streaming horror autopsy of jane doe

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: the most memorable scare from The Autopsy of Jane Doe takes advantage of fear conditioning through sound to maximize the terror.)

Simplicity tends to be an asset in horror. A less-is-more type of approach to the narrative lets the horror do the heavy lifting, and it often becomes much more effective as a result. The Autopsy of Jane Doe serves as a great example. A chamber piece oozing with atmosphere and limited answers makes for one of the more terrifying entries in modern horror. The straightforwardness of the setting and narrative lets the characters and scares to take center stage, creating a haunting tale of familial obligation, grief, and trauma-induced rage. Director André Øvredal transforms this intimate tale into something remarkable in how he patiently and insidiously conditions the viewer to unwittingly develop a triggering fear response to a sound that would be benign in any other situation.

This post contains spoilers for The Autopsy of Jane Doe.

The Setup

When the corpse of an unidentified Jane Doe is found at the scene of a multiple homicide, the local authorities bring her strangely preserved body to the small-town morgue to determine a cause of death. For the father and son coroner team, Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch), their typical quiet evening at work turns dangerous the more they attempt to piece together how Jane Doe died, despite no physical signs of trauma. The more they uncover her secrets, the more terrifying events transpire in their morgue. It soon becomes clear that perhaps some secrets are best left buried.

The Story So Far

Austin’s girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) arrives at the morgue to pick him up for their planned date night. Austin and Tommy give Emma a brief tour of their workplace in the basement of the family home before they’re interrupted by the arrival of the Sheriff (Michael McElhatton) with Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly) in tow. Demands for answers by morning triggers Austin’s guilt, and he postpones his date with Emma to assist his dad with Jane Doe’s autopsy, though he promises to meet up with her later that evening.

Almost immediately, this autopsy perplexes the seasoned coroners. Jane Doe bears no outward signs of trauma, but cutting into her body reveals severe damage, scarring, and mutilation beneath the surface. The more bizarre symptoms and clues they discover, the more they’re terrorized by paranormal activity while a raging storm rolls in outside the morgue walls. The radio develops a mind of its own, Tommy’s cat is discovered mortally injured in the vents, the lights go out, and the stored corpses take on a mind of their own. Realizing that Jane Doe is somehow causing everything they’ve been experiencing, father and son decide to incinerate Jane Doe in the exam room to free themselves from her grip. The fire threatens to engulf the place, so Tommy puts it out only to realize Jane Doe remains untouched. They decide to drop everything and flee.

The Scene

In the dark, Tommy and Austin make a run for the elevator at the far end of a long corridor to make their escape. Frantically waiting for it to descend from the main level, a bell rings out in the pitch black. It’s attached to a corpse, lumbering slowly toward them from the far end of the hallway. They’re trapped and panicked, hoping the elevator will respond and arrive before the walking corpse can get to them first. The closer it gets, the more they get glimpses of its disfigured face. The ringing bell attached to its foot signals its encroaching proximity. The elevator finally arrives, Tommy and Austin jump in, but the door won’t close. While Austin struggles to get the elevator moving, Tommy rears back the emergency fire ax just as the corpse finally pops up to reveal its ghastly countenance. The jarring music sting crescendos with Tommy releasing his strike. This massive scare alleviates the pressure of its built-up tension with a harrowing reveal; the lumbering cadaver was a trick of the mind. The actual victim of Tommy’s ax swing was poor Emma, who’d returned for Austin’s promised date.

Everything this scene, from the haunting score to the claustrophobic setting to André Øvredal’s direction, culminates in a textbook perfect scare sequence. This scene relies on atmosphere and timing to deliver a potent chill after stretching out the suspense to near unbearable levels. It deflates the tension of this moment with the heartbreaking reveal of Emma’s death. What truly makes this scare so compelling, though, is the way Øvredal conditioned the audience to develop a fear response through the sound of a bell.

At roughly thirteen minutes into the film, Øvredal creates a mythology around the bell that works to plant the seeds of fear. As Tommy and Austin give Emma a tour, they pull out a male corpse from a locker. A cloth is draped over its face, sunken in and bloodied near the middle thanks to the crater left behind by a gunshot blast to the head. The bell, as Tommy explains to Emma, symbolizes an old tale in which coroners tied bells to bodies brought in to indicate those who might still be alive. This spooky tale ends with a fake-out scare, in which Tommy jostles the bell to spook Emma into believing the corpse moved its foot.

Much later, when the men have retreated into the morgue office out of fright, they hear the bell ringing outside the door. Austin gets down on the floor to look underneath, and a bell-adorned foot steps into his eyeline. It’s the first shock of many in the sequence, but more than that, it’s the second time the bell triggers a significant scare moment. First, Øvredal told the audience that they should be afraid of the bell with that early expository scene, then he showed them why they should be afraid of the bell once the threat level escalated.

Once this terrifying scene in front of the elevator occurs, we’ve unknowingly learned to recoil at the sound of the corpse’s bell. A quiet ring in the darkness triggers a quickening of the pulse because the two previous uses of this sound signaled an impending jolt of fear. Øvredal’s restraint in crafting scares and the use of the bell enhances the effectiveness, but what made this particular scene so unnerving is the way the director slyly trains the audience to respond reflexively to the bell through repetitive action. Timing is crucial when it comes to frightening moviegoers, but Øvredal proves to be downright diabolical by planning out Pavlovian conditioning to maximize the terror. 

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