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“THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE” and Waking the Witch Within

Friday, March 10, 2023 | All of Them Witches, Deep Dives


THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE is ostensibly a story about death. André Øvredal’s terrifying film follows Austin (Emile Hirsch) and Tommy (Brian Cox), a father-son team of coroners tasked with examining a body found partially buried beneath a brutal crime scene. They dub the anonymous woman Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly) and lay her naked corpse on their examining table for the invasive procedure. As they cut into her flesh, they discover that Jane Doe is much more than a cadaver. She is a centuries-old witch created by viscous torture who has been lying dormant in the earth since her execution during the Salem Witch Trials. With each layer Tommy and Austin peel away from her bones, they awaken her powers. Rather than discover and report her tragic story, they inadvertently awaken a powerful witch hellbent on reclaiming her own autonomy. 

Tommy and Austin are dedicated coroners who take pride in their objectivity. After decades of experience uncovering the secrets of the dead, Tommy refuses to settle for easy answers and insists on a thorough analysis of each corpse. The local sheriff brings Jane Doe to them because he knows they are reliable and will honor her body with a dedication to the truth. Found underneath the remnants of a massacre, she is the key to unlocking the savage crime and the sheriff needs answers he can share with the media. Their intentions are good and their methods sound, but they view Jane’s body through a proprietary lens and consider her story theirs to share with the world.

Unfortunately, we learn that Tommy and Austin are not as professional with corpses not on their examination table. When Austin’s girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) visits the morgue, she asks to see a dead body. Austin demures, not because he wants to preserve the dignity of the cadavers he’s been tasked with protecting, but because he’s concerned Emma will be upset by what she sees. When Tommy convinces him to show her a body, the three open a drawer and gaze at the poor soul’s remains. In accordance with old tradition, Tommy has tied a bell around the ankle, supposedly to prevent a premature burial. As Emma leans in to get a good look at the deceased person, he rings the bell to scare her. Father and son both see this as a harmless joke, likely because they have become accustomed to the gallows humor that would help them survive such an upsetting profession, but how many of us would want our own bodies used in such a fashion? Would we be ok with the physical remains of our lives used as a joke when we have lost the power to consent? This bell will later come back to haunt Tommy as will his cavalier attitude towards the bodies under his care. 

They begin the autopsy with a full inspection of Jane’s remains. With no obvious cause of death, her body appears physically perfect from the outside. Only an invasive examination reveals a different story. They open her mouth and see that her tongue has been cut out. They feel her bones and notice fractures at the wrists and ankles. Jane’s lungs show signs that she was burned alive though no evidence exists on the surface of her skin. These injuries begin to paint a picture of the torture Jane endured before her death. Markings from a piece of cloth forced down her throat reveal a bible verse that references a witch. This leads Tommy and Austin to deduce that she was a long-ago victim of the Salem Witch Trials, tortured and executed because of an accusation that she was an occult practitioner. When they cut into her, she begins to bleed, suggesting that after all these years a part of her still lives. The persecution she endured was so great it has carried on for centuries and her desire for justice has transcended the grave. 

Tommy makes sure to note that there were no witches in Salem, only innocent men and women falsely accused. However, with their cruel torture and false accusations, the men of Salem inadvertently created the very thing they most feared. As Tommy and Austin peel back her skin, they notice markings on its inner layer, a sigil marking a spell of transformation. Jane’s body has become the location of her magic. Using the power of their fear, she has become an eternal entity, the spell that has endured through the years now awakened to avenge those who have lost their own autonomy.

Witchcraft has always been a home for the marginalized. Many members of othered communities find relief and the freedom to express themselves in a religion with no central power structure or orthodoxy. Despite widespread stereotypes, modern witchcraft is as diverse as the witches who practice it. Whether choosing a patron deity, communing with Spirit, following the cycles of the moon, or simply connecting with the earth itself, occult paganism is usually a way to foster an alignment between the self and the larger world. Many practitioners of witchcraft do not cast spells or hexes to harm. The vast majority of modern witches use their magick only to enhance their own lives. 

With so much of the western world governed by a Judaeo-Christian patriarchy, anything outside of a God-centered faith has been cast as sinister or dangerous. Governed by scripture that specifically tells women to submit to their husbands, this ideology revolves around gender-based oppression and any female-identifying person living happily outside of these norms threatens the entire system of power. The central structure of dominance cannot hold without women willing to relinquish control of their lives. Many religious leaders maintained this system of male authority by vilifying headstrong women. They were called witches; evil beings who must be killed to protect the innocent. These executions not only removed uncontrollable women from the community, but served as a warning to others: this is what happens when you step out of line.

But with this fear comes power. So many of us have learned that there is very little to be gained from giving up our rights to fly under the radar. If the only other option in a world designed to fear us is to be monstrous, then we will be monstrous? Many others find freedom in rejecting a religion that would malign anyone who challenges established norms. By torturing Jane Doe, by vilifying her among her community, they give her the force of their fear. Rather than submit to their fanatical lies, she has found a way to use their zealotry against them. Embracing this demonization can feel intensely empowering. So many witches describe a profound feeling of relief the first time they say aloud, “I am a witch.” There is power in owning this word and reclaiming the fear that has been used against us. 

Though she is targeting Tommy and Austin, Jane is not the first one to kill. Finding his late wife’s cat wounded, Tommy breaks the poor animal’s neck rather than attempt to treat its wounds. Jane may have injured the cat, but it is Tommy’s choice to end its life. He similarly kills Emma, though this death is an accident. Jane creates an illusion of a reanimated corpse and Tommy defends himself with an ax. He swings the deadly blade at what he thinks is a ghost only to realize seconds later that he has actually struck and killed his son’s girlfriend. Both of these deaths are the results of Tommy’s distorted perception and pattern of responding to situations out of his control with defensiveness or violence. Trapped in the basement and attacked by corpses, the coroners give up trying to figure out what Jane wants and resort to simply setting her body on fire. Like the men of Salem, they try to destroy what they cannot understand. And once again, this fire only makes Jane stronger. 

With no escape in sight, Tommy attempts to protect his son by absorbing Jane’s pain, believing that she will be satisfied with simple empathy. His body begins to twist, burn, and break, taking on the experience of her torture, but this is not enough to satisfy her desire for revenge. And it shouldn’t be. Horrific treatment of women who do not submit to patriarchal control has been thriving for centuries and one man’s act of martyrdom will not be enough. Jane may have gotten a tiny bit of vindication, but there are still millions of women suffering around the world. Tommy and Austin may consider themselves innocent, but they perpetuate a system in which women must be destroyed to be understood. There is still so much work to be done. 

Many witches begin the month of February by celebrating Imbolc, a time to honor the return of spring. The days grow longer and we take the first steps out of the darkness of a long, cold winter. Øvredal’s film tells the story of Jane’s own reawakening. She rises from the grave having absorbed the fear of the men around her in order to strengthen herself. By reclaiming her power, she represents every witch fed up with being vilified for taking control of their own lives. Her song can serve as a call to all marginalized people to let the sunshine reveal the power we each hold within ourselves. 

Jenn Adams
Jenn Adams is a writer and podcaster from Nashville, TN. She co-hosts both Psychoanalysis: A Horror Therapy Podcast and The Loser’s Club: A Stephen King Podcast. In addition to Rue Morgue, her writing has been published at Ghouls Magazine, Consequence of Sound, and Certified Forgotten. She is the author of the Strong Female Antagonist blog and will gladly talk your ear off about final girls, feminism, and Stephen King. @jennferatu