It is dark. You are standing at the edge of a frosted stretch of grass. You squint, but there is no moon; a blot of clouds smothers the stars. Open your eyes wide, feel as your pupils stretch to the edge of your iris, to the whites of your eye. Nothing. There is no light to pass through.
You are standing at the edge. It is dark. There is something out there. You cannot see it, hear it, or perceive it but you know it is there. You should run away, you think. If only you could figure out which way is away. Turn around, and you’ve lost the edge. It is dark. So dark. If you’re not careful, you’ll run right off of it.
You are standing at the edge. It is dark. There is nothing out there. Absolutely nothing. Nothing as far as the eye can see. The eye can’t see. It doesn’t need to.
You are standing at the edge. It is dark. Oh God what was that? A rustle of leaf. That thump: a footstep soft against the dirt or your own pulse twitching? Is there something out there? You need to know. You cannot know. You want to run; you want to stay. Uncertainty courses through you like Jimson weed.
I’m Scared and I Don’t Know Why
Fear of the unknown plays into the anxieties of possibility. Morné Visagie of The Cinema Cult suggests that, “grotesque demons and ghouls can obviously give us a fright but it is those villains that are not presented much (or at all) that are able to keep us up at night. It is far more petrifying when things are left up to our imagination.” The Autopsy of Jane Doe taps into this petrification both thematically and as a source of horror.
An aura of weird permeates the movie, pressing both characters and audience to investigate a situation that offers more questions than answers. In a comment left on Common Sense Media, an anonymous viewer explores how the film is, itself, an autopsy on our most base of fears:
Uncertainty, in the movie’s context, is the possibility that all can, indeed, go wrong. In Fear of the unknown: One fear to rule them all?, R. Nicholas Carleton analyzes the correlation between phobias, anxiety, neuroticism, and a fear of the unknown. According to the article, it is like that a fear of the unknown is a biological imperative, a “fear that rules all other fears.” In other words, fear of the unknown provides fertile ground for horror.
For the first 45 of the movie’s 99-minute runtime, the plot never veers from the plausibly weird. The situation around Jane Doe is odd, certainly, but not quite confirmed as supernatural. We sit on a knife edge, wondering if, or rather, when, the plot will take a turn. The movie provokes what Cynthia Freeland deemed “art-dread” in the audience by “making thoughts of vague yet evil threats take a form that seems plausible.”
There’s Something About Jane
From the first shot of Jane, the audience understands that there is something off about her. Buried deep beneath the earth at the gruesome scene, her body is notably pristine. Immediately, we understand that our perceived reality differs from true reality. Jane Doe does not move, yet she “brim[s] with sinister potential.”
An autopsy implies discovery of truth, yet the more we learn about this dead woman, the less we understand. Each new element found by Austin and Tommy in their autopsy mingles body horror with a question that keeps the audience hooked: Why?
Her eyes are clouded, yet she shows no signs of rigor mortis. Why? Her waist is too small for her frame. Why? Her insides are mangled, broken wrists and ankles, smoky lungs, scarred organs, yet her exterior is pristine. Why? Why is her molar missing? Why does the radio keep turning back to that same song?
“I’ve seen this before,” Tommy claims, attempting to connect Jane Doe’s injuries to an understandable reality. Jeff Salazar’s “A Beast in the Pews: The Autopsy of Jane Doe – A Contextual Analysis,” which analyzes the movie through a psychoanalytic lens, suggests that Tommy fulfils the role of superego; he seeks to rationalize each strange occurrence by drawing from previous experience. As the plot unravels, so too does Tommy’s certainty. “The human body,” scholar Elisabete Lopes explains, “something so familiar to a coroner, is gradually turned into something eerily unfamiliar.”
What’s Worse: the Question or the Answer?
The Autopsy of Jane Doe can be split into two parts: “Questions” and “Answers.” Where “Questions” develops its fear of the unknown by turning towards mystery, “Answers” reminds the audience that sometimes not knowing is better. In the film, the death of an animal signifies a marked turn towards the supernatural. “Answers” plunges the characters into literal darkness, developing a space where the supernatural can take form. As Paul Wells explains in The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch, “Such fear of the unknown is intrinsically related to the fear of the dark, simply because any potential threats remain unseen.”
A fear of the unknown is not only the source of horror in The Autopsy of Jane Doe but one of the film’s primary themes. Each character explores a different facet of the same question: why should we fear the unknown?
What Does the Fear of the Unknown Mean to Jane Doe?
Jane Doe represents a morbid curiosity about what happens after death. There is, after all, a slim possibility that when we die, our consciousness remains in our bodies, cursed to an existence of rot and anguish. The bell on the toe of the morgue’s corpses, a nod to an era when we could not differentiate between death and coma, plants the seed of doubt in our minds from early in the story. By hiring an actress instead of using a mannequin, Øvredal ensures we connect Jane Doe with humanity, to this question of life and personhood. Long before we know she is alive, we sense it, a credit to actress Olwen Kelly’s subtle skill.
To quote Banksy (at least, to quote Goodreads, which quotes Banksy… they usually do their due diligence): “They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” Jane Doe represents that fear of true death. What is a Jane Doe if not a corpse with no identity, death doubled?
What Does the Fear of the Unknown Mean to Austin?
Austin is taught to fear the unknown. Someone who has been surrounded by death since he was young, someone who plays silly rock while performing an autopsy, his understanding of what one should fear is skewed. Where his father focuses on uncovering how people died, Austin wants to know why. He is at a crossroads in his life, caught between a future with his partner and a past with his father. Moving out would take him further from the existential unknowns represented by a corpse, but closer to a reality he has never known. Whether out of fear or apprehension, he avoids the latter, ultimately suffering as a result.
Austin’s lean towards discovery seems to aid him in the second act of the movie. When his father’s methodical approach proves unhelpful in the face of supernatural circumstances, it is Austin’s aim to discover why Jane Doe was killed that brings them closer to the answer. However, what Austin learns, with deadly realization, is that sometimes the fear we have of the unknown is justified. Sometimes knowing the answer is not enough.
What Does the Fear of the Unknown Mean to Tommy?
Tommy represents a fear of never truly knowing another person. His wife’s suicide, and his inability to notice her deep depression, haunts him. In his life, the unknown hid a deadly secret. Tommy is not at fault for his wife’s tragic death, but he is shaken by the feeling that it came out of nowhere. What Tommy perceives as an inability to accurately know his own life partner is a reflection of the movie’s wider belief that tragedy flourishes within the unknown. “If I’d known, I would have helped her. (…) I mean she was always so bright, so happy. To think that she was carrying around all that pain, all that unhappiness every day. I should have seen it, but I didn’t.”
What Does the Fear of the Unknown Mean to Us?
The Autopsy of Jane Doe uses an ambiguous ending to place the onus of fearing the unknown on the viewer. We are led to doubt the very events we witnessed; the unknown drills right down to the plot. The storm that provided the film’s catalyst, trapping Austin and Tommy in the morgue to perish, never happened. The autopsy, which yielded its certain results, either didn’t occur or became undone. We may think we know more, yet we are right back at the beginning.
After dragging us through a sudden, high-impact action scene, through the brutal process of uncovering answers, the movie deposits us in the exact same place where we started: an inexplicably violent crime scene and a Jane Doe. The realization hits us: this is not the case; this is a case.
In the film’s final moments, an unknowing EMT drives Jane Doe to what we can only presume will be her next victim. The bell around her ankle rings; Jane Doe lives on. The cycle of violence will continue for the dead are not as dead as they seem.