Politeness is a Killer: Ditch Good Etiquette if You Want to Live
You don’t leave dinner before dessert, you don’t go back on a pinky promise, and you don’t disrupt the pleasant evening to bring up the bloody corpse in the fridge. All good etiquette…that’ll get you killed.
Pen to paper, how does the horror screenwriter create a scenario both terrifying and plausible? The noughties brought in tropes of no-cell phone service; the found-footage genre created a breed of steady-handed-in-high-duress cameramen. Most generally speaking, a horror film’s inciting incident necessitates bad luck or bad judgment. For screenwriters to rely on the latter, audiences would need to swallow down a generous number of protagonists as smart in discernment as Drew Barrymore’s doppelganger in Scary Movie. But this isn’t so, as horror films have the unfortunate reality to fall back upon good judgment smothered down in favor of not being troublesome.
We sign a social contract with every venture into the public sphere. This intangible agreement between people creates ‘society’ under synonyms such as etiquette or manners. What exactly they entail may be difficult to define, as behavioral allowances extend amorphously for certain groups by certain groups. What is the breaking point to throw out these contracts for self-preservation?
Labor to Death
Often, the first killed is a laborer, such as a night shift janitor or security guard, an hourly wager on their set schedule with what you could assume is a background of opt-in healthcare plans and vacation days. As the job market moved to majority customer service employment with more emphasis on freelance and self-employment, it dissolved boundaries of job and social contract expectations on the clock.
What I found most interesting in Creep, the 2014 found-footage thriller, was how it relied on the unspoken extensions placed on labor, particularly freelance artistic labor. For example, you must make the environment more ‘comfortable’ in a one-off business transaction, contingent on a tip-reliant service work economy. Our POV character Aaron (Patrick Brice, also the film’s director) agrees by virtual handshake and monetary transaction to shoot a day of semi-documentary footage for Josef (Mark Duplass) in the wilderness. But the relationship extends beyond the single day and documentary, with Aaron having to dismiss Josef’s increasingly disturbing admissions and actions. Aaron swings through various reasoning, from forgiveness in hopes it returns a sense of normality to sympathy for an awkwardly socialized person. It’s a test for a viewer, made more personable with the handheld perspective, of how unnerving a stranger may be before you’d break a promise or cut them out completely.
Be Your Guest
Host and guest is an interaction often invoked by horror particularly because it naturally broadens allowance by the necessity of shared dominion. The lengths a guest must go to be undisruptive can be stretched further than denying a cup of tea. The two young siblings of The Visit are tepid in taking dramatic action to leave a home where their grandparents display increasingly disturbing behavior. In Midsommar, a mass-encouraged suicide shocks the Americans on their first day of visiting Sweden, but they’re dissuaded from raising alarm and leaving the commune out of cultural respect.
On the side of the host, the necessities of a woman as homemaker are displayed to an exaggerated but honest degree in mother!. The eponymous character, played by Jennifer Lawrence, exemplifies her struggle by desperately contorting herself into believing she emits order in her home rather than obedience to the interference around her. A desire to make interactions in close quarters easier relays to the realities of domestic violence and a common pattern of domestic violence is escalation. The actions go from verbally tepid to physically bulldozing at what seems like such a turn that the character no longer has the ability to create boundaries.
Universality Exists in Boxes
Film is described as an international medium with the ability to connect through artistic expression to people of any upbringing. But while a scenario may be universal, the layered identities complicate the hero’s nightmarish journey. We all may one day be in the situation of displaying our best behavior to impress a significant other’s parents, but what Get Out displays is the added pressure as a minority in such a scenario.
An underlying responsibility to represent all Blackness in a weekend interaction is particular to Chris (Daniel Kaluyya) in meeting his white girlfriend’s family. And while the audience and in-movie characters may scream the title, Chris will continue to disregard the oddities as a learned behavior in de-escalation. Writer and director Jordan Peele references Rosemary’s Baby by name as an influence on his screenplay, reasserting how the realities of self-censorship for marginalized groups influence horror.
Movies happen within a screen but only by virtue of the society able to create them. And it would be incorrect to imply a one-way road in media influence: the depiction of the boundaries of forgiveness in film can alter the general public’s discernment (the beach became a shark domain and clowns are naturally creepy).
Films rely on the reality where marginalized groups navigate complexities of personal interactions to secure their survival. In an American society where male admirers murder the women of their desires and police disproportionately shoot-to-kill Black people, the traditionally doled advice to victims is to be “polite.” Shall we start screaming this to the screen? It will prove just as useful. 🩸
Hannah Ni’Shuilleabhain is a freelance journalist based in Ireland. She primarily writes community news but enjoys dipping into entertainment and feature writing. Follow her on Twitter @Hannahnnish.
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