A Skeptical Review of ‘Get Out’

March 17, 2017


In the new film Get Out, an adorably-dimpled young woman named Rose (Allison Williams) reassures her African-American photographer boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) that her family will like him when they meet him for the first time during their upcoming weekend visit. And sure enough they do when the finally arrive at her parents’ rural home; Rose’s father, a neurosurgeon, takes to the young man, as does her mother, a hypnotherapist who soon offers to help him kick his smoking habit.

Chris soon suspects that something’s not quite right with Rose’s family after meeting their eerily placid and pleasant African-American housekeeper and gardener, but Rose reassures him that all is well. No one is overtly hostile to Chris, but they do act strangely around him as a series of ominous clues seem to confirm his suspicions that something’s amiss. At one point a black visitor to the home seems to have a momentary mental breakdown and shouts “Get out!” at Chris–hence the film’s title–but it’s not clear whether it’s meant as a (racist?) attack or a warning to save himself.

The film has been praised for raising, at least superficially, racial themes including interracial dating, police treatment of blacks, implicit racial stereotypes, and so on. It also has skepticism-related themes of conspiracy theories, organ theft urban legens, and hypnosis. Get Out is one of those films, like many of M. Night Shyamalan’s, that has several plot twists that make it hard to review without giving too much away and spoiling the surprises–so SPOILERS AHEAD.

I can tell you that the film is well acted, interesting, and has plot holes galore–starting with popular but completely bogus notions about what hypnosis is and how it works–that ultimately undermine the film’s effectiveness. By the time the action and drama pick up in the last half hour, the occasional frights are overshadowed by the thunderous crashing of the film’s plausibility. The terrifying secret / plot twist is that Rose and her family have been abducting blacks and, using a combination of hypnosis and some sort of unspecified brain surgery, transferring people’s consciousnesses (including her grandparents’) into their helpless victims, and having them live along with them as servants and workers.

• As I mentioned, Get Out gets hypnosis all wrong. There’s a certain creepy gothic allure to the idea that a mesmerizing stranger can ask you to stare deeply into his eyes, or ask you to follow a pocketwatch swaying seductively to and fro and listen to him count backwards into a hypnotic trance. But it’s pure fiction.

Hypnosis is a widely misunderstood psychological phenomenon, due largely to its depictions in popular culture and film. Many people believe that hypnosis is a way to access memories of traumatic events that have somehow been hidden or forgotten. In the book Human Memory: An Introduction to Research, Data, and Theory, Dr. Ian Neath of Purdue University notes, “The majority of studies do not find that hypnosis allows recollection of information that could not otherwise be recalled.”

In fact there is a significant danger that any information or memories that may be recalled under hypnosis may be false, created accidentally by the power of suggestion. False memories elicited using hypnosis played a role in the Satanic Panic scare of the 1980s and 1990s in which dozens of people were falsely accused of physically and sexually abusing children. Some people even spent years and decades in prison for crimes they did not commit based on little or no evidence other than hypnosis-derived memories.

Another common myth about hypnosis is that it can put someone into a helpless or suggestible trance-like state. To psychologists, however, this idea has no basis. If it were possible to simply stare deeply into a stranger’s eyes to induce a trance-like, compliant state, then it would happen all the time. Anyone with practice or skill in hypnosis could easily turn to a life of crime by walking into a bank, casting a hypnotic stare at a teller, and take whatever they like.

In their book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, psychologists Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein debunk this popular myth: “Recent survey data show that public opinion resonates with media portrayals of hypnosis. Specifically, 77% of college students endorsed the statement that ‘hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, quite different from normal waking consciousness.’… But research refutes these widely accepted beliefs. Hypnotized people are by no means mindless automatons.”

Many psychologists believe that hypnosis is not some special altered state of consciousness, but simply a form of deep relaxation. Stage hypnosis–such as the kind seen in Las Vegas comedy acts where “suggestible” audience members get on stage and pretend to be chickens or caught in embarrassing situations–is not true clinical hypnosis but instead a combination of showmanship and participatory comedy.

There is some evidence that hypnosis might be useful in addressing some behavior-related medical issues such as quitting smoking, as depicted in Get Out. There may be a placebo-like effect in that a person who is highly motivated to change their habits might get a boost from believing that hypnosis is helping them. However the evidence is weak because people who seek out hypnosis for help with their problems are by definition highly motivated, and any added success rate may be due to that motivation, with or without the benefit of hypnosis.

To be clear: I’m not faulting Get Out for perpetuating misinformation, because I assume that audiences are smart enough to know that it’s a fictional film, not a documentary. I know it’s ‘just a film’ and don’t assume that filmgoers believe that the movie is necessarily an accurate depiction of anything, nor that the filmmakers necessarily have a responsibility to make the plot factual (though logical would be nice). I’m merely pointing out the differences between hypnosis as depicted in the film and hypnosis in reality.

• If the family had really developed a way to transfer consciousness from one person to another, they’d be multi-billionaires instead of living in a modest rural home. They could revolutionize neurology and get a Nobel prize instead of spending their days seeking victims to abduct.

• Early in the film Rose inexplicably calls the police after her car hit a deer–except that she would not have done that. There was no reason at all to call police after a deer strike (no one was injured and no one else was involved), and since she and her family were deeply involved in an illegal murder conspiracy, summoning the police unnecessarily would be the last thing she would do. Nor would she draw attention to herself–and her black boyfriend passenger who would presumably soon go missing–by causing a scene and challenging the officer’s request to see his identification.

• If Rose’s family can place people’s consciousnesses in other bodies, why would they choose to implant them in middle-aged house servants? If I were an elderly person who was given a new lease on life in the form of being transferred to another body, I’d want to be placed in the body of a high school football player. I’d want to travel, see the world, and re-experience life–not do household chores like chopping wood and cooking, as Rose’s grandparents’ are apparently doing. It’s like having Superman’s X-ray vision and only using it to see inside pill bottles.

There are many other holes in the plot (if a flash of light is really all it takes to bring someone out of their hypnotic trance, how do they avoid seeing lightning, or camera flashes, or flickering television sets?), but you get the idea.

Many horror/comedies and slasher films are not inherently frightening because of what’s going on in the story arc but instead what’s happening in the moment
to the hero-usually horror clichés and cheap scares (villains jumping out of darkness toward the camera to a shrieking music cue, for example). Effective psychological horror films–such as Jacob’s Ladder, Frailty, or Cape Fear–may have a few cheap scares and occasional laughs but primarily rely on building suspense and atmosphere. They are not absurd nor ridiculous but instead are grounded in reality, and that anchor in the relatable makes the films work.

Get Out tries to navigate between these two models, and in doing so writer/director Jordan Peele neuters his own film. In order to elicit genuine fright the audience must identify with the characters and the predicaments they are in; because of this, the dire circumstances must be both palpable and plausible. In other words it’s hard to be scared for the character if we don’t believe they’re in any real danger because the plot is so silly and falls to pieces with a faint breeze of logic. When the laughs become unintentional, the move falters. 

Get Out isn’t really scary enough to be an effective horror film nor really funny enough to be a comedy, nor a blend of the two. The film might have been more effective had Peele stuck to one genre-and this could have been done while keeping the film’s racial and cultural satire intact. With the wide praise and wild commercial success of Get Out–Peele is the first black director and writer to have his debut film reach over $100 million at the box office-he will certainly have the chance to make a better film. Until then, this movie is worth seeing as an interesting and creative experiment in blending racial politics with horror/comedy.