The Autopsy of Jane Doe is (literally and figuratively) a visceral horror. It cannot establish itself more as a horror film that it already did. It was set mainly in a horror hotspot: the morgue. In addition, from the beginning, there is already blood and death – a mysterious crime scene that the characters will bring light upon towards the end of the movie. Despite these, I think that the film respected the fact that horror is a struggle between normality and weirdness; and considering that the film comes off too strongly as “weird” and “dark” from the start, it is kind of brilliant that it can still maintain the same atmosphere without it getting too boring and that it can invoke horror the way it did during the progression of the story.
The strategy that was crucial to making The Autopsy of Jane Doe effective as a horror film is the move where it normalizes the weirdness that it displayed in the first sequence. The first sequence was a bloody crime scene. In that sequence, the “Jane Doe” was also introduced as she was the unidentified body that does not seem to fit in the crime scene. Following that sequence was that of a grotesque autopsy of a burned body whose cause of death (which was not the burning) was obscured by the severity of the burn, but was determined by an experienced examiner, Tommy Tilner. By following up the bizarre and gross with something equally bizarre and gross, it “normalizes” the bizarreness and the grossness that may obscure the horror that the film is trying to invoke. It’s as if the film is saying, “Nope, that’s not yet it. There’s something else. Watch out for it.” This, in effect, puts the audience on edge: despite being freaked out by the “normal”, they have to watch out for something else that would be abnormal even for the freaky. In addition, it also puts the audience behind Tommy Tilner by providing the impression that he is a reliable old man and that maybe he could unravel the mystery surrounding Jane Doe.
The climax of this film then became a return to the abnormality that one would expect from what was set up from the beginning: the corpses in the morgue will rise, Tommy and his son (Austin) will be trapped in their underground facility, Jane Doe was revealed as the monster, etc. The more remarkable part of the film is the build-up to the revel of the film. The build-up somehow made me forget that I found the first part freaky. It was well-paced – the weirdness of Jane Doe was well-established and the exposition of other background elements (e.g. the family heritage, Timmy’s wife, Austin’s girlfriend) was executed clearly. The thickening stage of the plot was particularly interesting for me because I am taking classes related to the biomedical sciences (in preparation for medical school), so I really got to appreciate the medical anomaly that is the case of this Jane Doe.
In the exposition of the monster and of the background elements of the story, two things happen: (1) the dominant elements and the repressed elements become recognizable; and (2) the repressed takes the front or threatens to overthrow the dominant. The latter is what Robin Wood equate to the “threat to the normality” in the basic formula of horror, because it disrupts status quo. This threat is usually embodied by the Monster (in this film, Jane Doe).
Science vs Superstition
This struggle reflects a more fundamental conflict in horror: epistemology vs mystery. This is highlighted through the material aspect of the set (i.e., the level of technology in the family-owned facility is comparable with those used in well-funded hospitals) and the behavior of the characters (i.e., tying a bell on the foot of the deceased). The dominant element is science for it is the usual means by which the Tilners determine the cause of death of a deceased person in their line of work (doctors are scientists too). On the other hand, although the practice of tying a bell on the deceased’s foot was employed when it was hard to distinguish coma from death, it has been reduced to a superstitious practice in modern times and was even used by Tommy to prank Austin’s girlfriend.
The subversion of the norm was in the investigation of Jane Doe’s cause of death. In the autopsy, Tommy and Austin found that science cannot explain what they observed in the body, and the more probably answers can be found by being open to superstitions that may be related to or resembles what they saw during the examination of Jane Doe’s body.
The Jane Doe monster is the means by which the movie exemplifies the concept of the “return of the repressed”. The suspected background of Jane Doe’s corpse was that she was a relic and a victim from the Salem Witch Trials or a witch hunt of some sort. The witch trials were famous for putting women in trial for “witchcraft” and persecuting them without substantial evidence. There were also male victims of this time (accused of being accomplices), but the burden was more on the women as they were identified to be witches. She herself was an Othered entity. The supernatural, however, kicks in and allows her to take the othering against those who harmed her. In this regard, I think it clearly expresses what Robin Wood said: “The monster is clearly the emotional center, and much more human than the cardboard representatives of normality.” However, I do not think the Tilners deserved that turn of events. Perhaps they were only rendered instrumental as male characters to show the horrific return of the repressed woman. But I still actually kind of feel bad for them. They were just doing their jobs, rather than persecuting the woman out of prejudice.
Robin Wood, “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70’s.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002).
“Salem.” Salem. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Feb 2017.