In several aspects, The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016, dir. André Øvredal), from the onset felt very familiar to horror films that came before it, particularly those which came out in recent years from Blumhouse Productions (i.e. Insidious, The Gallows, etc.). Although its not necessarily a bad thing for me to notice that films are similar in tone, aesthetic, and overall production, I somehow set my expectations low for this one, despite the interest I had in what story it was going to tell.
The sense of normalcy and familiarity in the establishment of the story in the first act of the film, in a way, proved my initial theory right. Just like any other horror film (or at least, the ones that I’ve seen), the set-up was quite easy to understand – with me as an audience member already expecting what to expect from the whole story arc. My initial predictions about the movie, when I watched its trailer, did not actually stray too far away from what actually happened. My prediction? Everything, corpses and all, would go wrong in a seemingly normal morgue once they examine the unidentified woman’s body for an autopsy. What I, and most likely majority of horror fans, have in mind when ‘predicting’ these kinds of plotlines, in this sense adheres to what Wood calls as ‘The Basic Formula’ of the horror genre, where ‘normality is threatened by a Monster.’ In the case of The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the normalcy in the morgue, and the lives of the father and son team who run it, are threatened by the arrival of the body hereon named as Jane Doe and the chaos that ensues as they try to do an autopsy on her (as the title suggests).
From this point on (the arrival of Jane Doe), the film, in turn shifts its general trajectory in terms of its familiarity. On one hand, the elements of the basic formula and some classic tropes (such as the jump scare, and throw-off scares) are still present and recognizable, but elements of the unfamiliar start to trickle in as well. Most evident in this unfamiliarity is the setting of the film, which more or less lays the groundwork for the rest of the film. The very fact that majority of the audience, myself included, is unfamiliar with what happens inside a morgue, or specifically, what really happens during an autopsy (aside from what we know an autopsy to be from its definition) is a horror in itself. I myself found the unfamiliar medical terms, along with the ‘gore’ of performing an autopsy to be very unsettling. And in typical horror fashion, the introduction of the central mystery, a supernatural element in the form of Jane Doe, amplifies the unfamiliarity and eeriness in the film. As mentioned earlier, Jane Doe represents the Monster in the film, as defined by Wood. But more than that, the titular character represents another concept theorized by Wood in the genre of horror: the Other.
Wood, in his writing The American Horror: Horror in the 70s, talks about the idea of repression, both as a basic human characteristic, and a societal experience which affect our daily lives. In the case of the horror film, the idea of repression is further exemplified through the presence of the Other, which is defined by Wood as that “which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with… in one of two ways: either by rejecting and if possible annihilating it, or by rendering it safe and assimilating it, converting it as far as possible into a replica of itself.” This concept is present both in the self, and in external sources. In analyzing Jane Doe, the concept of the other is very much represented, through different forms. Most apparent as an other is the titular Jane Doe, who is othered primarily because she is a woman, identified by Wood as one of the versions of the other figures, more so that she is an unidentified corpse. The very fact that she was in the circumstance that she was in, being a Jane Doe, initially theorized as having been tortured and rape as the father and son tandem examined her body, already showed her as an other. The notion of being a woman who experienced those kinds of things is an othering in itself, even more that it is only identified (at least in the timeline of the film) when she is already dead and cannot redeem herself – or so we think. But as we later find out, there is more to Jane Doe’s story as a woman, which is revealed in what I call to be the film’s central plot twist – that Jane Doe was not just a victim of torture, but a victim of torture because of a witch hunt. This amplifies the othering of Jane Doe as a woman, because her othering is now given a context – which is even more disgusting to think about, now knowing that she was wrongfully accused of something because she was most likely showing [repressed] characteristics that are unlikely in a patriarchal society in the 1800s. And this thus makes her similar to many famous horror movie ‘monsters,’ causing revenge on the film’s main characters because society has previously oppressed her.
The very fact that Wood identifies Women as a specific category of othering, shows how prolific this in the horror genre. There is an abundance of films, if not all horror films, that feature the woman as the other: the monster or the victim, or the object of the film’s antagonist. A prime example would be the iconic Carrie story by Stephen King (in all its forms – book, the original film, and its revival) wherein the titular character is bullied not only by society but by her very own mother, leading her to literally bring hell on earth with her almost uncontrollable powers. Other instances would be in films such as It Follows (2014) and Teeth (2007), where female sexuality is othered and put at the center, as well as pretty much every slasher film like the Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream and Halloween franchises where the ‘main and final girl’ is chased by the film’s main antagonist to one of their deaths.
The othering portrayed in Jane Doe, is not particularly groundbreaking, although the revelation of its central plot twist was indeed very clever and unexpected. The setting and jobs of the main characters – which somehow also act as an other, proved to be unique among a plethora of overused haunted houses or suburban settings in similar ‘escape room‘ horror films, but the film, in its overall narrative didn’t necessarily strike me as a whole. The film, despite its thrills, still seemed a bit too predictable (in terms of structure and tropes), with some plot points – specifically, how the characters have the knowledge to discover its central plot twist, even being a bit too convenient in terms of its writing. It may just be me though, as most people watching the film were actually terrified, which only goes to show the various levels of viewing and acknowledging what horror is as a genre, as previously theorized by Janovich. My personal experience with the film, and most horror films for that matter, is also supported by what Wood categorizes as one of the general propositions of the horror film, in its Popularity and Disreputability. In my case, despite already knowing what is generally going to happen in horror films, I still voluntarily subject myself to watching them for my entertainment, even laughs.
Jane Doe was, for me, an experience of knowing (what is familiar to me), yet not knowing (given its unique setting and plot twist). This is especially the case in the othering portrayed. Horror, as cliche as it sounds, as exemplified in this film, is truly more than what meets the eye, especially in terms of identifying the Other. More often than not, we misunderstand the Others in our society, and that in itself makes the horror experience even more thrilling and terrifying for its audience.
Janovich, M. (2002). Horror, The Film Reader. London: Routledge.