(Warning: Spoilers ahead)
I cannot imagine myself ever working in a morgue. Being in a situation wherein I would have to be alone with dead bodies and actually have to examine them is something which gives me the shivers. Putting this alongside my fear of ghosts and to a certain extent, blood, I feel like this would be close to the top of my list of jobs to avoid. To me, this is not something which is natural at all and is quite simply put, the stuff of nightmares. This is why, from start to finish, I felt very uncomfortable while watching The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) by André Øvredal.
The movie started with a mystery. It showed cops investigating a homicide of a family wherein there was no sign of forced entry. The mysterious thing about this however, was that they found a “Jane Doe” in the basement. Buried under piles of soil was a body of a woman which was unidentifiable and looked surprisingly clean and fresh. It was when the body was brought to the morgue located in the basement of Tommy Tilden’s home however, that things started to get scary. Tommy and his son Austin are medical coroners who work with the police on cases to figure out causes of death. Once they start the autopsy of Jane Doe however, things get scary, weird, and very dangerous.
After watching the movie for the first time, my initial reaction was fear. For the duration of the movie, I was covering up half my face, prepared to cover my eyes if something which I did not want to see suddenly popped up. I found the movie to be very tense and stressful. Once it ended, I was hit with a feeling of relief that it was over but, also with a lingering feeling of being scared because of what I just watched. This was why I felt like the movie was able to do its job well as a horror film. It is a movie which I would recommend to people who enjoy being scared but, it is definitely not for the faint of heart.
In my opinion, the strongest points of the movie were the setting and the “monster.” As the whole movie happened in the basement of the Tilden’s, it gave the audience a feeling of hopelessness for the characters. It made me personally feel that they would not in any situation be able to get out of it alive. The setting made the monster so much more horrific because of the feeling of claustrophobia and that the characters had nowhere to run. It made it feel like throughout the movie, the monster was in control. This was made so much more interesting by the fact that throughout the movie, the monster stayed still. She didn’t move or, do anything which a corpse shouldn’t be able to do. However, the filmmakers were able to depict her in such a way that her presence and influence through witchcraft made her a formidable foe. What made the monster so interesting however, can be best explained through the ideas of Robin Wood, which he talks about in his article entitled The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s. Here, he says that “closely linked to the concept of repression… [is] the concept of ‘the Other.'” In the movie, the monster was clearly borne out of repression. She became a witch because of the Salem witch trials, an event which in a way treated women as others. “In a male-dominated culture,… [men] repressed femininity in order to disown it as inferior.” Because of this repression, and the intense punishment and eventual death she went through, she became a witch. The witch hunters then created the very monster they were trying to destroy because of their process of othering. This motivation behind the character makes you empathize with her and understand her in such a way that she can be identified with. This is what I feel made the monster so interesting as a antagonist in the movie. Instead of her simply doing things to hurt others or for the sake of creating terror, there is an underlying theme of repression which makes her actions more justifiable.
In short, The Autopsy of Jane Doe works very well as a horror film. It has all the regular tropes which you would expect and, affects the audience in the way that you would expect a horror film to. It goes deeper than this however and is able to delve into the concept of otherness. Through the story of Jane Doe, we are able to see how in a way, the autopsy not only reveals her cause of death but the cause of her motivations and repressions she experienced.
Robin Wood, “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002).