There was a time when witchcraft legitimately terrified people. There are places where it still does, but it has been a long time since we, in Western culture, have feared witchcraft as a real threat to our daily lives. The memory of this fear has been passed down through the centuries in fiction and finally film, eliciting scares in brief suspensions of disbelief. While there has been a revival in recent years of films dealing with witchcraft, exemplified by The Witch (2015), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) is effective due to the way it subverts the tropes that plagued the 1990s and 2000s.
Witches in cinema had many notable moments during the 20th century, from the iconic Wicked Witch of the West in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) to the dance school coven in Suspiria (1977). Characterized as not only evil and mysteriously powerful, but often as devil worshippers, they shared an audience with such “religious horror” films as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976). These works tapped into the fear of an evil yet invisible power, inexplicably harnessed by humans, and used to do harm.
At the same time, there were signs as early as the 1964 sitcom Bewitched that witches were being softened for public consumption in less threatening ways. The sinister powers bestowed on these women became trivialized as their motivations became more domesticated, or in the case of The Witches of Eastwick (1987) as an escape from the dullness of domestic life. In later decades, witchcraft became aligned with the New Age movement, culminating in the release of 1996’s The Craft.
Presented as a mainstream horror film, the primary achievement of The Craft was in taking witchcraft beyond acceptability and making it “cool.” It was an empowerment fantasy for outcast young women coping with the pressures of high school, and while there are certainly horror elements in the latter half, the lessons drawn from it about power and responsibility might have been delivered by Peter Parker’s uncle Ben. Not only did the film imply that witchcraft was a power that could be used positively, but it spent much of its runtime detailing the (fictitious) rituals used to harness it. This attention to the method of magic established a trope that would last for years, particularly in television—from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (1997) and Charmed (1998) to Supernatural (2005).
In the 2010s, perhaps as a reaction to this, witches have seen a return to form in horror films. It is debatable whether The Autopsy of Jane Doe is one of the best, but it is important precisely because of its attention to a different kind of method. The film begins with a simple yet compelling premise: a pristine body is found at the scene of a multiple murder, and a coroner and his son are charged with determining cause of death. Their occupation seems morbid, but their casual manner, their poking fun at each other, and the upbeat rock music in the background shows the audience that this is just another day on the job, and they go about their exacting work with practised ease.
There are many ways to tell a good story about witches, but The Autopsy of Jane Doe has tasked itself with dissecting the genre, to learn what it is that frightened us in the first place. It is thoroughly modern, both in its setting and its concept, but it takes us back to a time when we were at the mercy of unseen forces, and even superstition could not save us.
This is the clever inversion of the modern witchcraft trope: instead of a witch’s fictional power producing a now predictable effect, a medical practitioner’s hard science fails to reveal rational answers. The original fear of witchcraft lay in its lack of earthly reason, its defiance of nature, and The Autopsy of Jane Doe returns us to that fear piece by piece, inviting superstition by negating logic. When we finally suspect witchcraft, it is not as an explanation in itself highlighted by eerie special effects, but as the absence of an explanation, and thus a thing we are powerless against.
Their methods are not only grounded in science, but in our collective understanding of autopsies from police procedurals and true crime documentaries. We are not experts in medicine, but we expect that the characters are professionals, that explanations are forthcoming. However, each layer of the examination reveals a piece that does not fit the rest of the puzzle. Not only do they not make sense in combination with each other, they soon become individually impossible to explain. The impending failure of science is the source of the film’s growing sense of unease.