A Thousand Points of Fright: Don’t Worry, We’re In This Together

Well! It’s a brand-new column, reader! First entry.

Ground floor.

Welcome to the team. We’re gonna go far, you and I. And I can tell—I’ve got a good eye for these things. We’ll get together like this once a month. I’ll get the blinds, you switch off the lights. Let’s fire up a flashlight and talk about horror. Just the two of us. What works for us, and what doesn’t work. The good, the bad, and the gory.

Sounds fun, right?

And if something creaks in the shadows, we’ll ride the tilt-a-whirl adrenaline wave and laugh. Because we’re in this together. You and me.

And remember: Good horror, the nerve-tingling, peek-around-the-shower-curtain-later, top-tiered stuff is fueled by dread. I’ve got a whole article on that elsewhere on Geekade wherein I explain this in full (check it out here, I’ll wait). The short of it is that dread is the cloying, deep-seated fear the best, most-haunting horror moments are born from. Sure, jump scares can be fun, but the effect never lasts, does it? The adrenaline cools, the mind quickly refocuses, and all is right again. Jump scares are Jell-O shots. Dread is a fine whiskey. Know which one is a bit of fun and which is a deep experience worth savoring.

Dread works on us long after the credits roll. It knocks around our psyches, kicking up questions about what’s real, about who we are. Who we’re around. Who and what we can ever really know for sure.

Dread is why true crime is so hot right now. Cards on the table, are we nuzzling up to the dead-eyed smile of Ted Bundy because we’re curious about the legal process? The psycho-analytic details?

Admit it, it’s the darkness that pulls you in.

Of course not.

We get all up in there because something inside us resonates with the simple, blood-stirring reality that it could easily have been us.

And since we never knowtruly knowwhat’s lurking behind all the eyes in our own lives, we watch those shows because next time it could still be us. And hoo boy, that gets the heart pumping far longer than a jump scare. And like any other chemical high, we chase that chilling feeling.

So we’ll be going inside dread quite a bit. What a rush, am I right? Great. Here it goes

For our first horror touchstone, let’s keep it simple. Familiar. Far darker waters await. We’ve got twisted books to discuss, chilling video games to plumb, some all-too rare genuinely scary TV moments to cover, and heck, even a bit of blood-soaked poetry to unpack. All in due time. For now, trust me—just dip your toe into the darkness.

You’ll be fine. I’m right here with you.

So we’re starting slow on our “first date.” Building trust, you might say. We’ll begin, as so many solid relationships do, at the movies. And hey, while we’re talking about trust and what’s behind the eyes, let’s start by staring into the terrible dread of lurking, soul-deep horror movie betrayal. For me, it doesn’t get a lot more meaningful than a certain someone in Jordan Peele’s A-list earning, masterful feature debut, 2017’s Get Out.

Warning: ahead be spoilers.

By now, most of us know the basic shape of Get Out. Chris Washington, a successful black photographer, heads into the affluent, wooded environs of upstate New York with white girlfriend Rose to meet and spend a weekend with her parents. Turns out Rose’s family is the prototypical snapshot of a casually racist liberal clan. Dean, a neurosurgeon, can’t hold back oddly-timed and flat-footed praise for President Obama. Missy, a hypnotherapist, seems all too comfortable being condescending to the all black staff at the impressive estate in front of her guest. Once Rose’s brother Jeremy, a leering over-drinker and over-eager MMA practitioner arrives, a pressure cooker of bizarre incidents kicks off. The crescendo involves a cult-like practice of brain transplants and body snatchings. We discover, to our horror and revulsion, that the secluded woods of the genteel New York house has an insidious secret: The entire Armitage family are the purveyors of incapacitated, healthy black men and women for infirm but wealthy white people to take over in a bid to outrun death.

And none of it would be possible without the character that writer-director Peele very clearly sees as the most vile, most dangerous, most terrifying member of the wicked Armitage clan: Chris’s duplicitous, siren-like girlfriend, Rose.

Mom, Dad, meet Rose. She’s a nightmare of a person.

Allison Williams told Business Insider that Peele “would grin and rub his hands together, like, ‘Yes, this girl is so evil’,” on set during takes involving Rose. The whole Armitage clan are proxies for racism and plain old human evil, but it’s clear that Rose is the axle on which the true horror turns. It’s Rose who, over and over again, seduced black men and at least one black woman, drawing them to the Armitage estate to be secretly bid upon, drugged, and cast into the shapeless void of the “Sunken Place” while well-to-do whites were given reign over their bodies. We find out Rose has done this at least ten times: she has charmed, cajoled, and romanced a minimum of ten lost souls with no flicker of conscience. Her mother induces the trance that incapacitates the victims, her father performs the irreversible brain surgery and gives the grand villainous speech, but it’s Rose who plays the ferrywoman to this horrible system.

And she does it with smiles and the language of the white ally. She is convincing, she is heartfelt, and she had many of us fooled until deep into the movie’s runtime. Oddly, I’ve found that women viewers tended to sniff out Rose’s true nature faster than the men. Which speaks, perhaps, to the weakness of certain populations and their ability to detect malice from those they’re traditionally attracted to. And that leads us to the crux of why Rose is downright scary: like Chris (and many before him) we want to trust her.

In another interview, Williams told Seth Meyers that she was stunned how often white audience members approached her about Rose, convinced that this essential cog in the inhumane machine of medical possession of other humans was a victim herself:

“They’d say, ‘She was hypnotized, right?’ And I’m like, no! She’s just evil! How hard is that to accept? She’s bad! We gave you so many ways to know that she’s bad! She has photos of people whose lives she ended behind her! And they’re still like, ‘But maybe she’s also a victim?’ And I’m like, no! No!”

And nuzzle close, new friend, because I’m here to tell you: it’s right inside that very real, very earnest, fatally misguided sense that true dread and the dark heart of Get Out’s horror resides. Once the veil falls and the audience opens its eyes—like Chris—to the reality that Rose, the charming, say-all-the-right-things confidant is the darkest evil of the movie, all bets are off. A vital anchor point breaks loose and our moorings are lost. Betrayal on its face is hideous; betrayal of our safetyour entire identity!to slavering monsters from within our inner circle is nothing short of terrifying.

I believe some white audience members doggedly refused to see Rose as evil specifically due to how hard that kind of fear can be to face. That evil so close to what we’re implicitly taught to trust can smile so very convincingly, that it, like Rose, can go from lover to monster and back as the need arises. And when our closest allies turn out to have always been seeking our destruction? That’s a nauseating, bone-freezing experience.

Happily, it’s a bona fide thrill to watch onscreen, which is why Get Out functions as more than just a smart social critique (which it absolutely is). It succeeds as horror because it tickles that slice of our lizard brains that is ever-wary of a blade between the shoulder blades. “Maybe,” our reptilian voice hisses, “the enemy is right next to us.”

Obviously that razor sharp tool of terror is by no means restricted to Get Out. 2007’s Paranormal Activity offered plenty of mildly interesting jolts and jumps, but the reason it became such an enormous success is that, at root, the filmmakers knew how to take a possession story and make it one of terrifying, primal betrayal. Would-be hero Micah, all blustery, sacrilegious confidence against strange noises and broken knickknacks, is ultimately powerless against a supernaturally-powered double-cross. When “Toby,” the malignant demon finally possesses girlfriend Katie, her pre-dawn screams from their kitchen easily lure the would-be hero to a violent death.

Whatever ending we go with, Katie is not to be trusted.

The style of the movie helps this subdermal fright along: fast-forwarded footage shows us the now-possessed Katie standing over the sleeping Micah for hours before she lopes awkwardly down the stairs and out of the sole security camera’s frame. Micah’s attempt to help Katie and his obviously bloody end, too, happen entirely out of sight. And when heavy footsteps on the staircase begin, most audiences feel encroaching dread, capped by the double jump scare of the climactic beats.

But it matters whose hands committed the deadly act, or Paranormal Activity is little more than a series of clever movie-making parlor tricks. Ultimately, irrespective of the demon pulling the strings, Micah was savagely murdered by the hands of someone he trusted. That she was in the grip of a demonic hand is beside the point if we identify, even for a second, with Micah’s point of view. He rushed to comfort a shrieking loved one only to be killed at “her” hands. And fresh in our minds is that sight of her, tilting and shifting unnaturally as fast-forwarded footage turns hours into seconds. Micah lays helpless before his murderous partner, but the dread factor enters when she lays a trap that depended on his care for Katie. She screamed, he responded, and he died for that concern of his.

Hello, dread.

Trust is, was, and always will be a scarce commodity. Fear of its corruption, of those closest to us doing the most damage continually proves to be rich soil for horror creators to send our pulse rates into overdrive. John Carpenter famously drilled down past all the special effects wizardry on display in The Thing to explain that the movie deals expressly with the lack of trust in the world, that our loved ones “might attack us,” and that the end of the world might very well “come not from bombs dropping, but from within.” And looking across decades of horror masterstrokes dealing with spine-tingling betrayalfrom Get Out to Paranormal Activity, from The Thing to Alien, from Pet Sematary to The Shiningits easy to see how a friend-turned-foe is tremendously powerful horror juju.

Heck, even comedies have strangely poignant moments flirting with deep, dark romantic treachery. Midway through 1993’s So I Married an Axe Murderer, protagonist Charlie worries that his paramour is secretly a serial killer. We find him laying on his side in bed, facing away from the enigmatic Harriet. She cuddles against his back, explaining how precarious trust can be. “Look at us, Charlie,” she says, “We’re sleeping. And look how vulnerable we are. And I could do anything to you in your sleep. You’re lying on your side, totally asleep. And I could just… stick a needle in your ear.” As Harriet makes this point, sure enough, she wiggles a finger against Charlie’s ear, sending the worried boyfriend into a comical fit of screaming. It’s all there: that fear of letting the monster right into our safe space writ large.

Yes, The Thing is scarier than So I Married Axe Murderer. You get my point!

But Rose… Rose stands atop the pyramid. She is cunning: note her defense of Chris in the face of a racist traffic cop, refusing to allow her boyfriend—and victim—to hand over his license (and thus create a simple paper trail once Chris disappears). She is driven: a rifle shot from Rose very nearly ends Chris’s escape in the film’s climax, and her smirk at his unwillingness to strangle her suggests she’s perfectly able to capitalize on the lack of cruelty in decent people, even in the face of death. She is ruthless: Chris’s best friend Rod reaches her once Chris has gone missing and she immediately tries to lure Rod in using the promise of sex. And she is one of the best gaslighters you’ll ever see on screen. She’s ready to grin, joke, and conspiratorially wink her prey’s guard down in any situation. She is the apex predator of horror movie traitors.

Chris’s plight, and by some minuscule extension, that of countless marginalized people edges that much closer to those outsiders to that experience. It certainly seemed to blaze like a thousand incandescent bulbs to those who look more like Chris than Rose; dozens upon dozens of interviews and commentaries prove that. People like memaybe people like youcan just barely begin to feel some new contours of understanding as Rose takes intimacy and cooperation to a deadly level.

Jordan Peele deserves the respect he’s gained recently, and an extra round of applause for crafting such a deceptively innocuous monster in Rose Armitage. And of course I’d love to know your favorite horror movie double-crosses: when did a duplicitous turn by a cinematic friend or lover put The Fear into you? Drop me a line and let me know.

And thanks for coming on this little journey with me. I’m sure you were fine the whole way through. After all, I was with you the whole time. We were in this together.

Felt safer that way, right?

But it wasn’t, was it?

Boo.

Shaun Hayes

Shaun is a writer, English professor, host of the Whiparound podcast, and unrepentant grammar pedant.

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