I think most of us can agree that The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) was outright scary and thrilling. Out of all the movies that had been shown for COM115.9, this movie had me unable to sleep comfortably for several nights the most. The body of Jane Doe, played by Olwen Kelly, despite just being there on the table with her porcelain, flawless skin and unthinkable mutilations was the monster that everyone was unable to comprehend. She looked like she was doing nothing—she was a dead body after all—but at the same time she was doing all these sorts of witchcraft against the father-son protagonists Austin and Tommy (Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox, respectively). I almost felt sorry that their work just had to be spooky as it is, a coroner and a medical technician, having to examine dead bodies.
I think a big chunk of the reasons why The Autopsy of Jane is such an acclaimed horror film is because of Jane Doe herself. She is just a dead girl… but she is also a witch. We have always had this stigma on witches, rooted perhaps on history. Back in the early medieval ages, witches were persecuted. Jane Doe must have come from this era and through her witchcraft persisted on as if to “live through the years” in its literal but ambivalent sense. Even though she looks dead, she is alive. Even though she was persecuted during those times and eventually “died,” here she is. Getting her revenge on the society that caused her demise and repressed the likes of her for their own beliefs and culture. Witches had always been seen as an Other, considered deviants of the modern and normal crowd because of their peculiar traditions and mannerisms. Robin Wood tells us how horror films often depict the monster or the villain as someone coming from repressed sectors of society. Jane Doe is such, being a witch.
Jane Doe is also a woman. And we all are aware that we live in a patriarchal society. Although we continue to try to progress, we still are dominated by males and their power. Males still have the upper hand everywhere, in all aspects of life. Females are continuously repressed, abused, considered weak. Being a woman is a disadvantage, while being a man gets you anywhere. In the movie, we see a woman being able to do so many things, even kill people. The woman here is powerful. Perhaps to the people who believe in male dominance, that can take them aback. Women on the other hand would like to see more strong women representation in media (but please don’t go killing off people!).
The fact that someone who belongs to a group of people that society continuously tries to repress harshly and undeservingly is now back to exact revenge to everyone part of that repressive society is horrifying. Horror films exist to tell everyone that whatever is repressed will always return, just like Jane Doe. Even without meaning to repress females directly, the males in the movie still had something to do with repression just by being males. Although I think Jane Doe initially meant to get her revenge on the righteous people who brought her down during the time she lived as a witch, she still persists to be this way which is why much of her would like to bring down the people of modern times, too. Why did she have to live during the medieval times? It was unfair that she was born during that time, instead of the modern times when people would might be afraid of witches still, but hey at least they will not go off slaughtering them. So she wants to tell everyone it has always been unfair for her. Now I will kill you.
Another reason the film is just scary is everyone dies. Not one of the protagonists survived. How can you beat a monster who is so powerful, and when faced against it will just kill you? You cannot. Which is why when we think of Jane Doe, we are scared. Scared to die. I know I am not the only one on this. I think this short paragraph is very straightforward about that. Jane Doe is okay with killing people and she is not even sorry about it. She wants you to feel her pain. She is unsympathetic just as how society was apathetic towards her so she was killed and semi-died. We see no emotion from her as she kills the protagonists, but we also know that she is in so much pain and anger which is why she is doing this. We see from Jane Doe this ambivalence.
With the end of the movie, Jane Doe gets transferred to another place. I think this tells us that again, the repressed will always come back. With a louder voice, with a desire to let go from repression because of all the bottled-up feelings (and with an intense desire to get their revenge on repressive society by killing everyone). Let this be a reminder that we should always be sensitive of other people who are different from the normal. Who knows, these people just might learn how to get their revenge.
Robin Wood. “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002), 25.