Fresh Air's Halloween special, with horror masters Stephen King and Jordan Peele
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. Halloween is Monday. And today, we're kicking off a two-part series of shows to get us in the spirit. We begin with two guests who love to scare us and do it brilliantly, Stephen King and Jordan Peele.
We begin with King. Lots of King's books have been made into films or TV series, including "Misery," "Carrie," "The Shining," "Salem's Lot," "The Stand," "The Dead Zone," "Pet Sematary," "Castle Rock" and "Firestarter." Terry spoke with him in 1992 about his book, "Gerald's Game." A slight warning here. There are some descriptions that may be unsuitable for children. The book was long thought to be unfilmable, but eventually was released as a movie by Netflix in 2017.
As the book opens, a married couple is in their forest cabin. They're ready to play an S&M sex game. She's on the bed, and her wrists are cuffed to the bed posts. She realizes she's tired of this game, but she can't get her husband to stop as he forces himself on her. She kicks him where it hurts most. He collapses, suffers a heart attack and dies. And she's alone, cuffed to the bed in the middle of the woods. Now the horror really begins.
Terry asked King what made him think about how corny sex games can be.
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STEPHEN KING: Actually, "Gerald's Game" started with the concept of the woman being chained to the bed. I'd written a book before where a woman and a small child were stuck in a car that was sort of surrounded, if you will, by a rabid Saint Bernard. That book was called "Cujo." And essentially, what a lot of that book was was two people in a very small room, although it did have a shifting perspective so that it went to other characters. And I thought originally this was the takeoff point for the book. Wouldn't it be interesting to see what would happen if you had one character in a room?
The question then became, what caused this woman to be in this room by herself? And the answer that I came up with was bondage. She's handcuffed to a bed, and that forced me to sort of consider what causes people to do this sort of thing. And so once I had set up the situation, I knew what it was going to be. I went in and ran a little bit about it and thought a little bit about it. And the whole thing struck me as a little bit Victorian. There was something very snidely whiplash about the whole thing, and I tried to get that into the book.
TERRY GROSS: Well, you do in a very funny way. I mean, the husband says to his wife as she's handcuffed to the bedpost, he says, I'll teach you me proud beauty...
KING: Yes, exactly.
GROSS: ...Pronouncing beauty the way the landlord in a bad Victorian melodrama.
KING: You can almost see him waxing his mustaches, can't you?
GROSS: Right, right, right. So you got the corniness and the danger of this kind of S&M sex play. Let's get, Stephen King, to the kind of gore and terror and suspense that you create. There's a scene in "Gerald's Game," your new novel, that I'd like you to read from. And this is a scene in which the wife is still handcuffed to the bedpost. Her husband is laying dead on the floor. And a stray, vicious dog from the area has walked into the house and has started dining on the woman's dead husband. Would you read it for us?
KING: I sure will.
(Reading) Gerald's widow's peak was in disarray, probably as a result of the dogs licking the blood out of it. But his glasses were still firmly in place. She could see his eyes half open and glazed, glaring up from their puffy sockets at the fading sun ripples on the ceiling. His face was still a mask of ugly red and purple blotches, as if even death had not been able to assuage his anger at her sudden capricious - had he seen it as capricious? Of course he had. Change of mind. Let go of him, she told the dog. But her voice was now meek and sad and strengthless. The dog barely twitched its ears at the sound of it and didn't pause at all. It merely went on pulling the thing with the disobeyed widow's peak and the blotchy complexion. This thing no longer looked like disco Gerald, not a bit.
Now it was only dead Gerald, sliding across the bedroom floor with a dog's teeth buried in its flabby biceps. Afraid flap of skin hung over the dog's snout. Jessie tried to tell herself it looked like wallpaper, but wallpaper did not, at least as far as she knew, come with moles and a vaccination scar. Now she could see Gerald's pink, fleshy belly marked only by the small caliber bullet hole that was his navel. His penis flopped and dangled in its nest of black pubic hair. His buttocks whispered along the hardwood boards with ghastly, frictionless ease. Abruptly, the suffocating atmosphere of her terror was pierced by a shaft of anger so bright, it was like a stroke of heat lightning inside her head. She did more than accept this new emotion. She welcomed it. Rage might not help her get out of this nightmarish situation, but she sensed it would serve as an antidote to her growing sense of shocked unreality. You bastard, she said in a low, trembling voice. You cowardly slinking bastard.
GROSS: That's Stephen King reading from his novel "Gerald's Game." Do you think of yourself as having taken the horror novel to a kind of more physically explicit place than it had ever been before?
KING: Yeah, I think that, to some degree, I did do that. I think probably I've been surpassed in that area by some of the people who've come after me. I'm thinking mostly of Clive Barker.
GROSS: Clive Barker, yeah.
KING: Yeah, but you realize that when I started reading and experiencing horror, some of it that I was reading and experiencing came from a very graphic wellspring. And I'm thinking about the horror comics of the 1950s, things like "Tales From The Crypt" and "The Vault Of Horror" that can now be seen on Home Box Office. And at the same time, I was discovering horror movies. I usually went by myself in the afternoon to the Hi-Way theatre in Stratford, Conn., which is still there, incidentally, and saw things like "I Was A Teenage Werewolf" with Michael Landon or "I Was A Teenage Frankenstein" or whatever it happened to be. And it was there that I started to see that it might be possible to combine some of the classic elements with some of the things that I was seeing in the schlock press and the schlock movies.
GROSS: When you would see movies like this, did they scare you or just amuse you?
KING: No, they scared me. You have to remember that we're talking 10 or 11 years old. And even with a picture like "Teenage Monster," where the flying saucer appeared to be a cool cigarette filter tipped with a sparkler stuck in it, that it looked real to me because I was at a young and very credulous age. And one of the other things that I sensed is, as time went passed and I got a little more discriminating in my ability to detect special effects, if not necessarily my sense of taste, was that when I wrote it, you never saw the zipper going up the monster's back, that when the imagination was in charge of special effects, they were always perfect, as perfect as the book was, anyway.
GROSS: What did you like about being scared when you were young?
KING: I liked the total surrender of emotional control. It was very important to me, and I would almost be willing to say sort of a life saver. I'd been raised in a family where emotional control was a really important thing. You weren't supposed to show you were afraid. You weren't supposed to show that you were in pain or frightened or sad or - happiness was permissible as long as it didn't go too far. Because then one might be considered to be almost insane if one got too happy. So that emotional control was, you know, sort of a requirement in all the movies. My brother, David, was crazy about Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. That was his emotional release. It's all a form of emotional seduction. And for me, the terror was what really appealed to something that, I think, is probably just inside people, that there isn't any logical way to explain it. But I loved it, and I loved giving up that control.
GROSS: Now, what about when you passed real terror? I mean, for instance, if you would pass a car accident, would you look or turn the other way?
KING: I can't remember that a lot of that ever happened in my life. What I can remember is making a very clear and conscious differentiation between make-believe horror, like "I Was A Teenage Werewolf," and something real that happened. When I was a kid at around the same time that Michael Landon was playing that werewolf, the make-believe werewolf, there was a kid named Charlie Starkweather, who took his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, and the two of them went on a killing spree across the Midwest. They killed - I don't know - 10 or 11 people in Nebraska and then over in Wyoming, where they were captured. And he was put to death in the electric chair.
And I kept a scrapbook about these people. You know, I would cut out the items and paste them in this scrapbook that I had. And my mother was very disturbed about it. This was in the mid-'50s, and it was a time when child psychology was not exactly in vogue. But I think that if it had been, she probably would have sent me to one. I think that - I can remember her saying, why are you interested in these people, Stephen? What is it? And what I was not able to explain at 10 or 11 years old was, I want to know these people if I ever run into them - not because they attract me, but because they scare the hell out of me. I want to know what the real beast in the real world looks like so I can steer clear of him or her or them.
BIANCULLI: Stephen King speaking to Terry Gross in 1992. After a break, more with Stephen King from 2013. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's listen now to Terry's 2013 interview with Stephen King about his novel "Joyland." It's set at an amusement park called Joyland in 1973. The novel combines elements of crime, horror and the supernatural. The main character is a college student who takes a job at this amusement park where he enters a different world. They began with King reading from the novel.
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KING: (Reading) I stashed my basket of dirty rags and Turtle Wax by the exit door in the arcade. It was 10 past noon, but right then, food wasn't what I was hungry for. I walked slowly along the track and into Horror House. I had to duck my head when I passed beneath the screaming skull even though it was now pulled up and locked in its home position.
(Reading) My footfalls echoed on a wooden floor painted to look like stone. I could hear my breathing. It sounded harsh and dry. I was scared, OK? Tom had told me to stay away from this place. But Tom didn't run my life any more than Eddie Parks did. Between the dungeon and the torture chamber, the track descended and described a double S-curve where the cars picked up speed and whipped the riders back-and-forth.
(Reading) Horror House was a dark ride, but when it was in operation, this stretch was the only completely dark part. It had to be where the girl's killer had cut her throat and dumped her body. How quick he must have been and how certain of exactly what he was going to do. I walked slowly down the double S, thinking it would not be beyond Eddie to hear me and shut off the overhead work lights as a joke, to leave me here to feel my way past the murder site with only the sound of the wind and that one slapping board to keep me company. And suppose, just suppose, a young girl's hand reached out in that darkness and took mine.
GROSS: That's Stephen King reading from his new novel, "Joyland." So this is a crime novel that's set in an amusement park in North Carolina. But there's also an element of the supernatural in it. Why did an amusement park that's kind of very carny seem like a good opportunity to combine crime and the supernatural?
KING: Well, I always wanted to write a novel set in an amusement park. And in the original concept of "The Shining," that was going to be a family that was caretaking an amusement park at the close of the season. And I had sort of an idea...
GROSS: Instead of an old hotel.
KING: Instead of an old hotel, yeah. And I had a title for the book. I was going to call it "Dark Shine," and I think I had a name for the for the amusement park, too. It might have been "Skyhook" or something like that, named after one of the rides. Ever since I was a little boy and I went to the Topsham Fair, I've loved the rides and the barkers. I think those people in particular - the shy bosses, they're called - they're the people who turn the tips. They're the ones who stand out in front and tell you, you know, everybody wins, folks. Everybody wins.
KING: Come on over. It's just a quarter of a dollar, and everybody wins. Hey, mister, you want to win this big stuffy toy for your girlfriend? She's a beauty, and she deserves - you know, that kind of thing. In a way, it's a little bit like revival preachers, but in a secular version. So I've always been kind of fascinated by those things and in love with it. And I just kind of wanted to visit that world for a while.
I had an idea for the story, which, by the way, has been in my head for about 20 years now. And all it was, to begin with, was an image of a boy in a wheelchair flying a kite on a beach. And that picture was just as clear in my mind as it could be. And it wanted to be a story, but it wasn't a story. It was just a picture as clear, as clear, as clear. And little by little, the story built itself around it. And I thought, well, there's an amusement park down the beach from where this kid in the wheelchair is trying to fly his kite. And the name of the amusement park is Joyland.
GROSS: So you mentioned the boy in the wheelchair was the first image that came to you. And that boy in the novel is a 10-year-old named Mike who has muscular dystrophy but a special kind, which usually kills you in your early teens or 20s. But Mike has the sight. What is the power that he has?
KING: He has a power to see a little bit beyond this world. And he has a very small talent compared to some of the other characters in books that I've written. He's got a little bit of precognition.
GROSS: When you were in your formative years, what were your supernatural fears? And did you always wish you had some of the supernatural powers that you've given some of your characters?
KING: I think it's built in. I think it's just part of human nature. I've been queried a lot about where I get my ideas or how I got interested in this stuff. And at some point, a lot of interviewers just turn into Dr. Freud and put me on the couch and say, what was your childhood like? And I say various things, and I confabulate a little bit and kind of dance around the question as best as I can. But bottom line, my childhood was pretty ordinary, except, from a very early age, I wanted to be scared. I just did. I was scared. Afterwards, I wanted a light on because I was afraid that there was something in the closet.
My imagination was very active, even at a young age. For instance, there was a radio program at that time called "Dimension X," and my mother didn't really want me to listen to that because she felt it was too scary for me. So I would creep out of bed and go to the bedroom door and crack it open. And she loved it, so apparently I got it from her. But I would listen at the door, and then when the program was over (laughter) I'd go back to bed and quake.
GROSS: So you wanted to be scared or, I mean, did you have an avoidance thing with being scared, or did you just want to be scared?
KING: Terry, I loved it. It was a classic attraction-repulsion thing. I wanted to be scared. I wanted that reaction.
GROSS: Are there things that scare you as an adult that you were not aware enough of or smart enough for when you were a kid to understand that these were frightening things?
KING: Well, you grow up, and you become frightened of different things. And they have a tendency to be real-world things.
KING: It's been quite a while since I was really afraid that there was a boogeyman in my closet. Although I am still very careful to keep my feet under the covers when I go to sleep because the covers are magic, and if your feet are covered, it's like boogeyman kryptonite. So I'm not as afraid of that as I used to be. The supernatural stuff doesn't get to me anymore. But here's the movie that scared me the most in the last 12 or 13 years. The movie opens with a woman in late middle age, sitting at a table and writing a story. And the story goes something like, then the branches creaked in the - and she stops and she says to her husband, what are those things? I can't think of them. They're in the backyard, and they're very tall and birds land on the branches. And he says, why, Iris, those are trees. And she says, yes. How silly of me. And she writes the word and the movie starts. That's Iris Murdoch. And she's suffering the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
KING: That's the boogeyman in the closet now.
GROSS: Why is that the thing you're most afraid of?
KING: I'm afraid of losing my mind.
GROSS: Losing your memory.
KING: Well, you don't just lose your memory. You lose your mind. Basically, you lose your identity, your sense of who you are. Here's what I'm saying - as we get older, our fears in some way sharpen and become more personal because we can no longer, let's say, take a book like "It" or maybe "Christine" and say these are make-believe fears. Instead, we have more of a tendency to focus on things that we know are out there. We fear for our families. We fear for our mental abilities. We fear for diseases. These are very real fears. So when you ask me what I'm afraid of, I'd say I still go to see ghost movies when I get a chance or some sort of supernatural being, that kind of thing. But it doesn't scare me as it scared me when I was a child. But on the other hand, if I see a wonderful writer like Iris Murdoch losing her mind, I have more of a tendency to focus on that than how loving her husband was, which is supposed to be the uplifting part of that film.
BIANCULLI: Stephen King, recorded in 2013. His latest novel is called "Fairy Tale." Coming up, Jordan Peele tells us about combining horror and racial anxiety in his film "Get Out." And Justin Chang reviews the new film "Armageddon Time." I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Jordan Peele got his start making us laugh as one-half of the comedy duo Key & Peele. But now he's known for scaring us as the writer-director of the horror films "Get Out," "Us" and "Nope." He also hosted and was one of the executive producers of a recent streaming TV reboot of "The Twilight Zone." "Get Out" is a horror film with racial anxiety at its center. With it, Peele became the first African American writer-director whose debut film earned more than $100 million at the box office.
"Get Out" is about a young African American photographer, Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, who is dating a white woman, Rose, played by Allison Williams. Rose takes Chris to meet her parents. But she hasn't told her parents that Chris is Black. When they arrive at Rose's parents' house, the parents - played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener - go out of their way to be friendly and to show how much they appreciate Black culture. But there's something suspicious beneath their genial liberal surface. Terry spoke to Jordan Peele in 2017. Let's start with a scene from early in the film. Chris and Rose are on the way to her parents' home in an affluent suburb. She's driving when their car hits a deer. They pull over. And a police officer arrives and asks for ID.
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TREY BURVANT: (As Officer Ryan) Sir, can I see your license, please?
ALLISON WILLIAMS: (As Rose) Wait. Why?
DANIEL KALUUYA: (As Chris) Yeah, I have state ID.
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) No, no, no - he wasn't driving.
BURVANT: (As Officer Ryan) I didn't ask who was driving. I asked to see his ID.
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) Yeah. Why? That doesn't make any sense.
KALUUYA: (As Chris) Here.
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) You don't have to give him your ID because you haven't done anything wrong.
KALUUYA: (As Chris) Baby, baby, it's OK. Come on.
BURVANT: (As Officer Ryan) Any time there is an incident, we have every right to...
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) [Expletive].
BURVANT: (As Officer Ryan) Ma'am...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Is everything all right, Ryan?
BURVANT: (As Officer Ryan) Yeah, I'm good. Get that headlight fixed and that mirror.
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) Thank you, officer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Jordan Peele, welcome to FRESH AIR. I should mention, we can't see Chris, the boyfriend, the African American boyfriend cringing and trying to, like, disappear during that scene. What are some of the things the Allison Williams character did wrong (laughter)?
JORDAN PEELE: Well, you know, part of this scene is about the white girlfriend, who's dating her first Black boyfriend, getting woke to a certain racial dynamic for the first time. So you know, part of this story is watching her wrestle with the racial implications of all these interactions that she's never really had to wrestle with before. For Chris, or for, you know, African Americans in this sort of situation or other situations that arise later, the experience and the perception of the racial undertones is an everyday experience.
GROSS: So you call your new movie a social thriller. Is that your coinage, social thriller?
PEELE: It is. It is.
GROSS: I like it. So how did you come up with the idea of a social thriller focused around a young African American man who's taken by his white girlfriend to meet her parents, and things don't go as planned for anyone (laughter)?
PEELE: Yeah. The gestation period for this idea was - you know, kind of spanned several years. And I think one of the most important milestones in that process was just realizing that, you know, every true horror, human horror, American horror, has a horror movie that deals with it and allows us to face that fear and - except race, in a modern sense, hadn't been touched, you know? It really hadn't been touched, in my opinion, since "Night Of The Living Dead" 50 years ago - maybe with the film "Candyman." And that, to me - I just saw a void there. So it really started with this notion of, like, this has to be possible. Let's figure it out.
GROSS: So why the idea of the white girlfriend with a Black boyfriend bringing him to her parents?
PEELE: At some point, I realized that the movie "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" was really the perfect starting point for this film. I think one of the reasons that film was so - it resonated so powerfully is that it's a universal situation. Take race out of it, we can all relate to the fears of meeting our potential in-laws for the first time, and the feelings like we might not be what is expected. So I just thought it was a great entry point to help make this movie inclusive, to help make it something that you don't have to be African American to emotionally connect to the main character here.
GROSS: So in horror films, usually, like, the main character has seen something nefarious or is being hunted by a monster or an alien, but no one believes them. And the main character starts to question his or her own sanity. And that kind of happens in your movie, "Get Out," but it has all these racial overtones to it. And I think it's interesting that you're using this form, this genre, to get at that feeling of uncertainty, of not knowing whether what someone has just said or done actually has a racist overtone or maybe you're overreacting. Maybe you're projecting something that isn't fair, you know, because there's that constant uncertainty until we really know what the story is.
PEELE: That's right. I mean, it's one of the...
GROSS: Did you experience that a lot, that uncertainty? Like, I don't know what that person said is kind of racist. Or am I just, like, projecting that on? I mean, I've experienced that as a woman a lot. Like, that thing...
GROSS: ...That that guy just said - is that really sexist, or does he understand what he just said? - (laughter), you know.
PEELE: That's exactly right. I think we're wired, at this point, to look for these interactions and to wonder and to sometimes - you know, to call them like we see them. But we're also, you know, I think, any minority - women, gay people - you know, we're constantly told we're not seeing what we are seeing. You know, I'm glad you brought up gender because this thing you're talking about is also present in "The Stepford Wives."
GROSS: You know, I've never seen that.
PEELE: It is...
GROSS: Should I see that?
PEELE: Oh, you should - if you like "Get Out," you should absolutely see it. It's one of the most well-crafted social thrillers that there is. And in it, much like in "Rosemary's Baby," with Mia Farrow, the protagonist is in this state you're talking about, where it's crazy enough that something awful might be going on. But it's also real enough that something just normal and awful might be going on.
And so what ends up happening is we see that state that you've described as being part of being a woman. I described it as being part of being African American, as being told we're not seeing what we think we're seeing. It's a perfect state for a protagonist of a thriller because it helps keep the character in this unfolding, dire situation longer because he, she can sort of mentally justify why this might be, you know, something that they're overreacting or going crazy about. So that was another thing. I wanted to make a movie that satisfies an audience's need for a character to be smart.
BIANCULLI: Jordan Peele speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2017 interview with Jordan Peele, the former comic whose frightening films include "Get Out," "Us" and "Nope."
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GROSS: You've said that you knew by the time you were 13 that you wanted to make a horror film. How did you know that?
PEELE: I was a very scared child - not - you know, not so much of life, but of the - the demons that lurked in the dark and horror movies terrified me. You know, I'd love watching them. But then, at night, I would just be up in sweats all night. At some point, I - you know, I swear, Terry, it was like my mind just shifted in order to cope with these fears. And, you know, I sort of became obsessed with this idea of mastering my own fear, that if I could do what these, you know, great horror people did, that I would be wielding this power as opposed to being a victim to it. That's what happened. I just - I fell in love with horror films.
GROSS: What's one of the films that really scared you when you were young?
PEELE: You know, one of them that really got me was "Nightmare On Elm Street". There was - and something about the way that, you know, Freddy operated with so much malice - and also the way that those movies, you know, the sequels especially, begins, almost being told - with Freddy as the main character. It was almost as if we were meant to identify with this monster more than the teens he was killing. And he had this weird, dark sense of humor. Something about that really disturbed me to my core.
GROSS: Were you afraid of his hands that have these, like, you know, knifelike fingers that you can slash people with?
PEELE: (Laughter) Terry, you are so cute (laughter).
GROSS: What did I do wrong (laughter)?
PEELE: Yes, I was scared the knife glove. Yes.
GROSS: All right.
PEELE: I was terrified of the knife glove. I was terrified of the idea that you can't escape him by going to sleep. But, you know, there was the - you know, really, what got me was this sort of urge that, you know, the movie was trying to make you relate - you know, people would cheer, you know, Freddy's little - you know, he'd kill somebody brutally and then say, like, you know, some stupid pun (laughter), you know? And, like, you know, like, game over, chump, you know?
PEELE: He, like, kills a guy with a video game or something. And then, like, the audience, like, laughs and is on - and I was not, you know, on Freddy's side. I was, like, terrified of Freddy. So that sort of - that was this interesting period in horror where the audience was sort of invited to relate to the monster. It kind of started with this stalker vision idea from the '70s, where, you know, the camera would be lurking behind the trees, watching, you know, some sorority girl taking a shower. And, you know, that whole world of things is terrifying to me 'cause it's asking you to identify with your internal predator or something. It's very, very disturbing.
GROSS: You told - I think it was Jason Zinoman in The New York Times that you'd made a list of your favorite types of scares in movies. What are some of those scares that made it to your list?
PEELE: Well, there is, you know, the scare from, you know, "The Shining," where we are turning a corner or entering an area and these little - two little girls are waiting for us at the end of the hallway. And there's - you know, there's also the - in "Silence Of The Lambs" when we meet Hannibal Lecter, this - you know, arriving to this person who's been waiting for us. There's something about that that is just scary. The notion of depth of - you know, we have - there's a scene where Walter is running through the field at the night straight at Chris. And that is very...
GROSS: This is in your film.
PEELE: This was in my film. And this was inspired by, you know, the plane sequence in "North By Northwest." There's this visceral reaction that happens when you're watching a film and something is barreling towards the camera. It's almost like a natural instinct, you know, like, from back in the days when there's a lion coming at us. It's like - you know, your DNA is telling you, just squat and run, you know?
PEELE: Fall to the floor. Play dead or run or do something. Then, there is, you know, of course, the - you know, one of the big techniques that I use in this film is, you know, inspired by, you know, things like the "Blair Witch Project," which is that terror works almost better than horror. And when I make the distinction - it's actually Stephen King's distinction that he noted. I don't know if it's his, per se, but he noted it in one of his books - I think "Danse Macabre" - where he's talking about terror is the fear of what's to come. And I think that that is the most important type of fear to use in a horror movie, is if the audience knows it's heading somewhere dark, then you don't have to overload us with these horrible moments. The audience is doing the work the entire time. The audience's imagination will do a better, more personalized version of the horror than you can actually paint. So that just, you know, with something like "The Blair Witch Project," which is, you know, whatever, it's 89 minutes of people running through the woods and one minute of, you know, a guy standing in a corner.
PEELE: It's, you know, on paper, it shouldn't work, but it was so effective.
GROSS: So one of the things that you draw in this is this fear of somebody kind of like invading your brain, like, not only getting under your skin, but like invading your mind. And that's been a theme of a lot of horror films like "Invaders From Mars." Have you seen that?
PEELE: I haven't seen that one.
GROSS: Oh, that's a great one. I think it's from, like, the 1950s. Like, aliens land and transplant these things into people's heads. And they look like the same person, except they look hypnotized. And they're not behaving the same because they're under the control of these invaders from Mars. But the main character in your movie, the guy, he's a smoker. And his girlfriend's mother offers to hypnotize him and help him stop smoking because that's one of the things she does in her therapy practice. And his friend urges him, don't. She might get into your mind. This figures into the story in a larger way that I won't describe, but I really - watching the film, I was really wondering, like, are you a smoker? Did you try hypnosis?
PEELE: (Laughter) I used to smoke. I have not tried hypnosis, but it is something that, you know, I think is kind of universally scary to people, right? This idea that, oh, my God, what - if somebody can probe into my psyche, there's no telling what - how vulnerable I'll be and what kind of influence they could have. You know, albeit this is a stereotype, but it's grounded in reality. Black people have not had the experience with therapy as a whole that white people have, or at least there is a heightened fear in the Black community of this idea of going to a psychiatrist. It's like, no, I'm good. I'm going to go to church, you know.
So that was another reason why I thought this sort of mental probing, this whole thing, you know, Chris would sit down in this chair with Missy, played by Catherine Keener, you know, I could just hear, you know, the Black people in the audience going, no, no, no, no, don't do it. Come on. Get out of that room right now. Get out. Get out, Get out. You can sort of hear and sort of feel that. And, you know, Chris himself is appropriately skeptical of the process as well.
GROSS: So Roger Ebert had a phrase he called the idiot plot, which he described that any plot that could be solved instantly if all the characters weren't idiots. And so in horror films, the idiot plot is when the monster's kind of coming after them, and they very, very slowly, like, back away instead of just, like, running. Or, like, they run right into a corner where they're definitely going to be, like, locked in as opposed to, you know, like, getting into a car and driving away. And if they just behaved rationally, the story would end. And they'd be alive at the end of the movie. Did you try to avoid, like, all the idiot plot kind of things when you were writing the film? Like, even if you don't know that expression, did you sense that there's a lot of stupid ways of reacting in some not very good horror films that you wanted to avoid?
PEELE: I did. I did. Yeah. That was one of the things, especially something that I feel like every horror movie fan is sort of underserved with smart protagonists, certainly Black horror movie fans have been, you know, been particularly vocal. I mean, there's the whole Eddie Murphy routine about, you know, Black people in a horror movie wouldn't last very long, right? They just walk in, you hear, get out. Too bad we can't stay, baby.
PEELE: You know, that was - that's, you know, one of the great routines. And yeah, so this movie - and one of the reasons the Ira Levin school of writing...
GROSS: He wrote "Rosemary's Baby," yeah.
PEELE: He wrote "Rosemary's Baby." And he also wrote "The Stepford Wives" and...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
PEELE: ..."Boys From Brazil." But he has this great - he saves the big events until the end. So he just, you know, he does this great thing where he takes one little step into weird town. And then he does the work to justify why the character would - how the character is justifying staying. It goes to what we were talking about earlier about the protagonist questioning their own paranoia versus the reality of what they're perceiving. So that was one of the reasons I went with a movie of this pace, because if, you know, if Chris got to the Armitage home in this movie and some huge crazy thing happened, then the movie would have to be over.
BIANCULLI: Jordan Peele speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. The writer and director of "Get Out" has since directed other well-received films in the horror genre, including "Us" and "Nope." After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new film "Armageddon Time," featuring Anne Hathaway and Anthony Hopkins. This is FRESH AIR.
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