Horror, Goth and Black Bodies: Escape from Reality or Reflection of the Truth?

Popular media’s image of black men has had a significantly strong impact on our society. It poses a danger to these men, who are often shown as angry, aggressive, uncontrollable and consequently perceived as such. Jordan Peele’s Get Out challenges this. His use of aesthetics of unease and foreboding sound are elements deeply rooted in the goth subculture. Joshua Gunn’s text “Dark Admissions”1 could help to better explore the topic of gothic horror film Get Out as a new form of expression for black men. When does horror fiction and music subculture cross the line of the representation of black body terror from imaginary to fact?

Entrapment

“Gothic style is consciously flamboyant and playful; it is a mindful, performative gesture in which liberation is thought to be achieved through a display of ironic indifference.”, says Gunn. Peele plays with this same irony. Similarly to how goth transcends certain social entrapments through self-awareness and over-dramatic expression, Get Out is rife with humour and satire. The opening scene, one of the most chilling moments of the film, can be seen as a template for the black male experience in America. The suburban location is presented as a caricature, made for mockery from the audience. However, watching a black man walk in its empty streets provokes fear of the unexpected, both completing and countering the joke. Chris’ relationship with Rose is also an exaggeration. Acting as his girlfriend, the subtle hints she drops foretelling her betrayal are in the form of parody. She symbolizes the quaint white woman subjected to the devotion of her strong black man. Rose is controlling: she grabs Chris’ phone to speak with Rod, throws his cigarette out the window and abuses of her privilege by telling off a police officer (an act that Chris had performed it would have endangered his life).

Aesthetics in Sound and Setting

Goth being a performance, Get Out shares its theatrics as a vehicle for morbid commentary. Feelings of guilt, repression and powerlessness in settings contribute to what makes Get Out gothic horror fiction. However, in terms of subculture rather than genre, goths use music as a means of making sense of life’s biggest complexity: death. When Gunn interviewed a series of individuals on their descriptions of gothic rock he found that “dark” was nearly always used as a descriptor. He states “‘dark’ is inclusive of an experience of social alienation caused by one’s intellectual, artistic, or sexual traits in a mainstream context”.

Goths in Kenya. Image from Think Africa Press

What makes Peele’s film so frightening is that it does not fully retreat from the real. The events Chris endures feel like a fever dream where the daily concerns of black American men implanted themselves in overpowering form. The Armitage’s house in not too distant from that of a plantation: the black “servants”, an all-white family in a large estate, the ever-present theme of isolation. It seems as though our hero has fallen on haunted grounds and is locked in with no means of escape. Death as a lurking presence equally looms over the character, specifically in the form of a dear. The murdered animal makes an appearance three times in the film. They accidentally run over one – this works as a premonition – then Dean, the father, gives a rather dramatic speech on his deep hatred for deer; finally, in the last act, Chris is locked in the basement only to find that he is within the company of a deer head mounted on the wall.

“When used to describe gothic music, dark is deliberately ambiguous because it functions enthymematically, or in a way that allows each individual fan to assign meaning to dark that reflect his or her individual experiences and needs.” Black goth men may assign meaning to “dark” in a way goths of other ethnicities would not. Chris is subjected to horrors interpreting the real in surreal fashion. However, the film does not fully delve into the fictional. The abduction and literal appropriation of black bodies is played as fact, and quite nearly interpreted as such by the audience. Thus, the definition of “dark” takes on a new turn where obscurity is the only option available. The claiming and translation of this descriptor by black goth men is presented as an alternative among but few possibilities. Using this darkness to channel such feelings Get Out’s setting provokes is one of the ways black men may cope with reality.

Petrification of the Being in the Sunken Place

Get Out’s crowning jewel is in the main character’s believability. Chris is three dimensional and functions as more than a representative of his race and gender, unlike Rose and her extended family (her immediate family, Dean, Jeremy and Missy are distinguishable in their own way, Rose becoming a parody of “the white girlfriend”). Goth can be seen as a liberation from the sunken place. His wide range of emotions in the face of terror are chilling; in being aware of his vulnerability, the possibility of the suppression of his Self and annihilation of his free will are all the more possible. He is not a “beast”, as Jeremy puts it in the dinner sequence, nor is he a brute. Chris is a man like any other who experiences defeat, sadness, anger and joy.

An example of emotional range when Chris finds himself in the Armitage’s basement

Embracing Horror

One of the socially impactful aspects of the goth subculture is that it desensitizes the voyeur in terms of alternative representations of masculinity. Concealed behind its performance in dress and irony, black men have the possibility of acute self-awareness. They no longer wear “the Veil”, to borrow W. E. B. Du Bois’ term2, but instead explore, much like Chris, expression in the face of darkness.

Following this, the true horrors of Get Out are to be embraced. Only seldom does one find a black male character in American media that not only appears so three-dimensional but is also put into a setting where his fears are materialized in (arguably semi) supernatural form. Within this blurring of the lines between the real and surreal, certain ghost-like elements seem palpable only to the African American audience, as the film implies legacies of lynching and slavery particular to the United States. Using Joshua Gunn’s text on goth and gender as a starting point, it may be possible to understand the effect Get Out has on self-expression within a racially aggressive society and to extract from that alternative modes of being black men may resort to.

What are your thoughts?


  1. for “Goth: Undead Subculture” edited by Lauren M. E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby; 2007
  2. “The Souls of Black Folk”, by W. E. B. Du Bois; 1903
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