Warning: This entry contains spoilers.
Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) Tilden are a father-and-son duo who work as coroners. One day, the town’s sheriff brings in an unidentified body and asks them for help in identifying the corpse’s cause of death. Tommy and Austin take it upon themselves to uncover the story behind Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly), not knowing that her body holds secrets far deeper and scarier than what they had bargained for.
What cements André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe as a movie in the horror genre is its element of being a “strange story,” as John Clute calls it. The story is dramatized by first starting off as normal, but progressively becomes weirder. In the movie, the main characters are coroners, whose daily jobs require them to cut open and analyze dead bodies and their causes of death. In the movie, this career of theirs already set the bar for what may be considered “strange” pretty high. But despite having a job like theirs, what happens during this one night after an unidentified corpse is wheeled into their morgue is something that goes far beyond what is considered out of the ordinary, even for them.
While Tommy and Austin were examining the Jane Doe, they started having sightings, where they began seeing small strange things happen – a radio kept changing frequencies and stations, a vial of blood leaking, the dying cat, and the announcement of a storm. Additionally, the corpse itself was full of oddities. What they saw while examining the corpse didn’t coincide with the knowledge that they had regarding their jobs. Jane Doe’s body was pristine clean and had no visible bruises, yet she had ankle and wrist fractures. Also, despite the fact that she has been dead for a long time, once they cut her open, her body started bleeding profusely. Even though an internal examination showed that she had thoroughly damaged organs, it wasn’t reflected externally, and this was definitely something strange for them. Although all these things could be described as something coincidental, these events were necessary for Tommy and Austin to start experiencing a “harsh release of a passage into the reality of things, however terrorizing that reality may be to contemplate.”1 They acted as foreshadowing of things yet to come, which was why, although Austin was already visibly bothered on the onset of these happenings, Tommy seemed less skeptical. Despite these events, the two still pushed through to go on with their jobs because of Tommy’s persistence.
As Tommy and Austin explored deeper into the corpse’s body, the thickening in the film occurred when they started experiencing unexplainable supernatural events, with the lights in the examination room suddenly exploding, the disappearance of three other corpses in the room, a jammed elevator, and doors that opened and closed on their own. Tommy also gets attacked in the bathroom by someone with grey eyes – similar to that of the Jane Doe’s. The supernatural events marked a “progressive unmapping of the paths within [their] world”2 that shook Tommy and Austin to the core. Although it took longer for Tommy to come around, eventually both of them recognized that these supernatural events were something that was to be feared, and they had to get out of the morgue as soon as they could to save themselves.
The revel acts as a sort of revelation for the main characters. This is when Tommy and Austin start to have inklings of figuring out the truth behind this new reality that they were exposed to. It is when the movie began to tell it as it is,5 and there is a direct confrontation between the main characters and the “monster.” Tommy and Austin find a piece of cloth within the corpse. Through the writings and symbols on it, they piece together a theory about the Jane Doe being one of the women who were tortured during the Salem witch trials. Tommy starts pleading for the witch to spare his son and offers himself up for sacrifice instead, which ends in Tommy suffering a painful death. It was Tommy’s deteriorating health that led to the witch improving in hers. In the end, it seemed like Austin had a chance of escaping. But in the end, he too suffered the same fate as his father. Which leads, to the aftermath of the film being a very bleak one. The sheriff and medics come the next day to wheel away Tommy’s, Austin’s, and the Jane Doe’s bodies. Although they were wondering what caused the coroners to die, their questions would be left unanswered seeing as there were no survivors.
Robin Wood talks about repression and how it is “universal, necessary, and inescapable.”3 Anything that is out of the ordinary must be repressed so as to preserve civilization. In light of this, another concept comes to light, which is that of “the Other.” This “Otherness” is something that cannot be recognized and must be either rejected and destroyed, or accepted and assimilated.4 At first, even though it was unfamiliar to them, Tommy and Austin accepted and assimilated what they had discovered through their examination of the Jane Doe’s body by trying to rationalize and explain why the corpse was in the state it was. But in the end, what they had discovered turned out to be too much for them, to the point that it was threatening their own safety, that they tried to destroy “the Other,” or the Jane Doe. Their efforts, however, proved to be futile.
In this film, the Jane Doe was considered an “Other” by Tommy and Austin. Seeing as she couldn’t be identified, the Jane Doe was never called by her real name, but was instead always referred to as the corpse, the body, or the Jane Doe. By doing this, Tommy and Austin reduced her to an object. She was seen as an outsider and the object that they had to examine. But even before she was dead, she was already treated as an outsider by her fellow community members. She was viewed as an outcast from society because of accusations of her being a witch, even though there was no concrete evidence to prove this to be true. Because of her being labeled as an “Other,” it caused people to pit against her, torture her, and eventually kill her. This shows that the very act of “Othering” others is something that is dangerous. In this case, because of the Jane Doe’s experience of being “Othered,” she must have had repressed feelings of anger and resentment that stemmed from long ago. This could explain why, in the present day, when Tommy and Austin started cutting her open, she must have started reliving and remembering all the past trauma that she had underwent. This could have caused her repressed feelings to become unrepressed, which eventually led to her wreaking havoc and destruction in the present day, with the Tildens becoming the casualties.
Going into the film with no prior knowledge about it, I was expecting to see the usual horror elements seen in the trope-based approach to genre, such as the Jane Doe slowly sitting up from the examination table and doing a 180° head twist. I was surprised to see that she never once moved. Throughout the whole movie, her corpse just laid dead atop the table. However, this still did not dissuade me from feeling apprehension and anxiety every time Tommy and Austin were in the same room as the Jane Doe. And it turned out that I had good sense to feel scared, too. Because just like how the examination of the corpse itself went, although things may have seemed all right at first, once you go further and further into the movie, the repressed becomes unrepressed, and you see that the “true” reality is much more different.
1 John Clute. “The Darkening Garden: Strange Stories.” Weird Fiction Review, 1 Nov. 2012.
2 John Clute. “The Darkening Garden: Thickening.” Weird Fiction Review, 2 Nov. 2012.
3 Robin Wood. “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002), 25.
4 Ibid, 27.
5 John Clute. “The Darkening Garden: Revel.” Weird Fiction Review, 4 Nov. 2012.