Content Warning: This article contains spoilers for the movie “Nope.”
Last Thursday I found myself doing what every self-respecting American does on a Thursday night: Watching Thursday Night Football. It was a pretty good game between the reigning AFC Champions, the Cincinnati Bengals and the upstart Miami Dolphins. The first quarter went smoothly, as did the beginning of the second. Then, with about five minutes left, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was grabbed and sacked by a Bengals defender. This is usually just an unfortunate swing in the game, but this time Tagovailoa didn’t just go down and get back up. The back of Tagovailoa’s head was slammed against the turf, instantly knocking him unconscious, but stiffening his arms and fingers, a tell-tale sign of traumatic brain injury.
It was horrific and tragic and monstrous, sickly and terrible and a million other things that I can’t find the words for. I hadn’t seen an injury like that in a long time. Ten seconds later, the Amazon Prime producers replayed that potentially life-changing injury with commentary. Then they did it again. Then we cut to commercial, then we watched it again, but from another angle. At this point we didn’t know whether Tagovailoa was OK, we didn’t know if he had serious damage, we didn’t know anything except that Amazon had found a miraculous third angle for this nightmarish injury.
Within minutes, all three angles spread like wildfire across the internet; Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, you name it. On Friday, we found out that Tagovailoa would, thankfully, be OK. By Saturday, nearly every major sports publication had segments showing the hit. Why? Why do we feel such an intense fascination with horror?
I don’t mean slasher horror or monster horror. I’m talking about an archaic, instinctual type of horror. The kind of horror that’s instilled when you drive past a five-car pileup on the freeway, watch CNN broadcasts of a war rip through once peaceful countrysides or a mother grieve for her child who she will never see again. This sickly fascination isn’t new: Gladiators spilled each other’s blood in front of clamoring masses in classical Rome. In the medieval era, beheadings and stockades were the people’s premier form of entertainment. Public executions ran in France for hundreds of years, the last taking place in 1939.
Nowhere else is this obsessive spectacle of horror understood and conveyed better than in what I consider Jordan Peele’s masterpiece: “Nope.” In the film, two tragedies of spectacle run parallel to one another. The story’s A-plot follows a group of amateur cryptozoologists attempting to capture video evidence of an alien creature eating horses on their farm. Meanwhile, the more realistic B-plot chronicles a supposedly tamed chimp named Gordy who goes feral and mauls actors in a ’90s family sitcom in front of a live audience. One of the lone surviving child actors, Jupe (Steven Yeun, “Minari”), grows up to run the tourist-trap ranch next to the farm of the main characters, where he profits off of a pop-up stand that advertises his role in the Gordy disaster.
At the alien-threatened ranch, thinking he had “made an allyship” with Gordy (right before Gordy was killed by security guards), Jupe attempts to do the same with the alien creature. He tries to exploit it for profit, like Gordy, as an exhibition to entertain a live audience of his own. But he’s made a crucial mistake: You cannot control horrific entertainment. Jupe and his audience are consumed by spectacle, literally and figuratively, and are consequently eaten and digested by the creature for hours.
Every aspect of the “Nope” alien is expressly designed to be a metaphor for spectacle. Its aggravation when looked in the eye has dual meanings — it is reminiscent of peering into a camera and simultaneously represents the pain that comes when awe and terror are looked in the eyes and seen for what they really are. Its shockingly brutal digestion process displays how slowly tortuous being in the public eye is. “Nope” was meticulously crafted to represent spectacle.
Spectacle lives on its own as an all-encompassing presence, destroying all who come too close. Though we might expect people who have lived through unbelievable horror firsthand to want to forget their trauma, Peele demonstrates that even survivors can become obsessed with the awe of their experiences. The key — and best — scene in the movie is when Jupe recalls the “Gordy’s Home” massacre. He refuses to mention any memory of the actual incident, only telling the story by describing a kitschy SNL sketch parodying the event. Here, horror gives way for the sake of “comedy.” But even when telling this half-baked SNL version of the tale, Jupe can’t stop himself from reliving his trauma as a frightened child, hiding under a table, watching Gordy lose his mind. I think it’s worth noting that back in 2017, just two months after Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was paralyzed after a head hit during a game, SNL released a sketch parodying NFL announcers reacting to a nasty injury. Food for thought.
If the transformation of the “Gordy’s Home” incident into a pop culture phenomenon sounds outlandish and repulsive, look around. Over the past decade, true crime has rocketed to the cultural stratosphere off the backs of YouTube “documentaries,” podcasts and ill-fated TV shows. Just last week, Netflix released a documentary miniseries chronicling the horrors of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. To advertise the series, they published this tweet:
“Can’t stop thinking about this disturbing scene from DAHMER where one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims finally manages to escape … and the police actually bring him back inside the apartment. Now on Netflix.”
A real human was murdered, and 30 years later he is packaged, printed and commodified to be sold as spectacle because we simply “can’t look away.” We continue to watch, stare, gawk, view, re-view, film, publish, analyze, laugh at, tweet on, retweet, blog, reblog and post real human suffering that causes real trauma. Why? Because it’s enthralling, because it’s strange and fascinating, because it’s far enough away. And we’ll continue to do so until we are caught in the spectacle ourselves.
“I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle,” reads the Bible quote in the intro of “Nope.” But it doesn’t stay there. It hovers over the faces of YouTube true crime beauty gurus. It hovers above storm chasers following typhoons. It hovers above war photographers, documentaries and Wikipedia articles. Hell, I even think I saw it hover above Tua Tagovailoa’s head on Thursday Night Football.
And it will continue to hover, like a UFO in the sky, until one day it swallows everything whole.
Daily Arts Contributor Rami Mahdi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.