Referencing History, Not Repeating It
Jordan Peele’s move from acting to directing came with a significant break in tone. Known for skits, drama, and comedy, Peele’s move into the horror genre was a surprise. His success, however, was not. One of the reasons that the two films Peele has written and directed have been so incredibly well received is because they are pieces of media made to be pulled apart and examined. Many critics have lamented the fact that these movies require analyzing in order to fully understand them, but enjoying them doesn’t have to come at the expense of a historic catalog of references from which to draw.
Peele’s Get Out and Us are both masterpieces of horror in their own right. They are intimate and expansive, personal and political, private and public. These two movies investigate horrors against Black people and Black America with a critical narrative and an eye for irony.
But what of the references?
Peele’s work in horror closely mirrors the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Thematically and narratively, the expansion of chaos and the control of the worlds he has created have led to a string of deliberate and obvious ties. Psycho and Get Out follow a similar formula, as do The Birds and Us. There is a generational torch for horror filmmakers, and the pass from Hitchcock to Peele seems natural, but I want to stress that there’s more to this theory than merely Peele stepping in as the next horror auteur in American cinema.
Diverting to Hitchcock for a second, let’s focus on two of his most famous films: Psycho and The Birds. Although never explicitly stated, many who study Hitchcock have come to the conclusion that these two pieces are directly linked. I believe, personally, that The Birds is a perfect sequel to Psycho, existing in the same universe, with similar themes, and a connected narrative. Let’s dig in quickly.
Psycho is about the controlled chaos that occurs in a seedy hotel, with a mystery surrounding a family and a murdered woman. There are references to birds throughout the film - Norman Crane, Phoenix, Arizona, and the strange taxidermy owls in flight in the waiting room. Norman even says at one point, “you eat like a bird.” The choice to go from black and white to color also showcases a thematic expansion of chaos that connects both films.
Mystery elements drive the narratives, existing alongside the underlying horror and tension. There is blood in the water. Psycho is an expression of a deep-seeded, single-family chaos that spreads to innocent bystanders, and The Birds, takes one small area of disaster, focusing on a family drama, and expands that unimaginable terror from a small island to an implied worldwide apocalypse.
Tying it back to Peele, Get Out and Us follow the same formula: hints of one in the other, a deliberate expansion of chaos, and even a remarkable focus on color in Us, whereas Get Out was clearly divided along black and white lines.
Psycho and Get Out have many common narrative links between the basic structures of the movies. Both have an unassuming caretaker, people inhabiting other’s bodies and minds, and a reveal of a body in the basement, in addition to kidnapping, detective undertones, and conspiracies. There’s also a darkness to the palate of Get Out that is reminiscent of the black and white tone of Psycho. The mystery narrative that drives the investigations of Psycho and Get Out are also very similar and create a tense, dramatic environment where detectives have to pull apart the threads of the deception, eventually tying everything together and revealing the true nature of the horror inside the home.
The Birds and Us also tie into each other. Within a smaller family drama is a large, overwhelming force of chaos that threatens to engulf the entire world. The birds within The Birds, much like the tethered, are unexplainable, and any real discussion between members of the families in peril is dismissed. These phenomena are just accepted, and for a horror movie, it’s good enough that it’s terrifying and familiar at the same time.
For these two films, in particular, the need to explain what things mean can be tempting. There has to be symbolism and meaning tied into these images and visions. The bunnies at the end of Us, the lovebirds that Melanie buys at the start of the film. We want to search for meaning in the green coat, in the red jumpsuits. Getting caught up in attaching meaning to the symbols of the films can be fun, and an exercise useful for pieces like this, which need excessively ridiculous media reference libraries, but ultimately, will knowing the ins and outs, the hows and whys, increase our enjoyment of the film? Appreciation and dissection is important, but horror films are meant to be horrific. If we pick too many things apart and draw too many meanings, intentionally or not, the film ceases to be an art and turns into a text. If there is no mystery, if things are tied up, then it can be rationalized and logically understood, undermining much of what makes horror films so engaging and terrifying.
Peele has hinted that both Get Out and Us exist within a singular horror universe. His upcoming remake of Candyman, a 90’s supernatural slasher cited as one of Peele’s inspirations for Get Out, will likely reveal more about his intentions to develop a shared world for his horror pieces. This too connects Peele and Hitchcock, who was notorious for using similar actresses, settings, and writers to create an Art Haus effect to his films. Peele is following in Hitchcock’s footsteps, but not imitating him. He’s balancing the work he’s creating between establishing his own brand, and constantly and consciously referencing the work that came before.
Peele’s work is intimately tied to Hitchcock’s, and it’s an unfortunate side effect of timing that his work has to come after we, as an audience, have had so much exposure to the medium and genre. Peele’s movies are unique and dynamic and layered, but they are also in the shadow of previous horror-thrillers. However, Peele is too smart to pretend like we don’t know this, and takes deliberate steps within his movies to both pay homage to Hitchcock and differentiate himself. There are links to Hitchcock’s work throughout all of his cinematography, but Peele’s focus on showcasing and dissecting Black experiences, his innovative takes on surreal situations, his ability to commit to the absurdist, and his ability to create effortless layers of meaning within single moments makes him a new force in the horror genre.
Linda H. Codega
Linda is a twenty-something millennial living and working in the Hudson Valley who loves fandom, pop culture, sailing, tarot cards, and crying in movie theaters. If you want to listen to them talk about pop culture, the repeating cycles of media, and those stories that we can’t get out of our heads, you can listen to their podcast, Retronym, on iTunes.