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Building and Maintaining Psychological Horror

(SPOILERS: Get Out – of course!) In the spirit of Halloween, I’m going to do several posts analyzing some of the writing techniques that made the horror movie Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) so successful earlier this year. How successful? It made more than $175 million on a budget of less than $5 million… and that’s just the domestic box office! It also scored a stunning 99% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps more significantly, it became part of the cultural conversation due to its integration of themes of race in America. One thing that I found interesting about Get Out was that for most of the movie, the main character, Chris, was only vaguely aware of the danger he was in. He sensed that creepy thins were happening, but mostly chalked it up to being a Black man entering a very white world. (This added thematic depth to the movie, something I will discuss in a future post.) The audience experienced the story primarily from Chris’s point of view and was thus also kept in the dark about what was truly going on until well past the halfway mark.

Yet this was a horror movie. The desire to save twists for later in the film posed a challenge for Peele: how to provide the kind of scares that the audience was expecting while believably maintaining the façade for the character that this was simply a visit to his girlfriend’s parents? One of the first techniques the script employed was using a prologue to set the tone. We see a scene of a young Black man walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Soon a car starts to follow him. He tries to avoid the car, but ultimately he is jumped and abducted. This abduction connects to events later in the film, but from a plot standpoint, we don’t really need to see it. However, without this scene, the movie would seem more like a character drama for a good thirty minutes. Using a prologue establishes for the audience that this is a scary movie, and that colors how we read later unsettling events. There are a few jump scares scattered throughout the movie to keep us on edge – some admittedly a bit cheap. One good one, though, comes about ten minutes in, when Chris and Rose are driving to her parents’ place and a deer jumps in front of the car. This event leads to an encounter with a cop that sets up the danger to Chris in this community. By associating the scare with a relevant story point, it feels integral to the film, as opposed to a cheesy gimmick. Other moments are designed to make us feel that something sinister is going on at the house. For example, the groundskeeper running at Chris in the middle of the night, and the fact that Georgina, the maid, keeps unplugging his phone while it’s charging and starts crying inexplicably when apologizing to him about it. This sense that there is a secret conspiracy in the house is expanded in the scene when the party goes silent after Chris walks upstairs, and the scene of the strange auction. The two creepiest moments in acts one and two come at major structural points: At the end of act one, Missy hypnotizes Chris against his will, sending him plummeting into the floor. When he wakes up, he can’t really remember this clearly – allowing the writer to have his cake and eat it too. The audience knows what Missy has done, but understands why Chris doesn’t take action. This serves the purpose of act one by locking Chris into the story – we know he can no longer leave without dealing with whatever’s been done to him. The next big structural point is the Midpoint, and this comes when Chris tries to take a picture of the young Black man at the party. The flash does something to the man, and he tells Chris to “Get out!” Now things start moving a little more quickly. Chris decides he wants to leave the house, though that will not prove as easy as he expects. The threat finally comes into the open when he discovers the pictures of Rose with a parade of other Black men, revealing she is in on the secret plot. The danger becomes even more explicit as we move to the Act Two Turning Point – when Chris wakes up tied to the chair and a video reveals what’s in store for him. From there, things unfold more like most horror movies. It is important to deliver on the genre promises of your stories. And it’s important that you deliver on the genre throughout the film. Peele wanted to save the real suspense and action for act three, so he had to find ways to create and build tension as he was building to that point. He walked a careful balance between keeping the psychological horror present without giving away the twists. It’s important that most of the creepy, inexplicable moments scattered through the first two thirds of Get Out end up paying off in Act Three. They aren’t just random scares created for tone; they grow out of the story. This kind of planting and payoff is one of the strengths of the script. I’ll delve into that topic in part two of my analysis.

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