film imagery is quickly matched with the real-life horror imagery of an angry cop facing down a young black man.

Get Out isn’t unique in placing the locus of evil in wealthy white suburbs, but it is perhaps the first horror film to match a complete, coherent logic to that evil. Most horror movies are concerned with showing us what makes the victims deserving of violence, not with what motivates the villains. Take The Purge (2013), in which the leading man is targeted because he’s a rich, powerful executive at a company that profits on middle class fear of crime. His sin, according to the film's logic, is not making money through a corrupt system—it's being too smug about it. He believes he's above participating in an annual holiday in which all crime is legal, because he has more self-control than ordinary people; and so, obviously, he has to die. The motivations of the film's villains are hardly explored. Even given the freedom to commit any crime consequence-free, why would groups of wealthy teenagers choose to torture people for sport rather than, say, steal things they want? The movie isn't interested in what drives its villains—it is content to show us the failings of its hero, and then to punish him.

 

They literally need Chris’s flesh and blood to support their depraved business model.

When horror films bother to explain their villains’ motives at all, it is usually with a vaguely-defined mental illness, childhood trauma, or psuedo-scientific quest. Without spoiling too much, Get Out does draw on the last of these categories, but also goes beyond it to hint at where the idea for this mission came from. Rose’s family holds the belief that black bodies are athletically superior—perhaps helped along by her grandfather’s Olympic defeat—along with a confidence in their own white minds and wealth. Combine this with a market of white suburbanites ready to pay for their services, and the whole operation begins to take on a disturbing internal consistency. This community views Chris and other black folks not with fear, but with a sadistic sexual longing and a calculation of value. They literally need Chris’s flesh and blood to support their depraved business model.

In that sense, Get Out bears a resemblance to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), another film about an insular white family willing to go to horrific lengths to preserve the life of its patriarch. But where the family in Texas Chain Saw are a motley collection of Southern hick stereotypes, Get Out chooses to focus on the wealthy white elite. Rose's family presents a dressed-up, genteel version of racist ideology—which may at first trick us into thinking Chris is safe with them. Until, of course, he isn’t. The seemingly well-intentioned racism Chris faces in Rose's home takes on a darker tone when it becomes clear the degree to which this community is profiting on black bodies. Get Out assigns grotesque physical violence to the racism of wealthy white communities, forcing us to consider the weight these beliefs really carry when backed with so much cultural and financial power. The film critiques the pervasive idea that the racism of the educated upper middle class is less threatening, by making it viscerally terrifying.

It's easy to imagine an extension of this story without any supernatural horror. Rose's family, apparently, makes its living by hypnotizing black people, but what about the other members of this wealthy community? Maybe some are executives at banks with predatory lending practices, or investors in the private prison system. Surely more than a few profit in some way on poor, mostly black and brown communities. Get Out forces us to see the racism of the wealthy elite as the horror that it is—not only a series of nasty comments, but also the modus operandi of the people who ensure systems that perpetuate racism and classism exist. This, Get Out insists, is what we should be truly afraid of.