What does the glowing success of Get Out—a horror film with racism at its center—say about our cultural moment? If popular entertainment serves as a kind of barometer for national anxieties, this is a highly revealing film, one that may someday hold as much interest for sociologists and historians as it does for critics.
For many Christians, the word “horror” sets off alarm bells. Isn’t this an especially deviant and heartless genre that does little more than celebrate mayhem and bloodshed? Why would Christians venture anywhere near this morbid territory?
Consider, however, that though the close kinship between the two is frequently overlooked, Christians should be the first to recognize that both horror and comedy are uniquely adept at addressing serious moral issues. One of the reasons for this is that certain subjects are so polarizing, so politically charged, and so volatile that they can only be effectively addressed by a mode of storytelling that releases their inherent tensions by detonating them in a moment of heated catharsis, like a laugh or a scream.
Indeed, laughter and screaming are frequently indistinguishable in black comedy and satire, comic sensibilities that are very familiar to horror fans. Think of the moral force of Jonathan Swift’s icy satire, “A Modest Proposal,” which famously recommended that poor Irish families supplement their meager incomes by selling their children as a particularly exotic form of cuisine to the nation’s wealthiest citizens. Though it may seem like a long way from Swift to a contemporary horror film, I’d argue that few stories address the subject of racism with the force and moral urgency of Get Out.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, all cultural artifacts are monuments to a specific time and place. Get Out arrives on the scene at a particularly tense juncture in US history, especially where the issue of race is concerned. For many of us, freshly legitimized provincialism and increasing nativism represent a stark reversal of much of the progress that has been made in the area of racial reconciliation. Specifically, the anxieties plaguing minority groups about citizenship, job opportunities, basic income, and even physical safety are escalating—and there is currently little indication that their concerns are being taken seriously. Consequently, the national mood is rife with fear and anger.
The volatile nature of our public discourse is mirrored on a more intimate level in our daily conversations and online exchanges. But painful conversations are often necessary conversations, and many of us will recognize the fact that our cultural moment, for all its toxic fear and anger, is at least forcing us to talk about issues that can no longer be ignored. At the risk of provoking more fear and anger, Get Out adds its voice to this troubling but needed conversation. In this sense, we can be grateful for the fact that it is very much a film of its time.
Get Out is the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, a man most of us know as one half of the sketch comedy duo Key & Peele. Though Peele’s affection for the horror genre may startle fans of his sketch comedy work, this movie is such an assured first effort that it will go a long way in cementing his reputation as a serious filmmaker.
A marvel of tightly controlled pacing, off-kilter visuals, and rich atmosphere, Peele’s film owes a good deal of its exquisite shocks to the claustrophobic terrors of Rosemary’s Baby and the manicured dread of Bryan Forbes’s The Stepford Wives. Peele is also mining territory that will be familiar to fans of David Lynch. Not since Blue Velvet have the idyllic scenes of the suburbs—the stately homes, the sprawling lawns, the immaculate gardens—looked so ominous and latent with menace. Here is another film that makes a convincing case for the fact that our so-called “safe places” aren’t so safe after all.