The genre of horror is and can be a medium used to show which our society represses and oppresses, according to Robin Wood. Though an example of the “typical” horror films we ought to have seen, the film The Autopsy of Jane Doe, directed by André Ovredal and released last December 21, 2016, shows that which is repressed in the context of the film, and creates a mix between the modern day search for crimes and causes of death, and the past ideas of witchcraft.
A mystery found surrounding an unidentified naked body that has no visible causes of death on the outside found half-buried in a house where three murders also took place and the autopsy of the found corpse happening in the morgue in a basement of a house. The film’s premise and setting is already unsettling to begin with. To be fair, crime scenes usually do give off an unsettling feeling.
The text The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70’s written by Robin Wood is going to shed some light on the idea of ‘otherness’, ‘normality’, the repressed, the Monster, and Jane Doe. The ‘other’ is the Monster who represents what is repressed or oppressed. ‘Normality’, in this context, is defined as the dominant norms that are followed.
In the film, the Monster is the corpse, Jane Doe. She was strange from the moment her body was retrieved. No evident signs of any cause of death is seen on the outside of the woman’s body. Though, as the coroners start to do their autopsy, they find more and more clues on the inside. In the middle of finding clues, more strange and unsettling things start to happen inside the morgue. From their radio malfunctioning, to their cat being severely hurt, to ghosts or entities even walking around. Jane Doe, being far from normal in terms of appearance on the outside because of the lack of signs of the causes of her death and on the inside having all these damaged internal parts in addition to still being alive because her brain still functions, and the supernatural happenings in the morgue that she controls makes her the Monster of the film.
Robin Wood discusses the idea of ‘otherness’ wherein he mentions women as an ‘other’. The ‘other’ as he defines it is one that cannot be recognized or accepted though, it is also what is repressed. Women, he says, are deemed and viewed as an ‘other’ because of our society and their image as mainly created by the male gaze. “Men project their own repressed femininity onto women in order to disown it as inferior” (Wood 2002).
In this film, Jane Doe’s otherness and her veering away from normality is shown in the revelation of her identity in the past. As both father and son coroners continue to find the cause of Jane Doe’s death, they uncover a mystery that she was a “witch” in the past having clues like the cloth found in her stomach and the writings underneath her skin. Here it is seen that women then, when having showed power, are deemed and labelled as a witch showing the repression of society’s feeling of being threatened by these women. Acting upon these labels given to them, they are tortured and executed as a way of further making them “acceptable” or annihilating them in society.
Though, in the film one of the coroners, Tommy, say that in the process of destroying what they wanted gone, they created the very thing they feared. This leads us to the return of the repressed. As this theory is revealed, that which is repressed being the idea of society doing a great crime against these women resurfaces. Through the labels put on women like ‘witch’, the repression of how threatened society was and what they did to these women to destroy their ‘otherness’ is brought back again. Jane Doe also creates havoc targeting Tommy and Austin, father and son, in her revenge. Both coroners, having no intention at all to hurt Jane Doe in the beginning, represents the patriarchy which she, in turn, is targeting as part of her avenging herself. The entire film’s plot is Jane Doe trying to take revenge on society that deemed her as a witch causing her to be who she currently is.
The film has the basic formula of a horror film wherein there is a Monster, normality, and the relationship between the two. Though, the idea of ambivalence wherein “the Monster is clearly the emotional center, and much more human than the cardboard representatives of normality”, as stated by Robin Wood, is also seen in the character of Jane Doe. She definitely is emotional given that she wanted revenge and wanted to avenge herself from what happened to her in the past where she was oppressed. Again, the revenge is served to the two men in the film representing the patriarchy. In this we see Jane Doe as the “emotional center” and “much more human”.
Source: Robin Woods, “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70’s.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002).