Early on in two recent horror films from debut directors — Get Out and Raw — we are treated to individual takes on what has been a trope of the genre for some time now: the out-of-nowhere, car-swerves-to-avoid-an-animal-in-the-road jump scare. The ubiquity of this scene has made it something of an eye-roller; whenever we watch a moving vehicle in a horror film for any extended period of time, we are conditioned to anticipate the collision that is sure to occur, same as we can time the misdirects and proper BOO!s of your standard haunted Blumhouse fare.
What gives these scenes in Get Out and Raw special significance is not any original take on them (though Raw does achieve such), but, rather, what they reveal about the films’ themes and what they tell us about the primal fears that lay in the heart of the modern body-horror film. (Spoilers for both films follow.)
Though Jordan Peele’s crossover hit Get Out does kick off with a scene of slowly mounting dread that involves a car, its first true jump scare comes a few minutes later. The hero of the film, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is traveling through upstate New York to meet the family of his new girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) when their car clips a deer that’s darted out in front of them.
The way the scene plays out — Chris lingers at the edge of the woods, listening to the deathly whimpering of the wounded deer somewhere within the pines — will be recalled during a pivotal moment during the climax of the film, and a re-watch of the scene makes plain certain clues regarding both Chris and Rose. But the scene remains at the forefront of the viewer’s mind throughout, thanks to a leitmotif of deer that Peele repeatedly returns to.
When the couple finally arrives at her family’s estate, one of the first signs that something sinister is afoot comes in the form of a rambling speech Rose’s father gives after hearing about their accident, in which he declares his hatred for deer. He describes them as an infestation and public nuisance and claims he would wipe out their whole species if he could. It’s impossible to miss the racial undertones here, even as Dr. Armitage (Bradley Whitford) goes over and above to make known his enlightened liberal outlook. (“I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could” was primed to become the go-to shorthand for clueless white condescension — at least until Pepsi decided to film a Kardashian handing a cop one of their soda cans.)
Once the true motivation for Chris’s visit is revealed — Rose and her family have been abducting black folks for decades, subjecting them to a ghastly medical procedure, invented by the family’s patriarch, in which rich, aging whites can have their consciousness transplanted into these younger bodies — it becomes apparent that Peele has hit upon the perfect metaphor for the lie of post-racial America. Not only does black culture continue to be co-opted by corporate America (see again: Pepsi), black bodies are still subject to the will of the white power structure (see Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and countless other examples). Here, Peele uses the vehicle of the social drama-cum-horror film to make the fear of this reality visceral in a way that white audiences will understand, and audiences of color will recognize.
This is a new kind of body horror, one where the transgressive thrill of grotesque physical transformation is replaced by the existential horror of being a prisoner in one’s own body.
Peele adds further weight to his metaphor by tying Chris — and by extension, black America — explicitly to that deer from the first act. If Dr. Armitage is the smiling facade of white America that would just as soon be rid of other races, his wife is the stern assimilationist who seeks to forcibly subjugate them to her will (via her powers of hypnosis), not unlike someone training an animal.
The two Armitage youngsters, meanwhile, are hunters. The son, Jeremy, all bluster and male ego, is a sport hunter (he sizes up Chris in terms of pure animalistic physicality, in a manner that brings to mind the dehumanization of black bodies during chattel slave auctioneering). As soon as he spots suitable prey he goes in for the “kill.” Rose, by contrast, is a master trophy hunter. Her walls lined with photographs of her previous conquests, she spends her evenings researching her next victims — only the best will do for her, and she’ll take her time to track and bag them.
It is fitting, then, that each of the Armitages meets their end in increasingly ironic circumstances once the tables are turned on them. Peele has his hero use the means of his oppression to first free himself (he literally does so by picking cotton), and then extract vengeance: Dr. Armitage finds himself on the receiving end of a mounted deer head’s sharp horns; Mrs. Armitage is killed in the very den where she attempted to “domesticate” Chris; psychotic jock Jeremy is beaten half to death with a bocce ball before having his own MMA strategy used against him; and Rose, who we earlier watched so callously dismiss the suffering of the deer that she hit, is gunned down with a hunting rifle by one of her former prey, on the very same road, and left for dead. One can’t help but think of the saying, popular in hip-hop: “Hunting ain’t no fun when the rabbit’s got the gun.”
If Get Out doesn’t seem interested in the more tactile set pieces that one usually finds in the genre of body horror, Julia Ducournau’s Raw is rife with them.
Raw’s opening scene involves a car careening off the road when a hooded woman darts out from the surrounding countryside and throws herself in front of it. As the car slams into a tree, the woman continues to lie down as though she were roadkill herself. Eventually, she stands up and moves deliberately over to the victims of the wreck. In time we will come to know the identity of this person, as well as her motivation, but right from the start we are given to understand that this will be a film where the line between human and animal instincts is fine enough to be almost indistinguishable.
After vegetarian veterinary student Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney during a freshman hazing ritual, she develops a rabid craving for raw flesh, especially of the human variety. This new craving intermingles with, and becomes inseparable from, her blossoming sexuality, even as she begins to discover that she is not the only one in her family with these desires.
Set amidst the tensions and debauchery of the college experience, albeit one where bovine rectal exams and canine autopsies are part of the everyday curriculum, Ducournau pushes the audience to the limits of what their stomachs and gag reflexes can handle. Reports of audience members fainting during festival screenings of the film last year seemed like standard PR at the time, but as we watch Justine extract a thick wad of bloody hair from her throat, in a sequence that goes on seemingly forever, they become entirely understandable.
Equal measures art-house character study and cannibal-movie gore-fest, Raw is more elliptical in what it is attempting to say than the defiantly political Get Out, but at heart it is an examination of the demands that society forces upon women (and, in particular, the bodies of women), only to judge and condemn them when they attempt to assert their own will.
Raw is a coming-of-age story, one in which the parts of Justine’s nature that make her a social outcast also make her a force to be reckoned with. Hers is a journey of self-discovery, and although it does not end on as triumphant a note as Get Out, it does offer a semblance of what could be considered hope (dark, bloody, and absurd — but hope nonetheless). It holds that Justine need not overcome her true nature, nor even the violent expressions of her natural desires. She must merely “find a way to live with it.”
It is in this regard that both Get Out and Raw distinguish themselves from other recent films that have similar, surface-level concerns. Though neither quite fit the strict definition of “body horror,” both Ben Wheatly’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s High-Rise and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon portray the gradual de-evolution of human beings, their human nature degrading until they are given over to their animalistic, cannibalistic instincts (Refn’s film puts it in clear-cut terms: “Are you sex, or are you food?”).
But while both of those films find some form of transcendence in this return to primacy, it is, at heart, the source of their terror. This is true of much of the foundational examples of the horror film. From werewolves to vampires to zombies, man has always feared being turned into a creature driven purely by hunger.
Get Out and Raw, on the other hand, show that it is the façade of society, and the power structure that oversees it, which are truly the things to fear. The horror inflicted upon the body is inflicted from the outside, and only by embracing our primal instincts can we overcome our primal fears.
Zach Vasquez lives in Los Angeles, home of body horror.