Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.
This week is our 450th post, and by tradition we’re watching the weird: Jordan Peel’s 2017 writer-director debut Get Out. Spoilers ahead!
“The Armitages are so good to us. They treat us like family.”
Night, an affluent suburb. A Black man walks along, talking via phone to “baby.” A white sports car makes a U-turn to trail him. Spooked, he doubles back, but the driver knocks him out and shoves him into the car trunk.
Day, an urban apartment decorated with photographs. Chris Washington, a young Black man, is the photographer. His white girlfriend Rose Armitage arrives. He asks if her parents, whom they’re about to visit, know Chris is Black. Rose says no, but don’t worry, they’re not racist. Not that she’s dated a Black man before.
Rose drives Chris through woods. Chris, who’s supposedly quitting, lights a cigarette. A deer darts directly in front of their car, slams into the grille. They pull over, shaken. Hearing moans, Chris finds the doe dying. A policeman answers Rose’s call, but just demands Chris’s driver’s license. Rose confronts the policeman, who desists. Chris tells her that was “hot.” Well, Rose says, she’s not letting anyone mess with her man.
The Armitages live on a secluded estate tended by groundskeeper Walter and maid Georgina, both Black. Rose’s father Dean is a neurosurgeon, mother Missy a psychiatrist. They receive Chris with hugs, but Dean embarrasses with too-pointedly antiracist remarks. Missy draws from Chris that his father was absent, and his mother died in a hit-and-run when he was eleven. Missy offers to cure Chris’s smoking habit with hypnotherapy. Chris declines.
Rose’s brother Jeremy arrives, manic and boozy. After informing Chris that with his “genetics” he’d be a “beast” of a mixed-martial-arts fighter, Jeremy proposes demonstrating his own skills. Prevented, he sulks off.
Tomorrow the Armitages throw their annual party in honor of the late Grandpa, a very-white affair. In their bedroom, Rose apologizes about her family’s behavior. Chris shrugs. Later he sneaks outside to smoke and is startled when Walter sprints at him like a charging rhino, to veer off at the last second.
Back inside he’s startled by Missy, who invites him into her study. She reintroduces hypnosis. Chris, who imagines she’d use a swinging watch, misses her actual focus: the continual stirring of her tea. Missy makes him relive how, the night his mother died, he sat watching TV—frozen by denial—instead of reporting her absence. (Later we’ll learn his mother lived for hours, so he might have saved her by summoning help.) Missy taps her cup three times to send Chris into “the sunken place,” trapping him in the darkness of his subconscious.
Next morning Walter, automaton-stiff and disturbingly cheerful, apologizes for scaring Chris. Georgina, when she apologizes for accidentally knocking his phone off-charger, is similarly stilted. The too-friendly party guests further unnerve Chris, as do their remarks on his looks, strength, and supposed sexual prowess. He’s relieved to see one Black man, until the guy responds awkwardly (kinda like an old white guy) to his friendly greeting. Even so, this guest looks familiar. Chris also meets blind gallery owner Jim Hudson, who “sees” art through an assistant and admires Chris’s photography.
Chris phones his dog-sitter and friend Rod, a TSA officer. Rod warned Chris not to visit Rose’s parents: His pet theory is that white people turn Blacks into sex slaves. Chris tries to get a discreet photo of the Black guest, but the flash bewilders the man, who suddenly comes alive and shouts at Chris to get out. The Armitages usher him off. Dean claims the man had a seizure. Then Rod identifies the Black guest as a musician named Andre who disappeared recently. Chris pulls Rose aside: He wants to leave now. She agrees.
Meanwhile, a blown-up photo of Chris beside him, Dean conducts a “bingo game” that’s really a silent auction. Jim Hudson has the highest bid.
While packing, Chris discovers photos in Rose’s closet. Many show her snuggled with a series of Black men. One’s Walter, and the only woman is Georgina. He hustles Rose downstairs. The Armitages block their escape. Chris keeps yelling for Rose’s supposedly-missing car keys. She makes a show of looking for them, then admits that of course she can’t help him leave. Missy gives a glass three spoon-taps, sending Chris into the Sunken Place.
Chris wakes strapped to an armchair. A TV plays a video of Roman Armitage, Dean’s father, who talks about some immortality scheme called “Coagula.” Jim Hudson’s next by live-stream; he explains that Dean’s perfected a brain-transfer procedure. He’s transplanted many “white” brains into physically superior Black bodies, and so Jim will acquire Chris’s “eye” for photography! Chris will persist only in his remaining stem brain, a conscious but helpless ghost.
Televised spoon-taps incapacitate Chris again. Back in the city, Rod calls Chris’s phone and gets Rose, who says Chris left in a cab two days before. When her concern turns to flirtation, Rod realizes she’s the enemy. He begs the police to investigate the Armitage “sex-slave” ring, but they laugh him off.
Dean preps Jim. Jeremy goes to retrieve Chris. But Chris has dug cotton stuffing from the chair arms and blocked his ears from Missy’s taps. He knocks Jeremy out, and impales Dean on deer antlers from the wall, leaving Jim with brain open and fire spreading in the operating theater. Missy attacks Chris with a dagger he turns against her. At the front door Jeremy grapples him, but Chris breaks free and crushes Jeremy’s skull.
Meanwhile Rose lounges in her room, earbuds in place, perusing the internet for handsome Black men.
Outside, Chris commandeers Jeremy’s sportscar. Peeling off, he hits Georgina. He puts her in the passenger seat—from which she attacks him, having been Dean’s transplanted mother all along. The car crashes, killing Georgina. The noise alerts Rose, who comes out with a rifle. As Chris dodges bullets, Walter rockets up, Rose yelling, “Get him, Grandpa!” Walter, then, is actually Roman. He tackles Chris, who uses his phone flash to revert Walter as he inadvertently reverted Andre. Walter takes Rose’s rifle to “finish off” Chris. Instead he shoots Rose, then himself.
Rose lies bleeding. Chris tries to strangle her but can’t bear to. A siren-blasting car pulls up, and Rose yells for help. But the car’s a TSA vehicle, the driver Rod! He drives Chris away while Rose dies, saying “Man, I told you not to go in that house!”
Exhausted, Chris has no smart comeback.
The Degenerate Dutch: It’s such a privilege to be able to experience someone else’s culture. Black is fashionable, don’t you know? I would vote for Obama a third time if I could, my man.
Weirdbuilding: Tell us again about these rich white people running a sex slave ring. Please? Don’t say I never do anything for you! (Poor Rod, he’s almost got the right genre savvy.)
Madness Takes Its Toll: Let’s do some hypnosis to help you with that nicotine addiction.
I can’t be the only introvert terrified by the unlikely notion that everyone at a party is secretly judging me. It only gets worse if everyone else already knows each other, or if they have something in common that makes me stand out…
So even before we get to the body-snatching, Chris is in an absolute nightmare of a situation. The constant flow of white people trying to sound not-racist and failing spectacularly, the weird questions about his fighting and golfing abilities, the Stepford servants with their fake smiles and late-night murderous jogs, help no things. I 100% screamed at one point when Georgina suddenly turned to look at him.
This is Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, and both brilliance and first-movie problems are visible. I recognized the uncanny-valley aesthetic of the white characters from the later Lovecraft Country: These are people for whom a veneer of Niceness is vital, for whom “authentic” is an impossible horror. They can’t show their true selves because that would be gauche, and also because then they’d be being rude to the people they’re about to mind-control, body-snatch, etc. But Misha Greene brought some much-needed perspective to Lovecraft Country; Get Out is almost entirely lacking in sympathetic women, and real-Georgina gets only the briefest of moments on-screen even as real-Andre gets to both deliver a warning and save the day.
That’s probably my biggest problem with an otherwise brilliant movie, although I will admit to several moans of “That’s not how hypnosis works!” (For the record, being hypnotized is a skill and requires the cooperation of the subject—and won’t work if the subject lacks the skill in question. Which I say as someone who completely sucks at it.) I realize we’re in Mi-Go land here, which also didn’t prevent me from side-eyeing the neuroscience. (Don’t cut the one guy open before the other is even there—there are all sorts of possible delays that have nothing to do with your victim waking up and killing people! Keep a sterile field! Personality is not preserved in the hindbrain!)
Ahem. No, really, this is Mi-Go magical neurosurgery, where brains can be moved from place to place at will and minds seem to hang out wherever is least convenient. Behold the Coagula!
Like I said, brilliant movie. The Coagula demo video is a particularly Nice touch, mirroring perfectly a certain type of “we’re all family here” small business aesthetic, all justified by the explanation that the procedure works so much better with a gloating infodumpy monologue. A very polite monologue, of course. We couldn’t possibly be rude.
I’m deeply torn about the ending. The rest of the movie so perfectly gets its creep from implication, from smile-masked monsters and little moments of sheer wrongness—and then everything gets resolved by bloody violence. The change of tone is jarring and, at least for me, reduced both the scare factor and any cathartic satisfaction dramatically. But I also suspect there’s commentary intended: that those smiles mask violence much worse and bloodier than anything Chris does, and that people with privilege get credit for their façades while those without are blamed for even the most necessary self-defense. That works for me on an intellectual level, not so much on a horror movie level.
I also wonder whether we’re supposed to worry about what happens next. Thanks to Rod’s noble effort with the authorities, Chris is firmly placed at the Armitage house, and presumably those detectives will soon be investigating the slaughter in question. And Chris’s fingerprints are on everything that hasn’t caught fire—Rose’s neck, for example. I fear that he’s going to suffer precisely the mundane horrors one would expect, and maybe I’m supposed to think about how many loose threads horror movies tend to leave dangling and how likely cops are to accept a white Final Girl’s tenuous excuses. But maybe I’m supposed to accept Rod’s promise that things are “handled”.
There’s a reason they say that real friends help you hide bodies.
In both print and visual media, the horror story often begins with a prologue in which a minor character meets the monster, their death or disappearance ensuing. This opening scene assures the horror consumer that they’ve indeed come to the right place. Bad things are going to happen here, things with extreme consequences. And what’s more, what’s critical: In whatever human or animal or fantastic form they take, within the confines of this entertainment, the monsters are real.
Scary enough, right? But not too scary if readers or viewers can keep the monsters within those confines, those fiction-cages, telling themselves it’s all make believe, make-up and special effects—at base, some creators exercising their morbid imaginations so we don’t have to. There’s nothing wrong with a good cheap thrill. Stick with that, and you’ll sleep fine.
What you’ve got to avoid is the good deep thrill. That’s the kind that produces the creeping dreads and shooting terrors of recognition and conviction. Confronted with deeply thrilling work, we know we’ve seen these monsters before, and we know they’re really real. They could be living beside us. They could be living inside us.
Inside us is the worst, because it poses the question of whether the real monsters are parasites or integral tissue, not even cancers but the purest expression of our too-too impure selves. Even the Armitages and their cronies admit that no one racial constitution is perfect. The whites may get the Intellectually Superior Genes, but the Blacks get the Physically Superior ones. So, barring a technique for precise genetic manipulation, the only way to create a genuine master race would be to put white brains in Black bodies. Hitler didn’t learn this lesson from Jesse Owens’s triumphs over Aryans, but Roman Armitage did. He almost got over losing his Olympic berth to Owens, as Dean tells Chris. I’m assuming that though he never shook his resentment, he did acknowledge one Black man’s advantage over him with the sincerest form of admiration he could muster. Not emulation, but—
Envy, in its most larcenous incarnation. Chris’s buddy Rod believes white people want to make sex slaves out of Blacks; that’s the worst thing he can think of. Rod is too innocent to conceive the truth, that Armitages don’t merely want to use Black bodies, but to subsume them. “Welcome to the Coagula,” video-Roman tells Chris. In medical terminology a coagulo is soft or liquid matter that’s solidified, as in a blood clot. Coagula appears in the famous phrase from alchemy: Solve et Coagula, to dissolve and congeal, to lose and restore form, the basis process of alchemical transformation: what, of the base into the precious, the black into the white? Roman would like Dean’s Black subjects to think they’re joining the family. He doesn’t mention that they’ll be the family members locked in the psychic basements of the Sunken Place, a more terrible situation than any Gothic madwoman’s because absolute loss of agency is coupled with perpetual consciousness of that loss.
There’s a strong punitive element to the transplantation process that I’m sure Roman couldn’t help but relish.
Fear breeds phobias and paranoias; phobias and paranoias spawn much classic horror. Nor are phobias baseless: Heights can kill you if you fall from them, spiders or snakes if they’re highly venomous. Paranoids aren’t always wrong: Occasionally, people are out to get them. And what the unaffected might label paranoia can be reasonable fear for the usual targets. We’re back to the opening scene of Get Out. Andre is anxious about being in a largely white enclave to begin with. His anxiety skyrockets when that sportscar circles back. Why not, in a world where neighborhood patrols plus Black teenagers dangerously armed with bags of Skittles can end up with the teenager dead? Because this is a horror movie, the more prosaic racist becomes a grotesque, a Ninja-stealthy jump-scaring dark knight complete with visored helmet. It’s really Jeremy in disguise, but we won’t know that until later.
If when the helmet came off, the knight showed a skull’s face, we’d get that cheap thrill mentioned above. Because he shows a human face, we get a deep thrill.
We recognize that monsters are real.
Next week, we the party remains split in Chapters 15-16 of Max Gladstone’s Last Exit.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of A Half-Built Garden and the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon and on Mastodon as firstname.lastname@example.org, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.