The Sunken Place and the “Electronic Elsewhere” of Jordan Peele’s Get Out
by Amy Nolan
[page 13] Abstract: One of the most compelling uses of analog technology in contemporary horror thus far is Jordan Peele’s use of the television as reflection of and portal to the Sunken Place in Get Out (2017). From the time that the television was invented, the combination of sound and image has magnified the ghostly possibilities of reproduction. According to Jeffrey Sconce, “the paradox of visible, seemingly material worlds trapped in a box in the living room and yet conjured out of nothing more than electricity and air, [wherein] the ‘electronic elsewhere’ generated by television was thus more palpable and yet every bit as phantasmic the occult empires of previous media’” (126). Peele shows us the “electronic elsewhere” by connecting the Sunken Place to the analog television set as a signifier of protagonist Chris Washington’s repressed memory of his mother’s death. The television becomes an extension of the national nightmare and personal trauma that overshadow Chris’s adult life. Get Out is a distinctive, twenty-first century story, yet it draws from earlier horror films that focus on humanity’s relationship with technology.
Keywords: analog television, camera, eyes, horror films, Get Out, Sunken Place
I believe that...the modern technology of images like cinematography and telecommunication enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us.
– Jacques Derrida in Ghost Dance (1983, dir. Ken McMullen)
“A man has to be able to see his own face.”
– Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973, dir. Bob Kelljan)
Over the past fifty years, American horror films have investigated the power that technology wields and often warn of potential destruction to bodies and landscapes. In their modes of storytelling, revealing what lies under the surface, horror films tell us about ourselves as we really are rather [page 14] than as we wish we were. Rooted in the Gothic tradition, horror has always been fascinated with the haunted place, the terrible place. Whether a haunted house, castle, hotel, hospital, maze, or forest, the “terrible place” is one of the oldest tropes in horror storytelling. So often, what makes a place haunted or “terrible” results from periods of “psychic trauma or injustice that relive themselves over and over again” (Harper). What happens when that “terrible place” resides in a technological object, and by extension, in what (or whom) it transmits?
Jordan Peele’s contemporary examination of racism in his debut film Get Out (2017) presents a fresh re-imagining of the horror tradition—with Black culture being at the center of that re-imagining. Robin R. Means Coleman, author of the groundbreaking Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011), writes that “[h]orror has something to say about religion, science, foreigners, sexualities, power and control, class, gender roles, sources of evil, an ideal society, democracy, etc. These topics take a compelling turn when examined through the lens of Black culture” (Coleman xix). Peele at once adheres to strong horror tropes—including the use of doubles, mirrors, and powerful character transformations that almost always involve the body—and subverts them. Most notably, his creation of the Sunken Place takes the “terrible place” trope and shifts it to a state of being and a reflection of the experience of racism and the legacy and trauma of slavery. The “Sunken Place” evokes a sense of foreverness, endless suffering coupled with opportunities to learn from the past that go unheeded, that is at the heart of horror stories. It is the story of ghosts who will not move on; the paranormal entities that want revenge and keep forgetting; the haunting sounds of the broken technologies that we thought would last, would help us transcend our earth-bound existence and leave the past behind.
Considering the legacy of slavery as itself a horror story, Coleman argues that while “it is easy to see how horror’s [page 15] violence has come to be seen as lacking in any illuminating value, in many instances violence in Blackness and horror function together to provide important discursive inroads, such as violence as exhibiting a sort of ‘return of the re/oppressed. Here, violence, be it gratuitous or declarative, will not overshadow the revelatory Blackness narratives that horror has to offer” (5). The disorientation and horror of the Middle Passage come back to haunt generations later in the early twenty-first century rendering of a mid-twentieth century television set, Jordan Peele’s vision of the Sunken Place.
As a site of trauma, the Sunken Place cannot be fully remembered or forgotten. As a “terrible place,” it is at once nowhere and everywhere. In Get Out—and to a lesser degree in Peele’s second film, Us (2019)—the Sunken Place takes “shape” in the space of an analog (pre-digital) television. In this essay, I will examine Peele’s use of the analog television as an uncanny object that releases the horror and serves as catalyst for transformation as well as the influence of 1970s-80s horror films that themselves employed analog technology as a device for storytelling, Poltergeist (1982), The Shining (1980), and The Stepford Wives (1975). By focusing on the sustained consequences of racism and slavery as the source of the horror itself, Peele offers contemporary allegories that bring fresh awareness of our connectedness as Americans, the complicated legacy of slavery, and the ways that our technology (old and new) can help us find and create new stories.
The “Noisy Ghosts” of the Analog
Cultural critic Adam Harper observes that “it’s no surprise that since the late twentieth century, as DVD, digital radio, digital recording, digital cameras, digital television and mobile phones were coming onto the scene, noisy ghosts started coming out of videotapes (The Ring [Ring 1998, American remake 2002]), analogue radio (Frequency ), [page 16] analogue noise on television and audio tape (White Noise  and Fissures ), cameras (Shutter ), telephones (One Missed Call [2003, American remake 2008]), television transmissions (Dead Waves ) and even the internet (Pulse [Kairo 2001, American remake 2006]).” These “noisy ghosts” abound in film and television from this era, ghosts that also exist in the technology itself—in the “flaws” that we see so clearly in analog formats but that are masked and virtually eliminated in digital technology.
When one engages with analog technology—be it a turntable, a VCR, a Walkman, a TV—it is arguably more possible to feel time, and analog technology also reveals a bodily co-presence, even as it transmits sounds and visions that are, or feel, intangible. For example, when we handle a turntable, we are engaging with the tone-arms that release the vinyl record and lift it up again when it is finished playing, an experience absent from playing digital music. In the twenty-first century, the television “set” is an nostalgic artifact made uncanny by its obsolescence. That which no longer exists has the power to haunt, via the transmission of the information it shares and via its finite, flawed structure.
Being both a useless, “dead” analog object when unplugged and, when plugged in, a “transmitter” of information in the form of advertising, storytelling, propaganda, and static, the television “set” is still more than just a piece of furniture. In Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce describes the analog television set as being once banal and strangely frightening. Sitting inert in the living room, taking up space as the point of focus, its glass window or eye always reminds us that ultimately, “we are always left with a material machine at the heart of [any] supernatural speculation, a device mechanically assembled, socially deployed and culturally received within a specific historical moment” (20). From its inception, the analog television was uncanny. In the late 1940s, a widely circulated news story featured a man who “killed” his television set with a shotgun because he was incensed by the contents of the broadcast and disturbed by [page 17] the idea that the broadcast transmission had the power to enter his physical space.
The television has never been a neutral object. In the prologue to his 2018 novel, There There,1 Native American writer Tommy Orange describes the Indian-head test pattern of early television in the context of an American history wherein evidence and symbols of atrocity cannot be separated from the objects of progress:
There was an Indian head, the head of an Indian, the drawing of the head of a headdressed, long-haired Indian ... broadcast until the late 1970s to American TVs everywhere after all the shows ran out. If you left the TV on, you’d hear a tone at 440 hertz—the tone used to tune instruments—and you’d see that Indian, surrounded by circles that looked like sights through riflescopes. There was what looked like a bull’s-eye in the middle of the screen, with numbers like coordinates. The Indian’s head was just above the bull’s-eye, like all you’d need to do was nod up in agreement to set the sights on the target. This was just a test. (Orange 1)
The very objectness of the earliest television employed imagery aligned with atrocity and racism. Created in 1939 by an artist named “Brooks,” and familiar to TV audiences in America from 1947 onwards, the Indian-head test pattern followed the late-night TV send-off when programs ended and were going off the air.2 Because stations no longer go “off the air,” the need for test patterns has all but disappeared, and the Indian-head test pattern exists as a ghost in a now-defunct machine, an artifact that has no practical use except as a piece of history-turned-to-art and an emblem of a violent history.
By its very “thingness,” the analog, in particular the television set or console, confronts us with “the paradox of visible, seemingly material worlds trapped in a box in the living room and yet conjured out of nothing more than electricity and air. Unnervingly immediate and decidedly [page 18] more tangible, the ‘electronic elsewhere’ generated by television was thus more palpable and yet every bit as phantasmic the occult empires of previous media” (Sconce 126). Well into the 1980s, television and the television set created a sense of strangeness not only through what it transmitted but through its very “objectness.” Even the viewing experience was not the same every time; at the whim of the weather or other electrical disturbance, the very picture seen on the screen could convey a haunting effect.
Among the strange effects that the analog television set presented to viewers, “television ghosts” could appear as a result of electronic disturbances brought on by weather or faulty wiring. These “ghosts” were actually “wispy doubles of the actual figures onscreen, [and] cast a spectral aura around their ‘real’ counterparts: ‘not so much as shadows, but as disembodied echoes seemingly from another plane or dimension’” (Sconce 124). These two layers are a manifestation of the dissonant gap between what is real and what is representational, that which haunts the original. These wispy doubles were eliminated as tuning became more readily available, but the ghostly “potential” of the television would persist.
The increasingly repressive, conservative state of 1980s America—a backlash against the progressive momentum toward equality and civil rights that had begun in the 1960s—haunts horror of the era in the form of the monsters of patriarchy—serial killers, slashers, and other killing machines–and the ghosts of buried ancestors in the form of desecrated Native American burial grounds, pollution, mutated animals, and disease. By the 1980s, repressed (“forgotten”) horrors began bursting out of televisions, telephones, and suburban swimming pools the way Edgar Allan Poe’s cadavers burst out of the walls, as if to remind Americans that the past lives inside the present—and horror can show us how to acknowledge and address the past, not cover it up or bury it.
At this time, television (and 24-hour access), computers, [page 19] video games, music, and movies were increasingly directed toward young people and provided the background for their experiences. Well before personal computers and cell phones, the television was described by everyone from parents to educators to psychologists as an object that desensitizes audiences. For those who were children in the waning era of the analog and young adults in the early days of digital, the television was babysitter, escape, and teacher. The overarching danger of the television was that it had the power to render its viewers passive consumers of dominant capitalist culture.
The passivity rendered by the television was examined by proto-rapper and visionary artist Gil Scott Heron, who, in the late 1960s and early 1970s wrote songs like “Whitey On the Moon” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The first song juxtaposes the realities of white astronauts achieving the 1969 moon landing and Black people struggling to survive in unlivable conditions. In 1971, Heron released “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” the opening lines of which—“You will not be able to stay at home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out,” a play on Timothy Leary’s LSD-driven imperative to “turn on, tune in, drop out”—launched a critique of the power of the television to desensitize, paralyze, and hypnotize audiences, and to stall out, even prevent, any possible change in the face of persistent, systemic racism and oppression.
As modern horror achieved greater renown in the 1970s and 1980s, films reflected a sense of vulnerability in an increasingly surveillance-dominated America, combined with the foreboding Cold War pathos that permeated the culture. Filmmakers like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, David Cronenberg, and Steven Spielberg created films that reflect anxiety over the ways that technology, under the power of unchecked capitalism, might take over our lives and, in some cases, our literal bodies. This anxiety is often represented in visceral ways, wherein a subject’s body might grotesquely “merge” with the technology itself, as in Cronenberg’s films [page 20] (i.e., Videodrome  and The Fly ); alternately, horror posited, the world might be taken over by the technology that humans created—as in James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984)—or supernatural forces might use our modern technology as their portals—as in Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982).
Perhaps the most iconic “analog television in horror” is that of Poltergeist. The Freeling family, Diane (JoBeth Williams) and Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and their three children, Dana, Robbie, and Carol Anne, are residents of a new housing development, Cuesta Verde, in California. The illusion of suburban safety and comfort that the family experiences early in the film ends when youngest child Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) disappears. From the first scene, the television is overwhelmingly present, as the film “opens with ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ set to extreme close-ups of flickering images from a TV program signing off for the night” (Butka), after which one would see “snow” and hear soft static in the absence of anything to “fill” the space. At one point, Diane tells Carol Anne to stop staring at the snow on the TV because she’ll “ruin [her] eyes,” and then turns the channel to a violent war movie. This slippage or disconnect between what the parent believes will “ruin” the child’s eyes and what may actually cause harm draws attention to how insidiously the television takes hold, how its content has the potential to control audiences’ minds.3
Poltergeist is, as a classic horror film, a simple ghost story, complete with a haunted house that becomes a terrible place. The ghosts do not originate inside the house. In Hooper’s film, the “source” of the poltergeist is underground—literally the foundation of the community, built on top of a cemetery (not an “Indian burial ground,” as many misremember it) from which only the gravestones were removed while the bodies were built over. Unfortunately for the Freelings, Steve “works for the developer and has thus inadvertently prospered from his company’s underhanded business practices” (Butka), and his family becomes vulnerable to supernatural forces.
The poltergeist enters through a television set inside the [page 21] “safest” space of a family home, the living room. The paranormal scientists called in by the Freelings note that the snow signifies a gap, a potential void, wherein, as explained by the one Black character among the scientists, “The absence of a signal on a channel that is not receiving a broadcast means that it is free to receive a lot of noise from all sorts of things. Like short waves, solar disturbances, car ignitions, outer or inner space.” The snow comes to represent a numbing “nothing”—a whiteness that erases or has the potential to erase and be the conduit for malevolent spirits, whether historical or personal. In Get Out, Poltergeist’s television snow finds its way to Chris Washington’s childhood television set, where he first encounters the Sunken Place to which he is returned under hypnosis in Missy Armitage’s giant, cotton-stuffed chair.
Peele’s use of the analog television set in his 2017 film gestures to his horror influences, and he explores the horrors that are particular to the placelessness offered by the ghostly television console in the Armitage family’s recreation room. In this space, an explanation for the family’s actions is provided by a character who directly benefits from the destruction of Black bodies and minds. The true horrors within the film are those done to Black people. The horror is being trapped out in the country, with no other Black people, and surrounded by white people who want to terrorize, mutilate, possess, and/or kill. The 2019 documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (based on Coleman’s book) acknowledges that Black history is Black horror. Get Out demonstrates the fear of confinement, entrapment, and murder that is part of that history (and what Black people have long sought to overcome). The Sunken Place (actualized by the muddy, gross swimming pool hole in the Freelings’ back yard as well as represented by their television) is encapsulated by the “fear that white people are trying to take our souls” (Horror Noire). It is no accident that the Sunken Place looks like a darkened movie theater: one can buy a ticket and yell at the screen, but one cannot change the [page 22] outcomes nor be seen.
In Get Out, and to a lesser degree, Us, the television set becomes a haunted, even supernatural thing—akin to Poltergeist but with the difference of what materializes on/in the screen—an object-transmitter and portal wherein thoughts, feelings, memories, projections, etc. can go in both directions. Through Chris Washington’s eyes on the television set, the Sunken Place takes a specific shape, one that is familiar in horror, where there is a legacy of ghosts (both supernatural and felt, real, historical) coming out of analog televisions, and that is rendered with immediacy, in its reflection of the real, lived experience of racism.
The fear and anticipation of violence are apparent from the start of Get Out, as Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a talented photographer, joins his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) on a weekend in the country to meet her parents. Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), are cringingly eager and aggressively liberal—“I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could!”—yet they have Black servants, who themselves act strangely—halted, docile, robotic, as if a part of them is missing or buried deep within and cannot break out.
On his first night at the Armitages’ home, Chris cannot sleep. He finds his way downstairs, where Missy is having a cup of tea. She offers, as a psychiatrist, to hypnotize him to help him quit smoking. Chris declines her offer but becomes an unwilling participant—rendered passive and shifting into a dissociative state, as someone experiencing trauma, or a post-traumatic flashback, would do. Missy asks him probing questions about his mother’s death and his memories of that day. Tears roll down his cheeks as he remembers how he was frozen—how he couldn’t help his mother. Missy continues to stir her tea, which makes a delicate, grating sound, and then says, “You can’t move. . . . You’re paralyzed. Just like that day when you did nothing. You did nothing. Now ... sink into the floor. Sink.” Chris slides down through the chair and into a dark void, suspended in nothingness and gazing up at a tiny [page 23] screen–like view of the outside world. Chris sinks way down, down, then down further, into blackness, with no bottom or top. Blackness becomes a void, all except for the small image of Keener’s face and that maddening teacup—inside the frame of an analog TV set. Missy’s muffled, disembodied voice says, “Now you’re in the Sunken Place.”
At the moment Chris falls into the Sunken Place, he appears to be floating in emptiness, an outer space that is perceived only in contrast to the tiny screen/window of the television. The 1980s television set is a signifier of Chris’s flashbacks to his childhood and the day his mother died in a car accident. At the time of his mother’s death, Chris is watching television—his eyes are “glued to the set.” His eyes literally become windows to what is going on in the outer as well as inner world.
Chris’s wide-open gaze is the terrorized stare of a person whose psyche has been overloaded with information; his paralysis is directly linked to what he sees/perceives. This state of being—overloaded with memories, impressions, premonitions, shock—is one to which many Black people are all too accustomed. The horror of Get Out is the covert, and later overt, coordinated plan of the Armitage family. They have a long history of creating “inwardly whitened black people—black people cut off from their history and their self-consciousness and, therefore, deprived of the power to rebel and to free themselves” (Brody). The powerlessness that Chris felt at the time his mother died is what Peele represents in the Sunken Place. The horror of it is that it not a “place” at all. It is a state of being that is imposed. Chris’s falling, sinking, being able to see through the small television lens but not move, not run, not scream—is both a representation of his personal trauma and a representation of what hundreds of years of racism have caused. The origin of Chris’s trauma can only be seen via the television set that the viewer watches him watching. What is most unsettling is the means by which they are granted access to Chris’s memory. Missy’s invasive hypnosis unearths the guilt that Chris feels over [page 24] being powerless to stop his mother’s death—that instead, he had been watching television at the time.
The shot of Chris as a boy in front of the television evokes the many images from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining which show the boy Danny Torrance in front of a television, watching cartoons or in a trance. Earlier in the film, his father, Jack, observes sardonically, “It’s okay—he [learned all about cannibalism] on the television.” Chris staring into the camera with terrorized eyes also evokes the gaze of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) lying frozen in bed in Florida as he receives an emergency psychic message from Danny. Like young Chris, Hallorann is in front of an analog television set, and the two frozen gazes are eerily similar—Hallorann is “shining” up and out into space, into something unspeakable and unformed that, thanks to Peele, we might reframe as the Sunken Place. The “shining” is a gift passed on to Hallorann from his grandmother (hearkening to the “magical negro” trope, discussed at length in Coleman’s text and satirized in Peele’s sketch comedy show, Key and Peele) and is used by the white Danny as a way urgently communicate with the elderly Hallorann, who flies from Miami to Colorado, rents a car and then a Sno-Cat in a snowstorm, to only be murdered by Jack when he arrives.4
One of the most influential horror films of the past fifty years, The Shining (based on the 1977 novel by Stephen King) demonstrates how “[h]aunting can be seen as intrinsically resistant to the contraction and homogenization of time and space. It happens when a place is stained by time, or when a particular place becomes the site for an encounter with broken time” (Fisher 19). As a symbol of America itself, Kubrick’s version of the Overlook Hotel “looks back to the repressed specters of American history: organized crime and the extermination of native Americans” (20). However, The Shining famously (or infamously) presents/perpetuates the “magical negro” character in Hallorann, whose sole role is risk life and limb to save the white child at the center of the story, only to be immediately and pointlessly murdered. [page 25]
With Get Out, Jordan Peele goes beyond what Kubrick could accomplish by telling the story of a powerful and destructive white patriarch(y) from a Black individual’s point of view. From this point of view, the audience sees what is unspeakable, what is unresolved, what is broken about the stories that America tells itself about the legacy of slavery and the treatment of Black bodies. Film critic David Sims points out that “[a]t its most basic level, the Sunken Place represents Missy’s total control over Chris” and adds that “[t]he idea of the Sunken Place immediately defined Get Out and transcended it” before quoting Peele’s Tweet that “described the concept’s relevance to the African American experience today” (Sims): “The Sunken Place means we’re marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us” (@JordanPeele).
I would argue that the Sunken Place is not just about Missy’s control over Chris. Together, the teacup and spoon create “the dainty sound made by objects and gestures of genteel dignity and refined luxury” that also hearken to whiteness and privilege (Brody). Films like Poltergeist criticized displays of wealth and privilege by emphasizing the costs of that privilege in the form of ghost-induced violence, but Get Out’s teacup, cotton-stuffed chair, and tiny analog screen are objects that signify an American horror, a history that “had long been built on colonial fantasies of Black servitude in which Whites were simply, heroically negotiating their White man’s burden, dragging Blacks along into civilization”(Coleman 186), the horror of the Sunken Place.
The Analog Eye
From the very beginning of Get Out, Chris is introduced as an accomplished and renowned photographer. His talent is the reason why the Armitages have targeted him. Further, Chris’s talent depends on his eyes, his vision, his mind—and the Armitages want his artist eye, as well as his literal eyes. More specifically, the blind art dealer Jim Hudson (Stephen [page 26] Root) says it best: “I want those things you see through” [my emphasis]. However, it is not merely Chris’s “good artist’s eye” that this old white man covets; it is Chris’s literal eyeballs, his body, and, if one believes that the eyes are the windows to the soul, Chris’s very being.
Another of Peele’s horror influences was The Stepford Wives, a social satire/horror film based on the novel by Ira Levin and directed by Bryan Forbes that was released in the midst of the second-wave, white-dominated feminist movement. In the film, photographer Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) moves from New York City to Stepford, Connecticut, with her family.5 When she expresses reluctance to leave her art community, her husband convinces her that “the country” will be a better place to raise their daughters (an argument often used as justification for “white flight” to the suburbs). Joanna’s talent—her eye—as a photographer is dismissed, because she’s a woman—and even she struggles to take it seriously.
A focus on eyes is a key trope of horror films, from the unhinged, focused “Kubrick stare” (Alex in A Clockwork Orange  or Jack in The Shining, for example) to the hypnotic gaze of the vampire initiated by Bela Lugosi to the uncanny undead eyes opening in zombies or creepy dolls. Eyes are emphasized in predators and victims, in the perverse as well as in those trying to survive. In The Stepford Wives, when Joanna’s husband Walter (Peter Masterson) hosts the Men’s Society at their house, one of the men, “Diz” (Patrick O’Neal) sketches Joanna for the purpose of creating the robot that she will literally become.6 There is a close-up of the detailed eye that Diz is drawing—Joanna’s eye.
Forbes’s film offers insight into the presence and use of analog technology (the camera) through its focus on eyes and lenses. Early in The Stepford Wives, Joanna meets Bobby (Paula Prentiss), another woman who, like her, is uneasy about how the women in Stepford are behaving. The women try to talk with the other wives and Joanna takes photos, her camera in this context functioning as another eye bearing [page 27] witness to the experience of the women investigating the problem.
In Get Out, as Chris and Rose travel to and arrive at the Armitage estate, we see the spaces—the white world, its strangeness, its menace—through Chris’s eyes. On the drive, Rose, who is driving, hits a deer. While Rose stays with the car, Chris follows the sound of the wounded and dying deer into the woods. The audience has already become connected to Chris and his point of view; we are compelled to see the world as he sees it. Chris is drawn to the deer, and as the creature breathes its last breath, Chris looks into its dark eyes and his own eyes are reflected back. When they arrive at the Armitages’, even before he exits the car, Chris “looks out the window and sees Walter, the black groundskeeper, at work; he sees Georgina, the black housemaid, serving the family at an outdoor table, and sees her, later on, through the lens of his camera. At the garden party, the Armitages’ friends are introduced from Chris’s point of view” (Brody). When the film’s punchline is revealed—that the “garden party” is actually an auction, the viewer begins to understand the nature of the interest that the partygoers have in Chris, not only in his talent as a photographer, but in his body.
At one point during the party, Chris is relieved when he sees Logan (LaKeith Stanfield), a young Black man who, while oddly dressed, is a welcome sight—someone to connect with in this weird place. When the flash in Chris’s camera ignites, Logan’s forced, agonized grin changes to terror. He seems to malfunction, right before he reaches for Chris and yells, “Get out!” What at first seems like an act of aggression Chris soon understands as a plea—an attempt to save him, as well as a cry for help. The camera flash functions as illumination of the truth; later in the film when Chris deliberately “flashes” the character Walter, he is able to save himself from being killed, even though Walter kills himself—a moment in which the horrific consequences of the Sunken Place come into full expression.
As pervasive and central as eyes are in horror—as horror, [page 28] itself a “body genre,” is generated most vividly by our most immediate senses—the television screen introduces an element of complication. The screen meditates and enables the horror that is attributed to the body and what audiences feel in their bodies. We may cry, yell at the screen, laugh, feel sick to our stomachs. We may say things like “that scared the shit out of me!” (Peucker 666). The world behind the television screen can be perceived as a “place”—somewhere beyond the reaches of present reality, present space and time. The feeling of wanting to jump into the screen and enter the world of the characters of a story, or the sense of revulsion, the way a viewer might shield their eyes as they anticipate something horrifying or disgusting, all allude to the imaginary possibility of a kind of “elsewhere” that remains forever out of reach, visible from only one vantage point. Chris’s experience of gazing into the eyes of the dying deer, a living being—human or nonhuman—is the antithesis of the desensitization that happens when one stares into the screen of a television set. Where the one-way connection, the television watcher’s trance, disempowers, the visual connection has the potential to empower, or re-empower.
Both Get Out and The Stepford Wives involve an “elsewhere” (a state of no-being) and a terrible place, wherein the protagonist is displaced, dis-oriented from the safe city to the dangerous country. In both films, the audience immediately connects with the main character’s profound sense of alienation, despite what everyone around them thinks is a perfect community. Further, there is the strange behavior of the few whom the main character hopes would be allies; there is even a party scene in both films when one of the “robots” visibly “malfunctions” (Keetley). The lawn scenes in The Stepford Wives, in which the robotic “wives” are on full display, hidden in plain sight, mirror the landscape of Get Out, in the lawn party that we come to learn is actually an auction for Black bodies.
Chris’s camera reveals truth and insight—especially when the flash goes off—but what ultimately saves him is [page 29] digital technology. His cell phone connects him to his best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who can locate and rescue him. The presence of the cell phone as, at times, a literal lifeline for Chris, hearkens to the way that increasingly in the twenty-first century, digital cameras have been used to expose racism and police brutality. Joanna’s existence—far from digital, her move permanent, not a visit—is limited by her isolation. Even after she visits a therapist and decides to take her daughters and leave Stepford, there is something hopeless and doomed about her predicament. Her husband is becoming more ensconced in the mysterious “Men’s Society,” the members of which are replacing their real wives with fantasy versions of them, and Joanna’s fate becomes more apparent as she is progressively entrapped within each scene. She is increasingly “hemmed in by walls, doors, staircases that cast shadowy bars over her, and, as she faces her death, a maze-like trap of narrow hallways” (Helford 151). The film literally darkens as the spaces become smaller, culminating in the final sequence, wherein the “original” Joanna, after running around an increasingly claustrophobic dark mansion on a stormy night, walks in on the “new” version of herself, which is sitting at a mirror in a flowery nightgown, with much larger breasts and erect nipples visible under the negligee—a stereotypical male fantasy of what a woman should be. We understand now that these breasts no longer belong to Joanna; they belong to her husband. The robot version also has two black pools (sunken places) where the eyes should be.
We do not witness Joanna’s murder, but it is apparent that the doll has been created to kill and replace her. The true horror comes when we see the comprehension in Joanna’s eyes right before she is erased. In this uncanny moment, it is in her seeing the change in breasts that is most chilling—as least, as much so as the lack of eyes. It is a revision that leaves a residue of cosmetic worth behind in bodily appropriation and possession. The breasts, juxtaposed with the missing eyes in Joanna’s double, indicate her now-lost humanity (Keetley). Joanna’s confrontation with her robot [page 30] double cuts to the epilogue: in the supermarket, the “wives,” all of them dressed like Barbie dolls at a cotillion, whisper in sexually charged tones about the best brand of floor wax. Then, a reverse tracking shot reveals the “first Black couple in Stepford,” arguing in the aisle (Helford 147).
A key difference between the films is that The Stepford Wives was created entirely by white men (as was its source text); it is not a story told from a woman’s point of view as Get Out is told from that of a Black man. In Get Out, Chris escapes the Armitages, aided by his best friend. By the end of The Stepford Wives, Joanna has no friends left to save her.
Indeed, the endings of modern horror films do not always bode well for the hero (a classic case is Ben [Duane L. Jones], the charismatic protagonist of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead ). Peele depicts Chris’s escape as violent, swift, and, perhaps unexpectedly, triumphant. At the beginning of the film, a Black man—later revealed to be Logan—is walking on a dark suburban street and is suddenly pulled into a passing car (later revealed to belong to the Armitages). With that opening scene (and the history of horror cinema and the treatment of young Black men in America) in mind, there is no sense of certainty that he will escape. When what looks like a police car approaches Chris, standing over Rose’s wounded body, the audience immediately fears for him (the police lights are a signifier of horror, not rescue, foreshadowed at the beginning of the movie when Chris is asked for identification even though Rose was driving when they hit the deer). And this is exactly why whole theaters burst into applause when Rod, Chris’s best friend, shows up in his TSA vehicle: what we are seeing on screen is not the story we see too often on television, computer, and cell phone screens.
To return briefly to Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”: in a 1991 interview, Heron said of the song, “The first change that takes place is in your mind. You [page 31] have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move. So when we said that the revolution will not be televised, we’re saying that the thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film” (qtd. in Rockett). Clearly, the events that have unfolded in the years since Heron’s statement have proven that the revolution can and does happen on and with the screen. Cell phones in particular have long usurped the power of the television—a device that compels one to sit still, to be a passive observer, or consumer. For Black people, the cell phone can be a lifeline. It can be a way to reach a friend, to chronicle, to bear witness to police brutality, hate crimes, and to record and commemorate transformative protest marches, and broadcast the truth and urgency of Black Lives Matter.
By dwelling on death, monstrosity, and ruin, horror stories draw out fear, anxiety, worry at the end of the world, in the face of very real horrors and atrocities. Jordan Peele shows us that, ultimately, horror movies do not really care about the future. They care about how we manage our relationship to the past. The analog cannot mask its relation to the past; it cannot mask its brokenness, or its obsolescence. Before Chris makes his escape from the giant, cotton-stuffed chair in the Armitages’ recreation room, he watches, on an analog console with a small screen, a documentary about the family’s long-standing racism and murder experiment; the documentary, a videotape, is faded and wobbly, set against electronic music of the type that was common in “futuristic” programs from the 1970s and 80s.
The old, heavy console and outdated recreation room are underscored by the old, heavy ugliness of racism. The quasi-utopian language of the Armitage “video” is compensating for the lack of a future for white supremacy. What the clunky, stationary analog conceals, the digital reveals, through its mobile cell phones, digital cameras, and instant communication. Peele never allows the viewer to stop thinking about the significance of vision, eyes, sight—as [page 32] linked to technology, as linked to the sense of sight which allows us to bear witness, as a means for expressing artistic freedom. This is significant, for it reflects Jordan Peele’s experience as a filmmaker, and Chris Washington’s freedom to express himself as an artist—which also shows that their work reflects the power to not just survive, but the power to claim the fullness of being human.
1. The title of Orange’s novel is taken from modernist writer Gertrude Stein’s 1937 text, Everybody’s Autobiography, in which she shares how she felt upon returning to her childhood home in Oakland, California, after years of living in Paris. Her sense of place was that “There’s no there there.” In addition to being a literal remark upon the absence of her childhood home, the phrase has come to be a description of any thing, person, or place that has no clearly visible or defined identity—no central characteristic. In other words, there is a kind of void where identity would be. The strangeness of this phrase also evokes the sense of eeriness around the first television sets, and their potential power, or lack of it.
2. The Indian-head portrait in the form of a card was televised in the laboratory as the entire test pattern, which allowed tuning of brightness and contrast settings. It was situated within the tube of the television itself and was later incorporated into the pattern of calibrated lines and shapes. During its final years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the pattern was shown before sign-on in the morning, after the showing of the SMPTE color bars.
3. Under this logic, it is still considered obscene to show a woman’s breast on the television that regularly shows beheadings, stabbings, rapes, and countless gun-related murders, both as news and as entertainment.
4. Hallorann’s constant agreeability and willingness to help the Torrances seems to live on in Walter and Georgina, [page 33] the Black servants to the Armitages whose bodies have been taken over by Dean’s parents.
5. In the 1970s, New York City was experiencing rampant pollution (and a garbage strike), an energy crisis, and deteriorating housing. The paradox, however, was that the city could also be a haven for people who were oppressed in small-town America and looking to break into the art or literary worlds.
6. When asked how we got his name, Diz tells Joanna that he used to work at Disneyland, creating automatons like those in the Hall of Presidents. Joanna responds, “You don’t seem to be the kind of person that likes to make other people happy.”
Brody, Richard. “‘Get Out’: Jordan Peele’s Radical Cinematic Vision of the World through a Black Man’s Eyes.” The New Yorker, 2 Mar. 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/get-out-jordan-peeles-radical-cinematic-vision-of-the-world-through-black-eyes.
Coleman, Robin R. Means. Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to the Present. Routledge, 2011.
Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Zero Books, 2014.
Get Out. Directed by Jordan Peele, Universal, 2017.
Harper, Adam. “Hauntology: The Past Inside the Present.” Rouge’s Foam: Excessive Aesthetics, 27 Oct. 2009, rougesfoam.blogspot.com/2009/10/.
Helford, Elyce Rae. “The Stepford Wives and the Gaze: Envisioning Feminism in 1975.” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 2006, pp. 145-156.
Heron, Gil Scott. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Pieces of a Man, RCA, 1971.
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. Directed by Xavier Burgin, Stage 3 Productions, 2019. Shudder.
@JordanPeele. “The Sunken Place means we’re marginalized [...].” Twitter, 17 Mar. 2017, 12:12 a.m., twitter.com/JordanPeele/status/842589407521595393?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw.
Keetley, Dawn. “Jordan Peele’s Get Out and The Stepford Wives.” Horror Homeroom, 25 Feb. 2017, www.horrorhomeroom.com/jordan-peeles-get-out-stepford-wives/. [page 34]
Orange, Tommy. There There: A Novel. Knopf, 2018.
Peucker, Brigitte. “Kubrick and Kafka: The Corporeal Uncanny.” Modernism/modernity, vol. 8, no. 4, 2001, pp. 663-674.
Poltergeist. Directed by Tobe Hooper, MGM, 1982.
Rockett, Caitlin. “Heavy Rotation: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Boulder Weekly, 4 Jun. 2020, www.boulderweekly.com/entertainment/music/heavy-rotation-the-revolution-will-not-be-televised/.
Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Duke UP, 2000.
The Shining. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Warner Bros., 1980.
Sims, David. “What Made That Hypnosis Scene in Get Out So Terrifying.” The Atlantic, 5 Dec. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/12/get-out-hypnosis-scene-sunken-place/547409/.
Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. Directed by Jan Harlan, Warner Bros., 2001.
The Stepford Wives. Directed by Bryan Forbes, Palomar Pictures, 1975.
Amy Nolan’s essays on mental health, ecology and place, horror studies, and feminist criticism appear in multiple publications, including Cultural Critique, Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Bellevue Literary Review, Parts Unbound: Narratives of Mental Illness and Health (2015), and Critical Innovations: Reading and Writing Experimental Texts (2017). Her memoir excerpt, The Whirlpool, was named winner of the 2013 Nonfiction Prize in Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, and her essay “My Mother’s Hips” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She currently teaches creative writing, film history, and the graphic novel at Wartburg College in Iowa.
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