The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) is one of those kinds of horror films which contains an element that I absolutely hate seeing. Any time a semblance of the supernatural is showed on any kind of media, I cringe in terror at the thought that instances like these are not wildly impossible. I am a firm believer in the presence of the ghosts and spirits; there are some things in life that I believe could just not be explained by science. On top of this, when a concept like death is thrown around like it was in the film, I get a little unsteady.
The ironic thing is, though, that when it gets a bit too much out of hand and out of touch with the plausible supernatural, I end up not getting scared. In movies, for me, there’s a big difference between seeing ghosts and casting black magic spells on someone. Ask a random stranger out on the streets and they would be hard pressed to believe that there is a higher chance of your bones breaking after talking to victims of 17th century witch hunts rather than seeing a ghost at night. In this case, the term “plausible” pertains to how you are just more likely to, whether you believe it or not, see ghosts rather than encounter pristine 400-year old corpses who are, albeit unresponsive, deadly. Once this distinction is made in supernatural horror films like The Autopsy of Jane Doe, it does not appear as scary as originally thought of.
When it came to this movie, I had to admit I was terrified looking at Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly), the main subject of the film’s autopsy. The cold, blank death stare she gave whenever the camera zoomed into her gave me nightmares, as it’s not something that one would forget very easily. But, as the film hits its revelation and it is made known that our film’s “monster” is actually an innocent, falsely-accused victim of the Salem Witch Trials from, the 1600s, a turn for the absurd happens. It is this kind of out-of-this world, impossible, sequence of events that comes to follow, which takes away the sting of horror for me. The moment the term “witch” was thrown around somewhere in the second act of the film, I put myself in cruise control and enjoyed the rest of the film without any feeling of terror.
The movie follows a night in the lives of father-and-son coroner duo of Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) Tilden, who both seemed to be going through an ordinary time at their family-owned morgue. As John Clute would mention, this is the perfect beginning to horror films, which he calls “strange stories.” They start off normal; in the case of the film, it shows the duo performing an autopsy of a body they received while listening to their usual old school rock music. As mentioned earlier, though, things take a turn for the worse and progressively got weirder and weirder. As part of his label of “strange stories,” he adds to this by mentioning his approach to the genre, which is the move-based approach containing four parts: sighting, thickening, revel, and aftermath.
The film’s sighting is seen in two particular scenes. The first of which is when Jane Doe’s eyes are examined, leading the pair to realize that the corpse has been “dead for days.” Upon further inspection of the body, though, they are given little clues that the body is probably just that, leading to its “pristine” condition. Second is when Austin gets a biopsy of Jane’s tissue to see what is wrong with it. After leaving it in the refrigerator for just a bit, it randomly discolors and leaks, making Jane’s body a bit more complicated than how it looks on the surface. The latter is what seems like a prediction for the future, that Jane is more than just a normal body being autopsied.
The mystery behind Jane’s body is slowly revealed to the viewers through multiple instances towards the end of the film’s first act. This part of the film, called the thickening, peels the narrative like an onion, slowly revealing the inner core that is the real identity of Jane Doe. This is where the supernatural slowly becomes a reality for the coroners, as seen in how the dead bodies in their main autopsy room reveal themselves to have escaped, power outages seem to be uncontrollable, and the weather progressively getting worse. What marks the climax of this “move” is when they actually see and hear the corpse with the bell move around the halls. This is nothing short of an ominous sign that things aren’t how they usually are for the duo.
The film’s revel is marked by the discovery of Jane Doe’s real origin. These scenes happen when Austin uncovers a couple of clues that point to Jane’s existence in the 17th century witch hunt. Among these clues are the tooth wrapped in the cloth which had a bible passage and date, as well as the sewed inner skin and punctured organs of our “monster.” He connected these all together to reveal that Jane was falsely accused of being a witch and is here to torment everyone she comes into contact with and make them feel the pain she was dealt in her time. This painfully ended once the curse was passed on to Austin’s father, Tommy, who tried to absorb the curse in order to make all of the madness stop. Austin stopped the curse from fully taking place, which angered Jane Doe, leading her to torment Austin and eventually take his soul, too. It is through these scenes as, Clute would mention in his book, that through the characters’ exploration of the mysteries, the truth was revealed.
Right after these sequence of events is exactly where I suddenly got bored. As I mentioned early in the entry, as the film got weirder, I got less terrified. But, Robin Wood, author of “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s,” shines light on this kind of horror film with a certain explanation of the character of Jane Doe with his concept of “the other.” He basically states that societies tend to repress or oppress figures that are beyond the ordinary. The Salem Witch Trials are a perfect example of this, as Robin Wood specifically states women as a subject of being “othered.” This is supported by Wood’s statement, “Woman’s autonomy and independence are denied; on to women men project their own innate, repressed femininity in order to disown it…” Back in the 1600s, women were oppressed and abused in this particular society; Jane Doe is an example of one of these women, and as a result, she has come back to the present period to gain revenge on this repression and abuse, threatening what Wood mentioned as, “normality” or the constant, which was the Tildens’ job in the morgue. This must be the type of horror that the movie switches into as it hit the revel. Though it is not conventionally scary (through supernatural forms), the thought it brings up of the abuses of the past, which are as true as can be, puts the normal human being into thought. After going through Robin Wood’s reading, the thought that people back in those days of witch hunts leaves the hairs on my forearm standing up.
The aftermath basically shows how they, the police, still have yet to understand what the body actually is, and have it shipped elsewhere. It is here that it is implied how Jane is off to torment many, many more for years to come. The bell ringing signifies how the “dead” are ready to become “undead,” as well as how the same song that played during the main autopsy played, leading to a continuity of the mystery of Jane Doe.
All-in-all, the film was a very satisfying watch. Although a bit of a slow build-up, the tension built just enough to knock the socks off of me towards the middle of the film. I was slightly disappointed though, with how the film turned a bit too “magical,” but overall, I rate the film very highly. It spins a fantastic narrative that is sure to please a traditional horror film fan like me who appreciates the basic structure of such films.
Clute, John. The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror. Cauheegan, Wisc.: Payseur & Schmidt, 2006. Print.
Robin Wood, ‘The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s’, from Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York, Columbia University Press, 1986).