Director/writer Jordan Peele calls his film Get Out a “social thriller,” and if you’re like me, your newsfeed has been saturated with tasteful Vaguebooking about the film. But Get Out can be described, with equal accuracy and without spoilers, as a “contemporary apocalypse.” Apocalypse has become Hollywood shorthand for the highest possible stakes of an action sequence–any film that uses the destruction of all human life as a plot device. But in the traditional sense, apocalypse represents an entirely different genre of literature.
Classical apocalypse has less to do with annihilation than regime change. The Greek word apokalypsis means revelation, or uncovering. it’s a genre of literature–much like horror.
Get Out is a social thriller in the sense that it uses social evil (racism) to heighten an otherwise traditional horror film. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend 15 minutes with my hands over my eyes (but I only see four movies a year and have a low tolerance for visual violence so don’t listen to my definition of scary). A black man accompanies his white girlfriend’s family in the suburbs (a terrifying enough premise on its own), and everything you know (and don’t know) about horror film ensues. I’m not a fan of spoilers, though, so what follows is fairly obtuse on plot details.
Get Out is apocalyptic the same way that Revelation–and other books of the Bible–are social thrillers. The plot hinges on a systemic oppression, laden with specific and symbolic details, reaching a low point and with the hope that a protagonist can interrupt the systemic oppression, regardless of personal cost or total efficacy.
In a sense, apocalypse is a Quentin Tarantino-esque fantasy about future or past envision the triumph of the oppressed over the oppressor, resulting in the total collapse of the oppressor’s social structure. This is where our contemporary view of apocalypse comes from: the collapse of the oppressor’s social structure and all the fear that comes with losing the social order.
The function of the apocalypse genre was to offer “the oppressed and persecuted comfort by providing an interpretation of history.” Get Out interprets the present (and the baggage of history in the present) as something overcome in the fantastical/real present/future.
The original apocalypse–as far as the Bible goes–does not begin with Revelation, but the late-Old-Testament book of Daniel. Some characteristics of apocalyptic literature are:
- a story written by an oppressed community to envision roads out of oppression
- (often) violent action to overthrow ruling powers
- a divine messenger (ie., angel)
- heavy symbolism
- dreams/visions as a plot device
- surreal and fantastic description
- punishment of wrongdoing
- a bleak vision of the present, but somewhat optimistic vision of the future that often requires the destruction of present systems of authority
Get Out contains many of the traditional apocalypse elements: heavy symbolism; the use of visions (hypnosis) to gain a new view of reality; destruction of the oppressor’s social order; mingling of the surreal with the realistic; a bleak view of the present that ultimately draws new conclusions about what is possible (which says absolutely nothing about the ending of the film).
Get Out is a horror-fantasy, which is a pretty good description of Revelation, too. Throughout the film, innocuous and traditionally horrifying objects take on new and deeper symbolism. Where Revelation uses numbers, beasts, angels to symbolize struggles, Get Out uses tea cups, hypnosis, antlers to symbolize oppression and the ways to overcome it. Even the woods–symbolic for both horror genre and African-American experience–becomes a heightened symbol of fear, pursuit, and ultimately a thing that can be re-purposed in order to liberate the oppressed. The plot uses magical realism not as kitschy deus-ex-machina, but as real summaries of the lived experience of the oppression.
Some of the most exciting symbolism in Get Out is the use of the TSA as liberative force. (Okay, by exciting, I mean extra nerdy.) The TSA gets short shrift among film-representations-of-law-enforcement. Police? Yup. Police deceives? Frequently, and often with psychic powers. FBI? Always. CIA? Often. Sheriff? ICE? All of these professions are more popular in film than the lowly TSA agents.
Add to that the fact that TSA agents are often people of color and one of the lowest-paid federal employees, and Peele’s depiction of TSA agents is downright redemptive–and revolutionary. If you haven’t seen the film yet, watch for the TSA-redemption-themes.
When we talk about oppressed groups in the modern world, we rarely talk about how stories influence visions of liberation. But they do. And a horror movie is really just a story.
Large chunks of the late Old Testament (Daniel, parts of Ezekiel, apocryphal literature) follow apocalyptic conventions, but the New Testament also has its fair share of apocalyptic influence. As I prepared for my sermon this week, I stumbled over the apocalyptic parts of Matthew and wondered how to weave them with the more reassuring, less surreal parts of the scripture. Scenes from Get Out kept drifting through my head, as I thought of “curing the sick,” “going to the lost house of Israel,” “if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you” and “shake off the dust from your feet.”
Apocalypse is a genre for analyzing oppression and re-imagining liberation. Oppression is present today, as it was in the New Testament. And then, as now, apocalypse will see us through it–disruptively, sometimes grotesquely, but always hopefully.