The word “uncanny” is thrown around a lot in both an artistic and everyday context, but it wasn’t until a Thematic Option course last semester that I was introduced to the term’s Freudian definition. According to Freud, uncanniness occurs when an unfamiliar, repressed truth comes to light in a familiar environment. When this happens, you realize that this truth was always there, and it changes everything because nothing is what it seemed to be. Eeriness begins to set in. Suddenly, the familiar begins to feel unfamiliar, and we aren’t so sure of anything anymore.
When stoked and manipulated well, uncanniness elicits a fear both primal and devastating. You’re suddenly set on edge, hyper-aware of the fragility of the world around you. But you must also deal with a tragic truth — that your reality was never what you thought it was. Sometimes that reality is a place or a thing, but more often than not it is the people you thought you knew. And these feelings, layered together, evoke a heightened shock so raw that only the best horror movies and books can pull it off.
Or, you know, real life. But of course, art draws from that anyway, and the best horror films are those in which physical danger and searing social commentary come to a head. Such is the case in Get Out, director Jordan Peele’s new horror-comedy, a relentlessly spun-out, take-no-prisoners examination of blackness in America.
What Peele achieves with Get Out is nothing short of remarkable. The boundary between funny and frightening is a thin line to walk, but Peele does so all the while thrusting a mirror in the viewer’s face. He blasts the vulnerability, confusion and despair of being stereotyped, targeted and marginalized into the suffocation of horror — and the message his movie contains is one the viewer cannot escape.
Invited home to meet his girlfriend Rose Armitage’s (Allison Williams) family for the first time, Chris (Danie Kaluuya) finds himself in an uncomfortable situation that slowly gets creepier and creepier. Rose’s parents, played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, are not just accepting of Chris’ relationship with their daughter — they eagerly delight over it. And so do their upper-class white friends.
Everyone is fascinated by Chris, with what athletic feats they think he can do and his supposed sexual strengths. To make things worse, Rose’s mother is hypnotizing Chris in paralyzing episodes that cure his smoking habit but also propel him into a dark “Sunken Place” through which he cannot move or make noise. And also, who are the mysterious, creepily smiling black employees who work on the family grounds?
Unsurprisingly, some really terrifying stuff is at work. And, caution — spoilers to the movie may lie ahead. Rose’s family is, of course, not what they seem. But for the entire movie, Chris believes Rose is on his side because through all her family’s obsession and fixation on his race, she must truly love him. Right?
It all culminates in a chilling scene that propels the movie into its third act, in which Chris frantically tries to gather up Rose to leave the Armitage residence before things can get any worse. (Really, who better to portray the essence of unbothered white femininity than Marnie from Girls?) But while Rose is searching for her bag, Chris makes a terrifying discovery in the closet of her childhood bedroom: a shoebox containing a series of romantic selfies of Rose with exclusively black men and one black woman.
Imagine, for a moment, that Get Out is a film of an entirely different genre, that it is perhaps a drama in the vein of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Would the shoebox scene change anything, make the situation less devastating? No. And that is the root of the uncanny, one that Peele blossoms into overt horror but that remains nonetheless as terrifying as if it had happened in real life. It’s the insertion of the unfamiliar, the horrifying truth, into your calm and happy existence, and it’s that realization that changes everything. That the woman you thought you loved perhaps never loved you, only the color of your skin, and that the part of you which you don’t see walking around through the world is the only thing people see when they look at you.
The devastation this truth conjures is real. And though Get Out is very specifically about the experiences of black Americans, this situation has happened to me as an Asian American and remains true as long as races and groups of people are fetishized for nothing more than the bodies they were born with.
With clear visual references to cotton-picking and physical restraints, Get Out emphatically concludes that centuries after the practice of slavery was abolished, black Americans have always been and will continue to be judged and perceived first by their bodies. Less of a comment on interracial dating than on America’s twisted perceptions of black people, Get Out layers rich symbolism on top of masterful, gripping humor to create a staggering, unforgiving work. It is a movie as important to understand as it is to be entertained by.
Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Wide Shot,” runs Wednesdays.