Survival Instinct: Race, Community, and Catharsis in Jordan Peele’s Select Horror Films
By Shakya Bose
“Black history is horror,” says Jesse who runs the YouTube channel, ‘Bowties and Books’ and harbours a love for horror in particular and speculative fiction in general. Xavier Burgin begins his documentary “Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror” with a juxtaposition of images and news of Black people being lynched and killed throughout the history of the USA over its opening credits. Reports of assassinations of prominent figures like Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton, and Malcolm X, flash by on the screen. The first film discussed in the documentary is ‘Birth of a Nation’, D.W. Griffith’s pioneering feature-length film, that featured ‘African Americans’ as the undisputed villains, and the racist lynch mob of the ‘Ku Klux Klan’ as the force of righteousness and national identity. Author, educator, and lover of films ‘Tananarive Due’, one of the talking heads featured in the documentary, repeats Jesse’s sentiment.
‘Black history is black horror.’
Jordan Peele is an important figure in the history of American cinema in general, and horror cinema in particular. The immediate subversion of having a Black lead in his first horror film Get Out is expanded upon by the fascinating meta-narratives in the film. Horror Noire, released for public consumption on streaming platforms in 2019, recognizes the paradigm shift that had been achieved through the film, bringing conversations about racial discrimination to the mainstream through an entertaining, genre-fiction lens.
Get Out was released in 2017, the same year, Donald Trump succeeded the first and only African American President of the United States Barack Obama. One of the antagonists pointedly mentions the former president, and how he would have voted for him a third time if it was possible, to put the protagonist Chris at ease. The villains are of course, ‘White people’ who are lobotomizing Black people and inserting their consciousness into them. A very literal fetishization of the Black body, where it leaves its autonomy behind to become a reflection of the ‘White gaze’. A husk of Blackness, filled with a White mind. It reflects the history of Black characters being created and written by White writers, often played by White actors in blackface. The lobotomized Black bodies, driven by the volition of their White inhabitants, speak in caricatures of African American Vernacular English, which immediately puts the protagonist on edge.
Through this caricature of Black culture, Jordan Peele illuminates the rich internal culture and linguistic complexities of the African American community, which had developed as an educated reaction to the hostile dominant culture of the nation they were living in. While the white characters attempt to appropriate it, by literally stealing black bodies in the case of Get Out, they are not privy to its inherent nuances. Two instances highlight this disparity for Chris, and by extension, the audience. He shares stilted conversations with two Black characters, who speak strangely, unable to meet the rhythm of his conversation. It is only when an accidental flash from his cell phone camera allows the real person underneath to regain momentary control of his body, and he moves to warn Chris of the danger, that he recognizes the person as someone from his past. The film’s narrative thus makes it a point to root recognition and community not just at face value, but as a shared language in reference to the world they are surrounded by. It is this awareness in which Jordan Peele’s characters root their survival instinct, through the intuitive knowledge of trouble brewing.
Horror has always made great use of the culturally marginalized protagonist. The virginal girl, or the young child, staple horror protagonists, and victims are both considered to be in ‘need’ of protection. Thus, their abandonment in a dangerous situation often leads to heightened suspense. A Black character takes up a strange position in this construct. They have been historically coded as villains. They are always being looked at with distrust. The discourse itself is the enemy. By virtue of being perceived as a threat, they are constantly threatened. A character is always out of their comfort zone.
This image of a protagonist uncomfortable in their surroundings is often repeated in Peele’s films. In Us, the darkly funny beach scene highlights the discomfort all the members of the protagonist’s family feel with their White friends. As if there is a disconnect in their conversations, always missing certain cues. This is repeated at the very beginning of Nope, where the protagonist stands to attention beside his horse, as the mostly White film crew around him babbles on. And the entire premise of Get Out is hinged on the cultural discomfort of the White Gaze.
This White Gaze, a term originally coined by Toni Morrison to explain how western media was primarily made for the consumption of its White citizens, is expanded under Peele’s intervention. The Gaze is not only a default discursive presence but one that actively deforms the people it falls on, shaping them into palatable caricatures of themselves that can be easily consumed by the dominant White audience/consumer. This gaze is not new. It has been seen and felt in many films, even by audiences like us, who are far away from the cultural context. In the social and professional world, non-white people are forced to develop accents and linguistic patterns that the White majority is comfortable with in order to be considered acceptable. But in using it as the narrative crux, Get Out puts it at the centre of the conversation, and attempts to unravel its nuances.
The horror of the film builds on the amplification of the distortion affected by this ‘Gaze’, but so does the denouement. Black existence has had to build its home within this alienating gaze. Thus, the psyche of the Black community is viscerally aware of its presence and ready to react whenever necessary, without a moment’s hesitation. It is this familiarity with the constant danger that changes the texture of the payoff. By the end, Chris’s anger erupts violently against the antagonists, as if in response to the centuries worth of cultural trauma that has led up to that moment.
This focus on triumphant denouement is most evident in Peele’s latest film, Nope. The protagonist’s siblings notice the strange creature in the sky that is eating their horses and see in it a way to make some money. Tangible proof of alien existence must be lucrative, they reason. So they plan to film and photograph it. Nope is driven by an interesting motivation. The impetus isn’t a greater good, but an economic necessity. Seemingly a counterproductive choice to make the protagonists be motivated by money, it grounds them against the evangelical ranch owner, and the unhinged photographer, both of whom inadvertently invite the alien creature to devour them. In opposition, the siblings are driven by a shared self-preservation instinct. Their attempt to thwart the danger of the creature is out of love for each other, and a ‘personal anger’ against the threat. That is something horror thrives on. And Peele and his actors yield it with relishing menace.
Chris in Get Out, Adelaide in Us, and the Haywood siblings in Nope – all have moments of redemptive violence against the antagonist. And they are highlighted. Chris’s anger at his lover Rose’s betrayal as he strangles her, Adelaide’s anger against Red, and Emerald’s celebration after killing the alien predator, Jean Jacket, are all moments that the camera and script linger on. They act as moments of historical reconciliation with the systemic violence that the African American community has faced throughout its existence.
Peele’s most racially charged film is Get Out, which deals very directly and overtly with race. Over his next two films, Peele widened his focus. Us is perhaps the most multi-layered of the bunch, with the concept of the ‘Doubles’, bred underground as shadows of the common people, leading to multiple readings about labour, class, gentrification, and the nature of reality. Nope has a more straightforward preoccupation with the effect of both consuming media and participating in its creation.
But the Black communal identity is highlighted in each. Peele slowly and deliberately builds up a cultural identity on screen, that becomes instantly recognizable. Is it defined by the colour of the protagonists’ skin? Partly. Most of it, however, is in their characterization and reaction to the world. The way Chris resignedly raises his hands when he assumes the police have arrived at the end of Get Out, Adelaide’s immediate and correct assessment of the situation as the Doubles begin killing their counterparts, and the Hayword siblings’ rational pursuit of alien proof for financial gain. Their instinctive knowledge of the rules of the world.
The characters are used to living in hostile environments. Their reaction to threats is quick and quietly rational. Not only do the language and attitude of the characters inform the culture, but also an overarching awareness of the discursive ‘Gaze’ on them. The hostility of the antagonist might be new, but the hostility of the world itself is not. And this knowledge becomes the identifier of the narrative, and by extension, the ‘otherized’ existence of Black Americans.
The ‘Gaze’ is not a binary between the Black experience and the White. It is spread out over people of different classes and ethnicities. With Nope it even extends to animals. There, the gaze is the camera itself. And it looks at everything with its peculiarly political stare, affecting not just the subject and the audience, but the individual wielders as well. The mechanics of film reproduction becomes the undoing of all the characters. Even the protagonists betray their immediate instinct of abandoning the ranch in favour of using the alien animal as an opportunity to attain financial gain.
What Peele attempts is to harness the Black experience to explore strange horror scenarios, resulting in nuanced textual representations of Black culture. In reductive terms, they are a record of the Black cultural experience in reaction to conditions of horror, which is based on a communal memory of their history, that has constantly been represented through the dominant, hostile discourse. A Subaltern existence. Peele’s characters are always aware of this surveillance of their history and bodies. Their struggle for survival and glorious relief at surviving are not beyond the purview of this hostile discourse but despite it.
In Us, Peele’s second feature film, released in 2019, the protagonist Adelaide is revealed to have been the ‘Double’ who had changed places during an accidental and pivotal encounter with her real counterpart during their childhood. This twist had initially felt redundant to me, but upon a few re-watches, it feels sufficiently telegraphed and anticipated by the story around it. What is strange is that my interpretive and momentary relief at the end of the film upon seeing Adelaide’s getaway is never completely overcome by its implications. Adelaide becomes regarded on a more complex note, her actions put under a more skeptical lens. Her preternatural awareness of the looming danger at the beginning of the film makes more sense. We become more emotionally understanding of Red, who has been slain by Adelaide by then. But the joy of surviving this ordeal remains.
This joy of overcoming difficulties is a recurring emotional moment in Peele’s films. A small moment of respite where the protagonist(s) are on screen, visibly safe and secure. The camera lingers on them.
Chris and his saviour Rod take a moment to breathe, which is enlivened by a joke, and the departure of the characters down the road. Adelaide smiles at the camera, having momentarily saved her family from the clutches of their doubles. The Haywood siblings stare at each other as the dust and destruction settle around them. These are moments of narrative ‘reclamation’ against the historically dominant ‘Gaze’, as the larger-than-life threat lies defeated.
The violence endured by Black people throughout USA history is better foregrounded in Candyman (2021), which Peele co-wrote with its director Nia DaCosta, and produced. The myth of the Candyman is interwoven with a violent history, becoming a retributive force upon the system.
The film is very different in tone and treatment from Peele’s own directorial efforts, with a mythopoeic threat, and a dynamic and frantic pace. But the moment of redemption is present, as the human antagonists are defeated in a reclamation bloodbath.
The implication of the film’s ending is disquieting; a continued spread of systemic violence that will stoke racial tension. The narrative is an exploration of how this tension is continuously reignited through repressed communal trauma, which is actively perpetrated by the overarching socio-political structure. And the ‘personal anger’ against its effects. Candyman‘s narrative warns against being indiscriminate in retaliation. But it still de-sublimates its narrative tension in moments of violent self-preservation. Brianna Cartwright, the secondary protagonist, kills the antagonist in self-defense and tricks the cop threatening him into summoning the Candyman. And the situations, while still tense and ominous, elicit momentary relief. This horror of, and denouement through, the dominant alienating gaze is cathartic. There is no complete escape. The gaze will readjust its effects, and the world will return to its generally threatening self soon. But for now, the evil is defeated, and the heroes may rest awhile.
Jordan Peele is certainly not the first African American horror director or the first artist to foreground Black narratives in horror films. But he has been a decisive influence on the sub-genre of ‘Black horror’. And his films may be read from multiple socio-historical focal points. But as self-contained narratives themselves, they are shaped by the cultural position of Black Americans as a marginalized community across the USA. The eventual, if momentary, triumph these characters achieve is thus a celebration of survival against a racist system that actively keeps them at a disadvantage. In a structural reading, they are texts dealing with active and successful negotiations of the dominant gaze. As an audience his films make us anticipate and enjoy those moments. The characters are implicated in such grand and dangerous conspiracies, that their triumphant survivals are moments of pure joy. These moments can be read as acts of structural subversions of the dominant ‘White Gaze’, as it is inhabited and challenged by the subaltern experience. Catharsis in the face of insurmountable odds. The vocal survival of the Subaltern.
Gassam Asare, Janice; Understanding the White Gaze and how it Impacts your Workplace; Forbes Magazine; Dec 28, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2021/12/28/understanding-the-white-gaze-and-how-it-impacts-your-workplace/?sh=37701fa94cd6 (last accessed on 26th October, 2022)
Pitchford, Mike; Beware of the White Gaze; 14 East Magazine; Feb, 2021, http://fourteeneastmag.com/index.php/2020/02/21/11505/, (last accessed on 26th October, 2022)
Shakya Bose is a content writer and teacher by profession with an interest in horror fiction in general, and horror films in particular. He pursued Sociology as a discipline in his higher studies, having done his Bachelor’s from Presidency University, and Masters from South Asian University.
For more articles, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.