“Listen to the ancestors, run!”: Get Out, zombification, and pathologizing escape from the plantation.

by Sherronda J. Brown

*Caution: This post contains Get Out spoilers*

“I don’t wanna be chased off the lawn with a shotgun.”

– Chris Washington’s pandering ass to his girlfriend, Rose Armitage, who later literally chases him off the lawn with a damn gun.

Get Out (2017)
Get Out (2017)

On its surface, Get Out is a horror film about being Black in ostensibly white spaces. Chris wades through a sea of familiar micro-aggressions at the hands of a police officer, his girlfriend, her family, and dozens of their party guests (we even get a nod to the anti-Blackness often perpetrated by Asian-Americans, we see y’all) before making the discovery that the family is in the business of creating docile negroes (read: zombie slaves), and we are thrust towards the climax of the film. Quite literally, it’s a movie about a Black market.

All horror films follow a formula. The denouement either leaves us in a world completely altered by the presence of the monster or it returns us to the normality established at the beginning of the film. One of the most horrific elements of Get Out is that we know once Chris escapes the Armitage estate, he will return to a world of normality, but that normality will still include anti-Black micro-aggressions and violence(s), because he will continue to exist as a Black man in a white supremacist society.

Not only that, but we also know that once we leave the theater, we will also return to a world imbued with anti-Blackness and the psychological, emotional, and physical violence that we continually endure at the hands of white supremacy. This is a meta watching experience, and that is where its true terror lies – at least for me.

See, I wrote my graduate thesis on horror films. Specifically, I wrote about constructions of gender and race in haunting narratives. The thesis includes a historical and cultural contextualization of zombie lore and the dehumanization of Black subjects through enslavement and subsequent racialized oppressions. In tracing this history, I explore depictions of Blackness in horror as phantasmagorical creations of the white imagination.

Blackness is continually cast as a monstrosity endangering whiteness. For evidence of this fundamental truth, we need look no further than images of the Black victims of racist violence(s) and police brutality put forth by the media to construct them as inherently dangerous and deserving of their own murder. This illustration of Blackness as a monstrosity not only allows for the depiction of early zombies as non-living, non-sentient, non-human Black slave subjects in horror texts, but it also allows for lynchings of Black people in our reality under the guise of protecting whiteness. Two words: Emmett Till.

Because horror films are the perfect vehicles for audiences to contend with collective anxieties, horror films created for white audiences will often rest on their fears of phantasmagorical Blackness (see: White Zombie (1932), I Walked With A Zombie (1943), The Skeleton Key (2005), Bag of Bones (2011), etc.). This is also true of films in other genres, like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Mandingo (1975), and it is no coincidence that so many of these stories place white women and the obsessive need to protect them from Black men at the center. Because of the distinct history of white womanhood and the ways in which it has traditionally operated in horror, I found it immensely satisfying that Peele’s narrative flips that dynamic by portraying white women as the ones who purposely enact some of the worst forms of racist violence. Again, two words: Emmett Till.

The limited ways in which Black people are represented in fictional texts can greatly impact how Black people and Black bodies are understood in reality, and this has real implications for Black lives. Get Out subverts so many of our expectations about Blackness in horror. Instead of Blackness, it is whiteness and its insidious intentions that a Black audience is encouraged to root against. Blackness is no longer the monster. Blackness is what needs to be protected from the many abuses that often occur against us in white spaces. Get Out is truly a horror film about the Black experience when Black audiences are centered, even if Jordan Peele did not intend for them to be.

I believe this film is one of the instances of which Toni Morrison speaks in Playing in the Dark; moments in which characters leap from the page – or from the screen in this instance – to create meaning not necessarily intended or considered by the creator, but a meaning which is substantial and illuminating, nonetheless. She writes: “But things go awry. As often happens, characters make claims, impose demands of imaginative accountability over and above the author’s will to contain them” (Morrison, 28).

Yes, characters are conjured images, made things. Their actions are not their own, but are those of their creators. However, there are moments in which characters transcend their own narratives and their own conditional existence as figures of imagination. These are the moments in which I am able to read Get Out as a project which calls back to early zombie horror while contemplating Drapetomania (defined below) as a tool of survival rather than a deviant pathologization of Blackness.

“With the advantages of proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many negroes have of running away, can be almost entirely prevented.”

Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright on Drapetomania in 1851

Drapetomania refers to the Black slave’s urge to run away from the plantation and depart from service to white masters. Essentially, this fabricated illness is the ultimate form of victim-blaming and gas-lighting. In Get Out, long before we see Chris attempt his escape, we see a zombified Andre regain control of his own faculties. He is immediately subdued again, thrown back into “the sunken place” and re-calibrated to continue his existence as an obedient servant to whiteness.

The medical advice of hypnotism and neurosurgery allow the Armitages to address the problem of the resistant negro by creating zombies and selling them as slaves for millions at auctions on their own property. Here, slavery proves once again to be a lucrative industry for white capitalists at the expense and exploitation of Black bodies, which are simultaneously fetishized and dehumanized.

Peele is very explicit about his message to “stay woke.” The words are featured as lyrics in Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” overlaying a portion of the opening credits. Alongside this is Michael Abels’ original composition that the film also ends with, “Minor Trouble – Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga,” with Swahili voices chanting lyrics which loosely translate to: “Brother, listen to the elders. Run! Brother, listen to the truth. Run, run far away! Save yourself.”

Chris is partially sleepwalking before his fight for liberation from the Armitage estate, as he is forgiving of the gas-lighting, manipulation, Beckery, and willful ignorance of his white partner at various moments. Drapetomania is triggered when Chris receives the warning to “get out!” from Andre – who is an elder/ancestor in the sense that he arrived on the plantation before Chris – and that is one of the main things that drives him to run. The urge to run from the brain “transplantation” is necessary for Chris to survive and escape being zombified and enslaved like Andre, Georgina, and Walter.

Misappropriated from Haitian Vodou culture with racist/colonialist misconceptions about the animality and disposability of black people, zombies have always been constructed/(mis)understood through the white imagination. In early U.S. zombie films like White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943), in which the zombies are literally Black slaves, the racist beginnings of the cinematic zombie creation are apparent. To create a zombie is to capture someone’s soul and use their body as a vessel to do your bidding. Descriptions of these creatures as mindless beings resemble racist ideas about the limited intellect of Black people – our animality, lack of sentience, and ability to perform mindless labor, sexual favors, and athletic feats – ideas which have been perpetuated since the abolition* of slavery.

The deep social anxieties about the disruption of white heteropatriarchy, as well as the culturally constructed myth of the Black man’s animal aggressiveness and his insatiable sexual appetite for the “pure white woman,” are evident in these films. In this way, the early concept of the zombie as a cinematic monster indelibly links zombification with Blackness, constructing them both as subhumans to be rightfully enslaved.

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

I read Get Out as a direct descendant of these films. We see several nods to this school of thought during conversations between Chris and various white people in the film, especially Dean and Jeremy Armitage and their focus on athleticism, strength, and skill. One of the most cringe-worthy moments comes when one of the white women guests of the Armitages squeezes Chris’ muscular arm without his consent and inappropriately asks Rose if sex with him his better than sex with white men. All of these things conjure up memories of Mandingo fighting, slave auctions, and the sexual exploitation/abuse of enslaved Africans for white indulgence, while also alluding to contemporary exploitation of Black athletes, the casting of Black bodies as superhuman and possessing unusual physical “Hulk”-like strength and size, and the fetishization of Black sexualities.

But, of course, the most apparent link to the old films is the systematic zombification and enslavement of Black people. The Armitages are literally abducting black people, making them into zombies, and selling them as slaves on the Black market. “Your existence will be as a passenger,” Jim Hudson tells Chris as he explains the impending procedure that will leave Chris zombified with limited consciousness and Jim in control of Chris’ body. With this story, Peele excavates the old image of Black bodies as empty vessels on screen, calling back to early zombie films.

Historically, there is a direct connection between zombification, Blackness, and slavery. Get Out addresses this connection, as well as the pathologization of Blackness via diagnosis of Drapetomania, in a way that completely undermines their original functions in classic cinema and the white imagination by using them to create horror in a different way and for a different audience.

Whiteness is always invested in creating docile negroes and any of us who resist and try to escape “the sunken place” are quickly pathologized. In considering the film for Black audiences, Get Out re-frames Drapetomania as necessary for Black survival – as an instinct from deep within that is driven by the caution of our elders. It tells us to listen to these ancestors and resist the urge to cater to whiteness while refusing to be complicit in the white supremacist structures that do not recognize our humanity. It tells us to “stay woke” and remember that Black survival is always resistance.

I’ll leave you with this original poem, written while contemplating my own escape from “the sunken place”:

causes the enslaved
to flee the plantation.
is a mental illness that exists
only in the white imagination.
pathologizes black resistance
against white terrorism.
And you will not diagnose me
for trying to get free.
You will not diagnose me.

SherrondaSherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies.

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