For father and son Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch), death was nothing too unfamiliar. Being a duo of coroners meant that they were accustomed to determining the causes of death for the corpses brought to the morgue beneath their house. However, when a Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly) is brought to them one day, they come face to face with the strangest body they have ever had to examine – one that looked quite alive, with a cause of death they couldn’t exactly point out.
André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) starts out this way, setting itself up as a sort of creepy mystery hinting at the supernatural. From the beginning, we are already greeted by a crime scene, by death, and as we follow the characters into the morgue, the film, though taking its time with its pace, never lets us forget that events were going to take the turn for the worse, teasing us at various moments with the things that could possibly scare us later on, like it was reminding us that it was a horror film we were watching. A good example would be the shot of the security mirror in the corridor that was shown early on in the film – nothing scary was happening yet, but we figure it would be used later on and we either feel dread or excitement or both. The same applies for the bell on one of the corpses’ feet.
Jane Doe herself, the film’s Monster, was unsettling the whole time the two main characters were examining her. Though we are told that she is dead, we never really believe it, with her lifelike form, her unexplainable physical conditions, and the subtle changes in her expression. Personally, I loved how the film successfully unnerved the audience with a character that didn’t even bat an eyelash. There was something scary about the enigma that was Jane Doe, and the audience can’t exactly point out what it is (like the two main characters), they can only guess until the film reveals the mystery behind her. At first instinct, the audience might suppose that the mystery related to ghosts or spirits, given that they were already primed by the atmosphere of death in the film, that perhaps it was a matter of good versus evil like the typical moral allegory, but when it turns out that it actually tied Jane Doe to witchcraft and the Salem Witch Trials, a whole different kind of horror was generated, at least for me, especially if we view the film against Robin Wood’s article, The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s.
It is not often that people see horror films as capable of sociopolitical commentary, but this is exactly what Wood’s article made me realize when I applied its concepts to The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Wood writes that the horror genre is all about the struggle of reemergence of the things society represses, oppresses or considers an “Other.” This reemergence is seen as something horrifying, and the repressed Other manifests itself in the figure of the Monster. (Wood, 1986)
According to Wood, the Other is something repressed by someone on the inside, and then projected onto something else outside. It is the rejection of something that is actually a part of someone. The same applies for society. What society rejects is a part of it that it doesn’t like. Society then casts the Other out and disassociates from it to deny any affiliation with it. In The Autopsy of Jane Doe, there were two major instances of othering tackled that hit me the most, given their relevance to history, as well as to contemporary society.
First is the othering of women, in particular, women who, in the past, decided to empower themselves and pursue knowledge and customs that were outside of the norm. The patriarchal society that Jane existed in repressed their feelings of being threatened by these empowered women and projected these feelings into persecuting them with the false accusations and torturing that took place during the Salem Witch Trials. Seeing Jane as the othered woman shows the viewer how society, in setting boundaries to define what was proper or improper to them, ended up taking away the agency of women to define who they are themselves. Even literally, this could be seen through Jane’s injuries – smashed joints, rendering her unable to move, and a cut tongue, taking away her ability to speak.
This leads to the second instance of othering that could be read from the film, which was society’s repression and rationalization of their own wrongdoings by calling women like Jane witches. Society in Jane Doe’s time disassociated themselves from the idea that they were doing a great injustice, projecting it all instead onto the label they gave to the othered women.
True to the horror genre according to Wood, the repressed did reemerge. The characters and the audience reflect on the events and consequences of the Salem Witch Trials as its relation to the plot is revealed, and the othered woman strikes back against patriarchal society in the latter portion of the film. Though Tommy and Austin didn’t directly cause harm to Jane, the two male characters were there. They were representative of the patriarchy that oppressed women, and so they were on the receiving end of Jane’s version of karmic justice.
Moreover, it was brought up in the film that perhaps it was the torturing that went on in the Salem Witch Trials that caused Jane to become a witch. When this thought was spoken, society’s repression of their own wrongs, of their own horridness resurfaced. At this point, we come face to face with the idea that perhaps it was society’s mistreatment of Jane that caused all of the terrible things happening in the film. Society’s monstrous selves strike back at them in the form of Jane and all that she can do.
Thinking about the film along with the concepts in Wood’s article has reminded me that othering is dangerous, especially when done in extremes. The repressed will come back one way or another, at some point in time, and it will strike back without mercy. The Autopsy of Jane Doe did well to show this, and its relevance to real life definitely added a whole new dimension of horror to the film.
Robin Wood, ‘The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s’, from Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York, Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 70–80. © 1986 Columbia University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.