The Shell Game: From “Get Out” to “Parasite”
By Anne Anlin ChengFebruary 21, 2020
We might think of Parasite as a South Korean rewrite of Get Out. They share some apparent thematic echoes: the tropes of spatial and psychical verticality; the theme of ghosts and hauntings; the revelation of intimacy that harbors violence; even elegant garden parties that tend to go awry. The comparison threatens to elide some of the films’ differences: Get Out gives us a story of contemporary American racism as the product of the longue durée of American slavery; Parasite tells the tale of contemporary classism against the backdrop of South Korean independence and capitalist rebirth after generations of ravaging warfare and occupation. But race and class are, of course, inseparable: the privileges of the Armitage family in Get Out derive from generations of white wealth; the nouveau riche Parks in Parasite aspire to and mimic white American ideals from their faith in the durability of American-made products and the superiority of an American education, to the ideas of masculinity and empire embedded in a game of cowboys and Indians. Juxtaposing these films raises uneasy questions about how we as American audiences process racial injury versus economic injury, a tension that gets mapped onto questions of psychical damage versus material damage. Having your body stolen is surely more traumatic than having your house stolen … or is it?
Peele’s Get Out, winner of the Best Original Screenplay at the 2018 Oscars, offers us a human shell game that belies our faith, our most fundamental comfort, in the privacy of our psychical integrity and singularity. Get Out is so skin-crawlingly distressing, not because of its campy violence, but because of its relentless insights into the phantoms of American sociality, phantoms which haunt our very notion of personal privacy. This tale of reverse passing (whites passing for black) dramatizes our interiority (“who we really are”) as a layered and mediated play of nesting dolls. In Get Out, there is no simple “inside” versus “outside.” We have an organic black body that shelters a white phantom, within which we find the black psyche that has been forcibly interred in what the film calls the “sunken place” of its own oedipal trauma. In other words, there is no underground haven for this 21st-century invisible man, not even in his mind. For the black man, even the private, inaccessible kernel of his unconscious is not his own; it can be easily conscripted and injected, with the delicate tap of a teaspoon, into the white man’s own family drama (remember Grandpa Armitage’s crippled ego at the hands of a black athletic competitor, his son Dean’s ambitions to reconstitute his parents, and so on).
Building on Freud’s work on incorporation and introjection (both sharing similar meanings for him), psychoanalytic theorists Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok imagine the psyche as a series of encased “shells.” They tell us that the ego can be itself a haunted space when traumatic memory gets “buried without a legal burial place” that in turn can create a “sealed-off psychic place, a crypt in the ego, a phantom.” In Get Out, Missy Armitage, the white mother so disturbingly played by Catherine Keener, deploys hypnosis to call forth the protagonist Chris Washington’s (Daniel Kaluuya) own phantom, his traumatic memories of his dead mother, against himself, enfolding and trapping him within his own crypt. Abraham and Torok’s insight, however, is less interesting as a clinical diagnosis of the plot than as the beginning of a provocative conversation about how interlocking phantoms structure not individual psyches, but the larger, fragile, porous relations between subjects in a racialized landscape — what we might call shared crypts.
Get Out’s power stems from its insistence that we all share the shadowed encryptions of American racist history, even, and perhaps especially, for the well-assimilated subject. The truly horrifying psychological crisis in Get Out is not the void in Chris’s psyche but its vulnerability to external phantoms. The fact that we can talk about this tale of body-snatchers as a “shell game,” a vocabulary shared by psychoanalysis and confidence tricks, indexes the violence of the “love and theft” that haunt American history and the melancholic structure of the American racial psyche. The protagonist tries to remain true to himself throughout the film, but these acts of authenticity rely, counterintuitively and poignantly, on acts of subtle and laborious passing. For it’s not just the film’s very weird and traumatic form of passing — a black subject turned into a corporeal machine to house a white guy passing for black — that threatens Chris, but the just-as-distressing series of minor, quotidian, almost invisible accommodations that Chris has to adopt in a self-proclaimed postracial society.
Before even the cruel conscription of his physical body, Chris was already navigating a series of barely discernible but disquieting social interactions that lend a jarring note to the otherwise soothing tones of white middle-class life. He repeatedly failed to read the signs (an off joke here and there, a sight that does not compute) screaming all around him to Get Out the moment he entered the Armitage estate, not because he’s blind or deaf to them but because, at some level, he’s only all too aware of them.
The viewer can almost hear the running thoughts through Chris’s mind (did I just hear what I heard, do they know what they’re saying, is this what I think it is?), but he continually suspends his disbelief until he can no longer do so. Like so many of us in racially awkward moments, our protagonist wants so badly just to get over these moments. The imperative to get over these moments comes from a place much deeper than regard for social niceties; it arises as a claustrophobic survival instinct. It is about the socially (and hence self-)imposed injunction to carry on despite the tear in the social fabric, an erupting phantom, a gaping void that you must sidestep … or be confronted by the utter rejection of your very being by the people smiling around you.
Surrounded by phantoms, Chris has been sidestepping the “sunken places” of white American culture long before he enters Missy’s study. In this way, Chris does not rehearse a traditional plot of African-American passing but is instead ensnared by the injunction to assimilate that has historically been associated with Jewish Americans and Asian Americans — what Kenji Yoshino, after Erving Goffman, calls “covering.” Assimilation, however, is not simply an act of covering, which implies and reinforces the ideas of “true interiority” versus “false covers,” but rather a profound taking-in and incorporation of the other-as-self. This is why the most successful and seamless assimilation requires also the most labor.
Abraham and Torok have gone on to separate and distinguish between what Freud saw as unhealthy incorporation and what they see as healthy introjection. For them, Freudian incorporation signals a harmful encryption or cannibalization of unacknowledged and unprocessed traumatic loss, resulting in the creation of a phantom that casts a shadow upon the ego. They postulate that introjection, by contrast, designates “a constant process of acquisition and assimilation, the active potential of our potential to accommodate our own emerging desires and feelings as well as the events and influences of the external world.” In short, introjection is a positive — that is, life affirming — form of assimilation, unlike the deadening interment of Freudian incorporation. But Get Out reminds us that, for the racialized subject, the line between pathological incorporation and healthy introjection may not be so distinct. As the character of Chris Washington shows, the so-called well-adjusted racialized subject, seemingly at ease in the world, only appears so by constantly disavowing signs that he should be otherwise. What Chris demonstrates is that, for him, the necessary, life-affirming, survivalist process of introjection is always shadowed by and potentially indistinguishable from the devouring violence of assimilation and incorporation. In a world that is murderous for black subjects, introjection as “a constant process of acquisition and assimilation vital to survival” is a horror, a no-win double bind.
Two years later, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is equally preoccupied by the murderous paradoxes of intimacy: its seduction and shelter as well as its threats and disease. It is not a coincidence that a major character in the movie is a house: the designer, luxurious, spacious, light-filled, impeccable home of the Parks, clearly posed in contrast to the semi-subterranean, cramped, dark, and unclean apartment (repeatedly pissed on by drunkards passing by and later drowned in shit and city sewer during a storm) belonging to the Kims. The vast difference in economic status between the affluent Parks and the poor Kims is literalized in the film’s notably vertical cityscape: we see that, in order for the Kims to get to their home from the Parks’ luscious house, they have to descend into the bowel of the city (presumably Seoul) through dark tunnels and down multiple, zigzagging, long, steep flights of city stairways. The Kims are thus portrayed as underground people, aspiring to the social class represented by the Parks.
But even more interesting than the verticality of the city or the Kims’ social climbing ambitions is the fact that the Parks’ elegant home turns out to have a hidden depth of its own. We discover, along with the Kims who have wormed their way into the Parks’ home and employment, that there is a hidden basement beneath the basement: a secret bunker, built by the original architect and unknown to the current owners of the house (we are told that many rich people in South Korea built these things for security reasons in the face of national unrest), and we learn that this secret basement has been occupied for decades by Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon), husband to the Parks’ original housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) who, like their original chauffeur, was then set up and replaced by each member of the unscrupulous Kim family.
One might easily infer that the title of the film refers to the Kims or Moon-gwang and her husband, all of whom have been living off the Parks. Indeed, the film repeatedly associates the poor people in the film with vermin such as cockroaches, rats, and flies. Yet, if a parasite is defined as someone or something that lives at the expense of another without giving back, then surely the Parks cannot escape the censure explicit in the title. The Parks are shown to be financially generous and polite to their employees but ultimately indifferent to, even repulsed by, the people who enable the quotidian details of their “creaseless” life. Their will to not see that which sustains them cloaks them in safety like the upscale security system to their home. But it is Bong’s brilliance to show how that security is not only easily breached, but also that part of the Parks’ normal, secure life has long relied on the invisible labor of strangers embedded deep within their household. (There is this exquisite moment in the film when we discover that for years Mr. Park has been coming home to a welcoming hallway light synchronized to his steps that he takes to be faulty wiring and that turns out in fact to be a “gift” from his unknown guest in the basement.) The smooth rhythm of the Parks’ life flows in sync with the unquestioned servitude that they demand, like calling home unexpectedly with eight minutes notice for hot ramdon with ribeye to be ready as they step into the door.
As the Kims’ mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) tells her son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) is not nice even though she is rich; she is nice because she is rich. She is at once naïve and robotic, especially when she speaks English, as if underscoring that extra layer of affectation. And who can forget her first appearance in the movie when, slumped over a garden table like a collapsed doll, she had to be loudly clapped awake by the housekeeper? The lovely Mrs. Park runs her house like clockwork, even though she cannot cook or even run an appliance, thanks to the prosthetic and necessarily erased labor of her housekeeper.
As psychoanalysis knows, crypts do not stay sealed, and ghosts have a tendency to demand your attention. In the climactic scene of film, at the garden party, upon discovering that his wife Moon-gwang has died from a head injury accidentally inflicted by Kim Chung-sook, Geun-se finally emerges from the dark basement and starts a bloody rampage, killing Ki-jung (Park So-dam), the Kims’ daughter. But Geun-se is not the only ghost demanding an accounting in the bright light of day. It is at the same party that Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), the head of the Kim family, realizes that, for all his employer’s gestures of camaraderie, Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), the patriarch of the Park family, does not see him as a friend at all but just another paid employee. And it is when Ki-taek witnesses Dong-ik’s indifference to a bloody Ki-jung cradled in Ki-taek’s arms that Ki-taek relinquishes his daughter’s dying body to stand, walk up to Dong-ik, and stab him in the chest. The opening of the secret basement, the emergence of a homicidal Geun-se, and the subsequent bloodbath thus do not simply represent a payback against the Kims and their wrongdoings against the other servants; they also signal a return of the repressed for the Parks: the murderous eruption of the lower class.
If Peele’s contemporary American horror story peels back the layers of white psychic investment in black flesh, Bong’s family-romance-as-horror opens up the underside of upper-middle-class South Korean comfort and abject labor encrypted within. The “sunken place” for the Parks is that hidden basement and what lives in it. It is a piece of apt irony that Geun-se was literally the “ghost” that had traumatized the Parks’ young son when he was but a toddler and accidentally saw Geun-se as he was creeping out of the basement to steal food from the immaculate kitchen. This “troubled” child has for many years grown up haunted by this invisible man who is both stranger and housemate.
Get Out is about body-envy; Parasite is about house-envy. The Kims manage to replace one-by-one all of the employees in the Park household, from private tutors to chauffeur to housekeeper, inserting themselves into the daily intimacies of the Parks as utilitarian substitutes. Yet the Kims’ gift for substitution also says something about the logic of servitude for the Parks for whom servants are indeed wholly interchangeable and disposable. Their distinctness as a separate class must be maintained. Park Dong-ik, for example, repeatedly speaks of his disdain for people who “cross the line.” It is therefore not a coincidence that the Parks’ greatest weakness is their fear of contagion. It is by exploiting such anxiety — the original chauffeur’s “dirty sex” in the car or the original housekeeper’s tuberculosis (both invented and set up by the Kims) — that the Kims manage to fool and gain the trust of the Parks. Contagion is not only the theme but also the method deployed by the Kims. It is through suggestive nuances and gossip-like relays of communication, passed from various members of the Kim family into the Parks’ ears and then transmitted among the Parks themselves that the former manages to manipulate the latter. Thus, the Kims are able to cross the line (Ki-woo moving in on his teenage charge; the whole family taking over the Parks’ home while the latter were away on a camping trip), and, more precisely, be good at toeing the line.
Indeed, one of the surprises of the plot is how successful the Kims’ schemes are. What is really notable about the Kims is not that they are scammers, but that they are so good at the very skills that they pretend to have. At the beginning of the movie, the Kims were portrayed as poor, lazy, feckless people who fail at even the most simple and petty of jobs, like folding pizza boxes. But once Ki-woo meets the Parks and sets a plan into motion, we see a very different facet of the Kims: their team work, their efficiency. Ki-woo successfully passes himself off as a university student and so impresses Mrs. Park in one interview that she hires him to be the English tutor to her teenage daughter. Sister Ki-jung not only passes herself off as an art teacher and an art therapist but also manages in fact to be the one person who could calm and discipline the Park’s disturbed and hyper young son. Father Kim Ki-taek, initially shown as shiftless and unambitious, turns out to be a surprisingly capable valet. And the seemingly slovenly mother Kim Chung-sook who, through tricks and schemes, gets the job as the Parks’ new cook and housekeeper turns out to be undeniably an excellent cook and cleaner. In other words, the Kims are good pretenders because they can do all that they claim they could.
The Kims’ unexpected competence suggests that they could very well have been exactly what they pretend to be and more had their economic circumstances been different. Their crazy aspiration — to live the life of the Parks — is not so crazy after all. They got pretty far. As Ki-taek says at one point, relaxing in front of the vast glass wall of the Park home, “We are living here.” Indeed, weighed against their “vermin-likeness” is the force of their social aspiration, an aspiration that arguably launched the whole plot.
And the movie also ends on an aspiration. After all the bloodshed, Ki-taek, on the run from the police, disappears. We learn through Ki-woo much later that his father has never left the Park house and has instead gone underground into the secret bunker where Geun-se used to live. Ki-taek, in other words, has replaced Geun-se as the invisible man underground; he is now the new phantom in the crypt. The bunker has become sanctuary. For Chris in Get Out, entering the sunken place functioned as a return of repressed trauma; for Ki-taek and Geun-se before him, it is the precious comfort of repression itself.
Ki-woo only discovers his father’s whereabouts when, while spying on the now newly occupied Park house, he detects a Morse code message (made by Ki-taek in the basement) from the very lamp that Geun-se had used to light Mr. Park’s way. Back in his semi-subterranean apartment, Ki-woo writes a letter to his father in which he explains that he will “do whatever it takes” to make money so that he can one day buy that house and release his father. As he writes the letter, we see this very reunion being played out on screen. The sequence is clearly fantasy: the movie opens and ends on the desire to have.
We have all encountered that conundrum: what is appropriation and what is tribute? The answer is difficult because mimicry can often entail both. In Get Out, the black man’s body and psyche are vulnerable to hijacking. In Parasite, the poor man and woman are the hijackers, the voracious raiders. We now reencounter our initial query: is house-grabbing a poor (that is, shallow) trauma compared to the horrors of body snatching? Looking at Get Out and Parasite in dialogue raises the question: have we, at least ostensibly, learned the lessons of race but not of class? History’s censure of slavery has made it clear who are the good guys and who are the bad in Get Out. But it is harder to make such a judgment when it comes to Parasite.
It all comes down to a question of property: psychical, bodily, material. The fact that most people tend to think of these different levels of property in a scale of descending value — surely the loss of one’s very self is more horrifying than losing one’s house — belies some of the most disturbing paradoxes in our value system: how we privilege high human values over base material desires, and yet we often act otherwise. At the end of Parasite, the poor Kim family ends where they began, but with even more losses. What is even more haunting is the proposition that, should Ki-woo ever achieve the ambition that he promises his father in his letter, he will have but successfully replaced Park Dong-ik: another one of the serial owners of a dream house founded on a sunken place, which is to say, the parasite and host would merge. Introjection as “a constant process of acquisition and assimilation vital to survival” has taken on a dark note indeed.
With the glass house being both expansive and claustrophobic, shelter and prison, it is the very embodiment of the paradox of the Freudian (un)heimlich. The assurance and promise of filial piety at the end of the film covers over and acts as an alibi for the more invidious dream of globalization and the neoliberal market that suffuses every subject in the film. Ki-woo’s wish to own the former Park home suggests that home-snatching would also reconstitute his family, fortifying him with both a moral/filial and a consumerist incentive. In the ultimate neoliberal fantasy, appropriation and tribute (stealing and virtue-signaling) can be one and the same. Just as parasitism and hosting collapse under this political economy, so do familial and individual/consumer values.
In the end, for all the imbricated layers of self-and-others, Peele rescues and saves the integrity of the black subject. In Parasite, there is no such redemption; the parasite and the host remain interchangeable. We are left with an unease about ourselves and about our assured judgments regarding the importance of people versus things. It is an old Woody Allen joke that only the bourgeoisie (those who have) have the luxury of psychical problems. We might say that the fate of disappearing psychoanalysis in mainstream American consciousness reveals something about the fate of the psyche itself in an age of neoliberalism. Yet, from the reverberating controversy of racism as a “psychical damage” that first erupted in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) to the novels of Toni Morrison to a film like Get Out, the insight that racism holds affective and psychical consequences beyond the material and the physical continues to be a hard-earned lesson for the American public. Parasite now provokes for the American audience another question: Where and what is intimacy in an age of neoliberal aspiration? In the sunken places of capitalism, is family possible without private property?
Anne Anlin Cheng is professor of English and director of American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief; Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface; and Ornamentalism.
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