While coronial examinations often play a key role in horror films, they are rarely used as the main venue of horror itself. Sometimes coronial scenes help to regulate suspense, establishing a narrative field for suspense to ramify elsewhere. Sometimes they are used as a source of cosiness, whether the cosiness of routine or a more domestic cosiness. And sometimes they are used as a source of gore, or as a platform for visceral images. Yet they rarely function as suspenseful spaces in and of themselves as effectively as they do in The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which takes place, in its entirety, in a morgue run by father-and-son team Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch). The Tildens are just preparing to close up shop for the night, and Austin is on the verge of spending the evening with his girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), when the local sheriff arrives with a body that needs a cause of death determined by the next morning. The body, a young woman, has been found buried in the basement of a house where four homicides occurred earlier that day, and performing an autopsy is a top priority. Tommy and Austin therefore set out to work all night, laying out the body of Jane Doe on the examining table, and getting to work.
Before the autopsy even begins, however, the morgue is a source of suspense in itself. While we’re introduced to the Tildens with a few gung-ho dissection sequences, scored to bursts of plosive music, this more conventional depiction of coronial labour quickly fades away, leaving us with a space that is so still and organized that it almost feels sentient. Since the morgue doesn’t have any windows, and is underground, it quickly takes on the ambient murmur of an all-night workplace, the kind of nocturnal space where it’s important that everything continues to hum on for the full twenty-four hours of the day. Since it’s also important that each part and process of the morgue is sequestered and sterilized from the rest, the whole space feels hyper-spatial, compartmentalized so thoroughly and meticulously that the threshold between each of its components is much more dramatic than it would be in a more conventional or quotidian space. It’s a bit of a twist, then, when Tommy opens up a trapdoor to reveal that the morgue is actually in the basement of the Tilden house, an old rambling structure that has been retrofitted with an elevator to make it easier to transport bodies downstairs. Nevertheless, traces of the original basement still remain, reminders of the three generations of morticians that preceded the current Tildens, and adding to the feeling that this morgue is so lived-in that it has taken on a life of its own.
For all those factors, however, it is the business of coronial work itself that makes the morgue so oddly intensified in its space and ambience. With the obligatory autopsy gore out of the way in the first few montage sequences, the film settles into what the business of being a mortician actually involves. As the senior practitioner, Tommy is the one who captures this work ethic, encouraging Austin to focus on each part of the process to the exclusion of all else, neither speculating on the cause of death nor predicting what will happen with the case after the autopsy, but instead taking the body entirely on its own terms. Dissecting a corpse becomes a exercise in mindfulness, a way of blanking out everything extraneous, until the body in question becomes a blank slate as well, a canvas that the morticians can approach with no prior judgements or assumptions. For Tommy, the key to performing a good coronial examination is therefore scepticism – a willingness to be open to any cause of death, no matter how the body may initially present itself. While he believes that it takes a while to read a body, he believes that it can ultimately be read, but only if the mortician assumes, from the outset, that “every body has a secret” to be found.
In that gesture, The Autopsy of Jane Doe taps into the underlying fixation with so much crime drama: the readability of the body, along with the idea that the body is a topography that can be traversed and mapped much like a landscape or physical space. Tommy uses this metaphor in his own procedure, always advocating for a certain order of examining a corpse. First, they perform an external examination. Then, they perform an internal examination, which involves moving up through the organs until they reach the brain, the final point of truth. Throughout this whole process, it’s critical, Tommy suggests, to look for the actual cause of death, rather than the apparent cause of death. Not only does the good coroner blank out everything outside the body, but they blank out everything on the body apart from the particular part that they are examining. The blankness of the morgue and the blankness of the body therefore converge on a space of epistemological possibility, one in which every conceivable event can be countered so long as the right mindset is maintained.
As Ovredal realises, that’s a perfect situation for generating horror, despite the fact that morgues are more typically used to generate gore than to generate suspense in horror cinema. The catalyst, in this case, is the body of Jane Doe, which immediately defies being read in the manner of a typical body. For one thing, the possible causes of death are so overdetermined here that’s difficult to settle on any one single or overarching cause. More eerily, there’s a sharp mismatch between the external and internal examination of her body. After a long and detailed dissection, it emerges that she has no lividity or rigor mortis, her tongue has been removed, she has wrist and ankle trauma, she has been buried in peat, she has been forced to wear a corset and her lungs are entirely blackened and burned. Yet the surface of her skin is completely unmarked and intact, bearing no sign of this internal trauma, which should have “disfigured her beyond all recognition.” While Tommy is able to reconstruct a tentative timeline detailing the different stages of her torture, the coronial timeline is offset at the same time, since the movement from external to internal examination makes no sense when the internal and external symptoms are so disconnected.
Ironically, it is the autopsy itself that seems to have desecrated her body, since her organs, which are remarkably intact for a corpse that has been buried, start to decay rapidly after being removed by Tommy and Austin. As the coronial examination somehow fuses with the violation that is missing from the surface of her body, the Tildens start to occupy the position of her original torturers, turning them into antagonists that have to be contained. It’s at this point that the body starts to demonstrate supernatural powers, but these are more subtle, and more detached from the spectacle of gore, that might be expected. Instead, the disruptions of the surface of Jane Doe’s body start to disrupt the ambience of the morgue itself, as one communicative medium after another – radio, telephone, camera fixtures – start to flicker and glitch whenever the Tildens cut into her skin. It is as if the autopsy challenges the morticians’ capacity to provide a central point of truth, and to mediate the meaning of the body sitting before them. For a while, Tommy, in particular, resists a supernatural explanation (“down here, if you can’t see it, touch it, it doesn’t matter”), speculating that Jane Doe might have been a victim of human trafficking, but the impact of her body gets harder to ignore, until it ends up reanimating some of the other corpses, forcing the two morticians to try to escape the morgue as a heavy storm closes in.
Even at this point, however, the ambience of the morgue is still the main source of horror. While there are a few reanimated corpses moving around, and a few terrifying jump-scares, they exist merely to contour the impassivity of Jane Doe’s body, which somehow seem to grow more stationary during this middle part of the film. Time and again, Ovredal returns to her gaze, but she never wakes up, or loses her blank stare, which always intensifies the stillness of the coronial procedure that surrounds it. While the action accelerates, the silence emanating from her body is always more threatening than whatever is occurring around it, and lingers long after the set pieces have gone. During this period, the whiteness of her body also intensifies, until it reaches such a preternatural brightness that the surface of her skin barely looks human, especially when it is shot in close-up. Less like a shade than a visualization of silence, this whiteness is part of what guarantee Jane Doe her impassivity, turning her into an apotheosis of the white female corpses so fetishized in horror cinema.
Around and across that body, the relationship between Tommy and Austin also grows more moving and harrowing as the film proceeds. From the start, you sense an unspoken trauma that has narrowed their world to each other, and the corpses between them. Initially, the source of that trauma is Tommy’s wife and Austin’s mother, who committed suicide several years ago, and whose presence still haunts them. Then, it is Emma, Austin’s girlfriend, who Tommy accidentally kills, mistaking her for one of the reanimated corpses after she returns to pick up Austin later in the evening. Finally, it is the body of Jane Doe herself, whose inability to be read also means that she is unable to properly mediate the relationship between father and son. Since all they have in common appears to be their ability to read bodies together, this draws out a deep trauma in their relationship, especially since it also emerges that Tommy’s wife didn’t show any signs of suicidal ideation before she took her own life. Discerning the cause of death is therefore his way of making up for not being able to read his own wife’s mental state, a form of displaced guilt that makes it especially traumatic when Jane Doe refuses to permit herself to be read and understood in this way.
Like so many recent horror films, then, horror is overlaid here with a grimmer sense that the nuclear family structure has reached a moment of finitude and collapse. Rather than throwback to a form of father-son drama that no longer exists, Ovredal suggests that father-son films were always dependent on reading, containing and disposing of the female body as a middle term. With that body now restored in all its inscrutable materiality, the father-son film can no longer exist – it can only be elegised – making for an agonising and aching rapport between the two men that’s all the more powerful for how subtly and subliminally it emerges. At times, it reminded me of the relationship between Jack and Danny in The Shining – the whole film borrows motifs from The Shining – as the rapport between father and son finds itself limited and contains by patriarchal expectations that exceed them both.
Like The Shining, too, and unlike so many contemporary horror films, The Autopsy of Jane Doe isn’t content to rest on grimness, but pairs it with a beautifully and elegantly suspenseful final act. This starts when the Tildens return, tentatively, to the autopsy table, and finally arrive at Jane Doe’s brain, the final point of truth. Yet when they cut out a sliver and place it under the microscope, they see cells spawning and flourishing before their very eyes, even as Jane Doe seems to have grown even more impassive under the morgue lights. This revelation that Jane Doe’s body is still alive puts her completely beyond signification, or beyond the possibility of being read, not merely because it flies in the face of all science, but because it’s literally impossible to discern a cause of death when the body is still alive. Examining the underlayer of her skin, which features occult symbols similar to those that they discovered on a parchment found on her person, the Tildens finally come to the conclusion that Jane Doe is the body of a witch, and dates from the late eighteenth century.
To a certain extent, this makes sense. If Jane Doe was a witch, that explains why she was buried, and why her body bore traces of peat. It also explains why the family in the house where she was found were all killed, and why they seemed to be trying so desperately to escape their own home. Further examination, however, leads to an even more surprising suggestion from Tommy, who speculates that Jane Doe was a regular woman accused of witchcraft, but that the process of being tortured and tried for witchcraft gave her the supernatural powers of a witch after her death. In other words, the discursive field of witchcraft made her a witch, if only because the regulation of women’s bodies at the time left no room for any other kind of interpretation. Even more surprising is Tommy’s recognition that his role as a coronial reader of bodies makes him a descendant of Jane Doe’s persecutors, leading to his final realisation that he needs to relive her suffering in order for her own persecution of them to now end. Accordingly, he begs Jane Doe to spare Austin but punish him, and to turn his regulatory gaze back upon himself. While she remains impassive, she appears to hear him, as Tommy now starts to experience all the symptoms that he has just diagnosed, even as the surface of his skin, like that of Jane Doe, stays intact.
By the eerie final scenes, Jane Doe has become both witch and placeholder for female bodies that have yet to be “read” or imbued with meaning. In many ways, the history of American horror cinema is the contested field of the white female body – what it means, how to regulate it, how to liberate it – so there’s something spectacularly creepy about the way Jane Doe retains her blankness here until the very end. Even when she is taken away from the house the next morning, in an ambulance, she retains her blank whiteness, which is only exacerbated by the fact that the ambulance driver is the first and only black character we see in the film. Meanwhile, back at the morgue, the police arrive to find Tommy and Austin dead, and a crime scene that bears an uncanny resemblance to the conundrum of Jane Doe’s body itself: desecrated on the inside, but bearing “no sign of forced entry.” Rather than allow the audience to ever fully read Jane Doe’s body, which remains blank, The Autopsy of Jane Doe ends by emphasizing the discursive mutilation that that injunction to read involves in the first place. And rather than deconstruct the white female body as the fetish and object of American horror cinema, Ovredal instead presents it as something that can’t be deconstructed, an irreducible materiality that releases the horror that it typically contains and regulates into a remarkably eerie and inchoate horror ambience, and one of the most inventive and ingenious horror films I’ve seen this decade.