An unidentified body of a woman found underneath the home of the victims of a bizarre and suspicious massacre kick starts the movie, “The Autopsy of Jane Doe.” Personally, I think the movie is a good addition to the horror genre because of how it contrasted the weird, the discomforting, and the unfamiliar from the normal, the mundane, and the day-to-day.
What makes the autopsy of Jane Doe a good horror movie is that the “monster” in the movie (Jane Doe), does not even bat an eyelash. Yet, she manages to disturb, even destroy the lives of the Tildens. According to Robin Wood, there is a “return of the repressed” in the American horror film, particularly during the 70’s. Connected to the concept of repression is the concept of “otherness”. The power relations between the dominant and the other can be shown in various ways. One of the ways in which the concept of “otherness” appeared in the film was how the woman (in the film’s case, Jane Doe), was treated as on “other.” First, she was seen as an “other” because she was a mysterious dead body that the police assumed had no relation whatsoever with the incident that happened in the community. Jane Doe, besides the fact that she is a corpse, is also “othered” because she is a witch. Therefore, she was perceived as a threat to the living.
Furthermore, “it is the horror film that responds in the most clear-cut and direct way, because central to it is the actual dramatization of the dual concept of the repressed/other, in the figure of the monster” (Wood, 2002, p. 28). Before Jane Doe turned into an actual corpse, she was already treated as an “other” by the community that she belonged in, because she was a witch. The witch, as an “other” or a “monster”, was seen as a threat during the time period in which she existed. Therefore, society created methods of torture in order to deal with these so called witches. I think the horror film was rendered as effective when these methods of torture, made for the witch (the other), was also experienced by the Tildens. This is interesting because the dominant personas (the Tildens, only because they were male and alive), were switching roles with the supposedly, oppressed (Jane Doe).
Additionally, what made “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” more effective as a horror film tackling repression was how it was made. The air of repression was manifested by setting up the main characters as people who work in a morgue. Here, there is already a sense of being an “other” because people don’t usually see what workers in morgues do. They also interact with the dead—the other, because they have no more agency. Because of this, the powers (for lack of a better term) of Jane Doe became a better tool in enabling the horror film to progress. Furthermore, there were also repressed issues between father and son, regarding their relationship. Just like the Jane Doe mystery, these issues were never resolved and were brought to their graves. Lastly, the production set or design also contributed to the “repressed ambiance” of the horror film. The morgue was meticulously placed below the main house of the Tildens. It seems like the morgue is a world of its own.
Robin Wood (2002) also mentions that horror, just like other genres, also follows a basic formula and that is normality being threatened by a monster. Here, the word normality means “conformity to the dominant social norms” (p. 31). There is a conflict between normality and the monster, and this is what the horror film is about. In the film, what seemed like a normal day for the Tildens at the morgue was turned upside down by a supposedly “normal” dead body of an unidentified woman. Jane Doe, then, turns into a monster, the kind of monster that the Tildens’ never thought they would encounter in real life. It is also interesting to note that there are only a few unsympathetic monsters in the horror genre. Wood (2002) articulates that the “monster is clearly the emotional center, and much more human than the cardboard representatives of normality” (p. 31). With regard to the film, it was hard to tell if Jane Doe was being sympathetic or not. On the one hand, she kept them from examining her body so that they won’t find out the truth. On the other hand, Tommy Tilden experienced the same kind of torture that Jane Doe suffered from. Even though Tommy Tilden pleaded for his son to be spared, sacrificing his own life for him, Austin still died.
“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is a horror film which is able to narrate the relationship between the “normal” and the “othered monster” well. Aside from an intelligent take on the said relationship, the film was also able to tastefully depict the woman as an “othered monster.”
Source: Janovich, M. (2002). Horror, The Film Reader. London: Routledge.