The Only One in the Room: Social Commentary and Diversity in Horror

By Zachary Paul

Get Out was released this past weekend to massive box off, especially considering its miniscule $4.5 million budget. The film from first time feature director, Jordan Peele, is currently sitting pretty with over $40 million in the bank. This is, of course, a huge win for our beloved genre for a number of reasons. The film is razor sharp satire, the likes of which haven’t been popular in horror since the days of Romero and Carpenter. Along with another recent release, XX, this represents a push in the right direction for diversity in the genre as well.

Our own, John Squires, just posted an article proclaiming that socially relevant fright-fare is nothing new, and I couldn’t agree with him more. Societal turmoil is the basis for a lot of our favorite genre works. Where I differ from John is, while I think there have been a sprinkling of films here and there, there hasn’t been anything to tap into the cultural zeitgeist the same as Get Out has in a very long time. Yes, The Purge films are incredibly political, but I can’t help but feel they haven’t been taken too seriously as such. Get Out has managed to ignite discussion beyond the horror circle, and that’s something that has to be celebrated. Of course, it would be preferable if scary movies were viewed as “on the level” with other pieces of cinema ALWAYS, but that just isn’t the case. So, for at least this moment, people are paying attention to our genre and the power it can contain.

You may have already noticed, but this post will be considered by some as “political”. I personally feel that just because something revolves around social issues, it does not inherently make it political. Nonetheless, if you’re “not here for it” because this is “just a horror site” then please, feel free to save yourself the frustration and don’t read it. The truth is, this article is something I’ve been mulling over for a while. Issues of race, religion, and sexuality are always tough subjects to broach. I’m thankful this film has provided a context of which to open a discussion. Horror is my passion, my bloodline. In order to keep things innovative, we must accept alternate cultures, voices, and perspectives than our own.


THE SUNKEN PLACE

I felt Get Out was an incredibly tense, surprisingly fun, and deeply relevant film. It should come as no surprise to anyone (though, leave it to social media, because apparently to some – it did) the film deals with race relations. It does so without resorting to the cliches one might have expected. There are no gun toting, Rebel flag swinging, overalls wearing rednecks running around as the villains. The bad guys here may be white, but for the majority of the film the racism on display is just simmering under the surface. It’s that everyday, casual racism that some who are blindly unselfaware don’t even realize they exhibit.

*Spoiler warning for Get Out*

This idea is explored further by the fact the villains view their victims, black men and women, as physically superior. In fact, they’re jealous. See? At least, that’s how they see the situation. They don’t believe themselves to be racist at all. Their internal logic is, naturally, deeply flawed. Our preppy criminals believe that without the brain of a white man controlling the ship, the bodies they trade in are merely wasted potential. They want black men for their flesh and bone but are unconcerned with their lives…their souls. It’s this approach to the material that raises it above what could have been a stereotypical depiction of racism in America.

The experience of our hero, Chris, in the film is one of complacency. He fully anticipates the overeager pandering of Rose’s father and the persistence that he “would’ve voted for Obama a third time.” What Peele captures so perfectly in the first half of Get Out is that feeling of being “the only one in the room”. When Chris steps out into the Armitage’s elegant backyard party filled with nothing but upper class white folks, he’s instantly uneasy. A smile crosses his face once he spots someone who shares his skin color. It’s like a potential life preserve in a situation where Chris feels he’s drowning…quite literally in this case, in the “Sunken Place”.

As a white male I can in no way say I know exactly what it’s like to be in Chris’s shoes in this moment. The experience of young black men in this country is something at the forefront of societal conversations for a reason. Where I can empathize, however, is as a gay male in the south. While I’m much more comfortable in my own skin than perhaps I was as a teenager and young adult, I remember distinctly the times I felt this unaccounted for tension from being “the only one in the room”. Sometimes, perhaps, nothing is said. It’s in a look or a seemingly innocuous comment that causes you to wonder.

On several occasions, I was met with this response from girls upon realizing my sexuality: “Oh, my, god! We can go shopping together!” Considering I live along the Bible belt, I’ve been met with more than a few “Why did you choose to be gay?” or “Well, God teaches us to love you no matter what.” These people (usually) mean well. Much like Chris in the film, I don’t instantly fly off the handle or get outwardly upset. It simmers underneath. Of course, you accept me no matter what…no matter my “abhorrent, demonic tendencies”. Thanks. I appreciate it. There are those who cry this film is racist to white people or that the film is “obvious”. I couldn’t disagree more, and I also believe the story it tells should be relatable to anyone. We’ve all felt out of place at times.

This is the power of a well told horror story, one that can dig the knife through the surface to scrape the bone beneath. Using horror as metaphor can take a complex subject matter and distill in a way that makes the information more palatable, whether it be subliminal or rather blatant. We can see ourselves in the victims and sometimes even in the villains. Romero’s original Dead trilogy or Carpenter’s They Live are just as pertinent now as they ever were. These films stand the test of time due to their underlying social commentary. Horror tends to thrive in times of social unrest, and here’s hoping the success of Get Out is only the beginning of fruitful discussion brought on by the genre.


HEARING VOICES

The subtext in Get Out is fresh, and it comes from the mind of Jordan Peele, a first time director. It’s rare that we get horror films (or films for that matter) that are from black filmmakers and star black leads. How long has it been since a legitimately successful or fondly remembered horror film was released that focused on the black perspective? Tales from the Hood? That was released in 1995, over twenty years ago.

The truth of the matter is that horror in America has been a straight white male’s game for quite some time. Every now and then a different voice may break through to the foreground. I’ll never forget finding out that Kevin Williamson, writer of Scream, was gay. I was already obsessed with the film and was following Williamson’s career closely. I was convinced that writing/directing horror films was what I was meant to do. Upon reading Williamson’s name on a list of “Out Hollywood”, I couldn’t believe it. It might seem silly, but just knowing he’d “made it” gave me the small sense that my voice could eventually be heard too.

Today’s climate has certainly changed. In some ways things have evolved greatly while there are still some mindsets that appear frozen in the ice age. I’d like to think today’s youth have grown up in much more progressive times and exhibit more forward thinking attitudes. Their world-view isn’t simply one thing, and their entertainment should reflect that. The success of Get Out at the end of Black History Month and XX, the first horror anthology spearheaded entirely by female directors, coming out during Women in Horror Month should be a surprise to no one. It’s about time.

It’s great that we are given our very own calendar dates to celebrate our cultures and identities. In just a few months we will be celebrating Pride. I’d love to see a “gay” horror flick come out around that time. BEGIN MINI-TANGENT. Preferably, it’d be a film that has more on its mind than displaying an onslaught of shirtless himbos who can’t act, sitting around bitching for an hour and a half only for them to get slowly picked off with lazy, offscreen kills in the final third. All directed and shot with the panache of a home security system, mind you…that’s an entirely different can of worms, though. END TANGENT.

What’s a shame is that we need these months, not just for celebration and remembrance but to try and raise awareness. We know that at least one month out of the year, our wants, needs, views and opinions can get some airplay. We march, stomp in parades, and shout at the top of our lungs because these are voices that need to be heard in the real world. It’s no different in the horror realm. I, for one, am thankful for what Peele has done and what it could potentially represent in the future of our genre.

I only hope Hollywood can take the right lesson from this film’s release. Unique voices can present unique points of view and ultimately, provide us with unique content. Hopefully Jordan Peele can continue to deliver more of what he’s coined the “social thriller”. And just like my excitement over realizing Kevin Williamson was gay, I hope there are horror-kids out there now looking up to what Peele has done, excited for their potential futures as filmmakers. Other voices must continue to rise up in horror to use monsters, madmen, and blood to exercise their frustrations out into the world. It’s exciting times, for sure.


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