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If you’re a horror fan, you might want to check out The Autopsy of Jane Doe. It’s gory, jumpy, and full of scares – but what really happened in this movie? We’ll help you figure it out.
Released in 2016, it was directed by Norwegian director André Øvredal (he also directed Trollhunter in 2010). It follows the story of a father-and-son coroner duo, Tommy (played by Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) as they try to piece together what happened to Jane Doe – the perfectly preserved body of a mysterious young woman.
Two warnings – this is a very gory film, so the following description of events is similarly gruesome. Also, it goes without saying that there are major spoilers to come. If you want to watch it first, you can find it on Netflix (and if it helps, you can find out how Netflix compares to other streaming services in our guide here).
Let’s start by looking at the plot.
The film opens in the aftermath of a grisly incident in an otherwise stunning home. Various family members lay dead in the house with what appear to be gunshot wounds – a multiple homicide? The local sheriff Sheldon Burke (played by Michael McElhatton) finds a body in the basement – apparently unrelated to the others, no scratches, wounds, or injuries present.
The scene cuts to a family-run (and pretty shabby-looking) morgue. Tommy, the father, is trying to teach his son Austin how to determine the cause of death of a man killed in a fire. He leaves Austin to finish up. The door creaks (it’s the cat). Austin goes to investigate and is jumped on by his girlfriend (so there you go – saved you from one jump scare if you haven’t seen the movie yet.)
Austin gives Emma (played by Ophelia Lovibond) a tour of the morgue. She asks to see the bodies, and he explains that he won’t show her because his dad is so strict. To his surprise, Tommy (overhearing their conversation) allows her to see them. Emma asks to see the body of a gunshot victim, asking why there is a bell tied to their ankle. Tommy explains that this is an old-school way of making sure a person is dead and not just in a coma – the bell alerts the coroners if the bodies decide to get up and move around.
(This doesn’t freak Emma out as much as it could have, considering.) On their way out, they bump into the sheriff wheeling in a body on a trolley.
Austin and Emma have a tense conversation in his room. It turns out, he doesn’t want to be a coroner – he wants to leave the family business behind, forging his own path. Emma encourages Austin to tell his father, telling him she will return in a couple of hours.
The Arrival of Jane Doe
Sheriff Burke explains the circumstances – an unscathed body (played by Olwen Kelly) found in the basement of the Douglas family, the family in the opening scene. He needs answers as soon as possible, and the father and son team don’t have much time to figure out what happened to her before the press start asking questions.
The first thing they notice is her eyes – clouded over as though she had been dead for days, despite having no signs of rigor mortis. They also notice that she has a very small waist, and her wrists and ankles are fractured.
They find peat under her finger and toenails, as well as in her hair. Suggesting she was buried in it – but it’s not found in the ground in their region, so that makes no sense. Also, her tongue’s missing.
Many gruesome moments later – during which they discover a strange white thread in her mouth as well as a missing tooth and some signs of sexual assault – thunder rumbles. Ominous, as earlier that day, the weather reporter reassured listeners that it was going to be a bright and sunny day.
As they prepare for the internal examination, lights flicker. The radio crackles into life, bringing with it a short scream, followed by a fairly creepy song.
Tommy makes the incision. There is more blood than they expected. Usually, that amount of blood is only seen if the person has been dead for just a few hours. Austin puts a few drops of blood in the vial for testing. It leaks. Far more than is physically possible.
The woman has been wearing a corset, from the looks of things. She also has blackened lungs – far worse than even a severe smoker. Tommy can’t understand how she has such badly damaged lungs without being covered in third-degree burns: ‘it’s like finding a bullet in the brain with no gunshot wound.’
They determine that she has been tortured in some unimaginable way – nothing they’ve ever come across. They hear a noise. Austin makes his way down the (eerie) corridor to find … a person. Or is it? They disappear when he rounds the corner.
Tommy cuts himself on his scalpel mid-slice. If you’re thinking ‘I bet this is the cat again’, well, you’re right. Only the cat isn’t in a good way.
A Turn for the Worse
A tender moment here – Tommy has to mourn the loss of the cat and contemplate how this links to the loss of his wife. Austin gives him some privacy, so heads back to Jane Doe. At which point one of the drawers containing one of the other bodies starts to open.
Drawer closed again, they return to the autopsy. They find inside Jane Doe a whole flower – a jimsonweed, a flower used as a paralyzing agent. This explains some of the inflammation in her lungs. The flower only grows in the northeast, meaning Doe is definitely not from around here.
That’s not all that they find inside the body. They also find a bag containing what we might presume is her missing tooth. The bag is made from a scrap of fabric and printed on it is some kind of symbol with unknown meaning.
Helpfully, the son gives us a quick recap. She’s got a lot of bad injuries and internal trauma, as well as the fractures – almost as though she’s been used as a human sacrifice. They come to the conclusion that she cannot have been harmed that way without some serious external trauma, which of course, she doesn’t have.
The radio weatherman warns them of the storm before helpfully telling them ‘one thing’s for sure – you’re not going anywhere.’ They peel back a layer to find the same symbols tattooed on the inside of her skin. Just as this revelation kicks in, the lights in the whole building explode.
Austin tries to find his way around with a torch – the morgue drawers are worryingly empty. Both unscathed (at least physically), they attempt to leave the building as quickly as possible, only to find themselves trapped in by a fallen tree.
They get back to their office, where they try to get hold of the sheriff. Locked in the office, they hear a bell ringing. That’s right – the bell. Someone is outside the door, and they’re trying to get in.
Tommy realizes he’s bleeding pretty heavily from his scalpel wound. He goes off to the bathroom to rinse it and is attacked by what he suspects is Jane Doe. He’s okay but badly bruised on one side.
They make their way back to the morgue. Doe is still there, but the organs they removed from her are decomposing – pretty rapidly too. They decide to take her to the crematorium, only to find themselves locked in from the outside.
With nothing else to lose, Austin decides to set fire to the body of Jane Doe. This achieves nothing except for burning the camera, destroying any evidence they may have had for the whole thing – and Doe’s still physically intact once the flames die down.
A chase scene ensues as they try to make their way into the elevator whilst being pursued by the Bell Guy. In a moment of frantic fear, Tommy swings an axe. It makes contact. Only it’s not the bell guy after all – it’s Emma, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. She dies in Austin’s arms.
Tommy manages to drag Austin into the elevator. They get stuck inside. Austin laments that it’s his fault, because he told her to come back for him in a couple of hours. They talk about Austin’s mother for a while. It sounds as though she had depression and was hiding it from everyone.
The scene cuts to the furnace, which kicks into gear. Meanwhile, Austin considers the fact that it seems as though Doe is trying to stop them from figuring out how she died – and perhaps that’s the key to making it stop. They make their way back to the autopsy room. A brief scuffle with some reanimated bodies later, they get back to Doe to finish the autopsy. They examine a slice of her brain under the microscope – revealing movement – life.
That’s right – she’s alive, somehow.
That scrap of fabric that contained her teeth? The son notices it’s actually a clue. It’s referring to Leviticus. They’re pretty sure that Doe comes from the 17th century and was perhaps a victim of the witch trials. They come to the conclusion that the villagers performed on her a ritual that backfired, as she was innocent. Because she is locked in this state of perpetual torture, she wants everyone else to feel it, too.
The Dad lifts his top to reveal some very unusual patterns emerging under his skin. It’s happening to him, too – she’s lashing out.
Tommy speaks to her quietly. He tells her he doesn’t want to fight her anymore. Immediately, Tommy starts to suffer everything she did. As his wounds – the fractures, the internal scarring – start to appear, the injuries to her body start to fade. As Tommy lays screaming in agony, Doe’s eyes turn to brown.
Tommy begs his poor son to end his suffering. Which he does.
Austin slowly begins to lift his head. The bodies are back in the refrigerators. The morning has arrived.
Sheriff Burke is yelling for Austin. Austin realizes he’s still stuck inside and starts hammering on the door, asking for help. It dawns on him that this is a hallucination – the sheriff isn’t outside after all. Austin hears a bell ring. Tommy appears, shoving Austin from the balcony, killing him. His skull cracks open – just as Tommy cracked open Doe’s skull earlier.
Later, Burke takes a look around the building with a forensics team. As he does so, the weather guy reports on the fourth straight day of sunshine – no sign of a storm. Then we see Jane Doe – perfectly preserved, eyes back to blue.
As the cop transporting the body drives off, some odd things start to happen to his car radio. The last thing we see is Doe’s toe twitch – and we hear a little bell ring.
Let’s have a quick reminder of the characters:
Tommy is a coroner. He runs a family-owned business and is currently training his son. His wife died at some stage, potentially from suicide (it’s hinted that she suffered from depression).
Austin is the son. He’s torn – he’s the only child of Tommy, the last person to take over the family business – but he doesn’t want to be a coroner. He wants to forge his own path, which his girlfriend is trying to support him with.
Emma is Austin’s girlfriend. We don’t know that much about her, although she has a morbid curiosity about her, enough to ask to see the bodies.
Burke is the unfortunate sheriff in charge of figuring out what’s happening in his town.
The Douglas Family
The unfortunate family in the opening shots of the movie. It’s unclear how the body of Doe came to be in their basement, but one possibility is that they came across her having dug up their basement as part of work to their house.
Aside from Doe, three bodies make an appearance in this movie. The fire victim, another unidentified body with their eyes/mouth stitched up, and a gunshot victim – the one with the bell on his toe.
So – what happened at the end there? If Doe got her revenge by passing on the punishment to Tommy, why is she still doing it at the end?
Jane was mistaken for a witch, back in the day. The ritual to kill her backfired, trapping her in some kind of half-existence. She doesn’t have a pulse, she’s not breathing, she can’t move. Her body cannot be destroyed. Critically, it seems that she can still feel – so she’s trapped in a never-ending cycle of torture.
In theory, then, the reason why Jane is now gaining a bit more power is that she’s slowly killing other people. Other people’s death and suffering seem to give her more strength to be able to cause things to happen around her. Eventually, she’ll gain enough energy to move again (this is hinted at right at the end of the movie with the toe twitch).
That seems to explain it, but there are other ideas out there too.
There is a chance that much of what happened in this movie wasn’t actually happening physically.
For example the bodies disappearing from the drawers. At the end of the movie, they’re all neatly back into position. Were they really up and about in the first place? That means any moment that that involves a struggle with the bodies may not have actually happened.
There’s also the storm. Was there ever a storm? Remember, the radio weather guy tells us at the end that it’s the ‘fourth consecutive day of sunshine’. If there was no storm (which also makes sense because when Emma shows up, she doesn’t appear to have been outside in the rain), that means there was no tree trapping them inside in the first place.
It could be that Doe is trying to speak to them via the radio. A song is played repeatedly throughout (‘Open Up Your Heart and Let the Sunshine In’). They also hear strange snippets from the weather report (‘Trust me when I tell you, this is NOT a storm you want to get caught in’ and ‘One thing’s for sure – you won’t be going anywhere!’). As Doe can’t move around herself, it’s possible that she was trying to get them to stop torturing her.
Did the Autopsy Even Happen?
Another interesting theory. It seems that, as soon as Doe was uncovered by the construction worker renovating the Douglas’s basement, all hell broke loose resulting in the almost immediate deaths of the entire family. What if the autopsy actually never took place? When Sheriff Burke appears at the end of the movie, the instruments appear to be clean, as though nothing happened. Did Tommy and Austin hallucinate the whole thing?
Also, the clock on the wall doesn’t change throughout – perhaps this is a hint at time being suspended as they are hallucinating.
Was Doe the Manifestation of Tommy’s Wife?
There are a few links here. The song ‘let the sunshine in’ is an interesting choice, given that Tommy says he called his wife ‘Ray’ because he was her ‘ray of sunshine’. Perhaps a lot of the way Tommy sees Doe is to do with his residual guilt over his wife’s death.
Also, there’s the metaphor for depression in the way Doe presents at the morgue – unscathed on the outside, but terribly damaged within. Tommy mentions that this was the case with his wife (‘she looked fine on the outside’).
Was Jane Good or Evil?
Tommy presumes that Jane was captured, tortured and brutally killed because the people of her time wrongly presumed she was a witch. What if she was a real witch? It could be that she was so evil that the people decided to try to perform their own spell, trapping her forever – but this backfired.
It certainly seems that Jane isn’t satisfied with merely killing Tommy. It seems, from the ending, that she’s going to keep going with her next batch of victims …
Frequently Asked Questions
There are two particularly good choices if you like original, interesting horror movies:
Pontypool (2008, directed by Bruce McDonald) follows a Canadian DJ as he mans a radio station, during the outbreak of a zombie-like virus transmitted by the English language. It’s unsettling, creepy, and surprising.
Session 9 (2001, directed by Brad Anderson) is an incredibly tense psychological horror about a group of men removing asbestos from an abandoned insane asylum. It’s hair-raisingly scary.
Golden Globe winner Brian Cox has had too many roles to mention, but you may want to check him out in Braveheart (1995), Rushmore (1998), and Adaption (2002). You can find Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild (2007) and Speed Racer (2008), and you can see Ophelia Lovibond in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and No Strings Attached (2011).
No, it’s not. There are definitely a few jump scares in there, but it’s not chock-full of empty scares – there’s a lot of tension there too.
Yes – and for good reason!
In Conclusion …
The best horror movies allow you a little room for your own imagination to kick in, and that’s what The Autopsy of Jane Doe does so well. Do you think she was good or evil? How much of what happened really happened? Leave us a comment and let us know your ideas.
Meanwhile, if you like movie analysis, try these:
- Infinity Chamber Explained
- The Death Note Ending Explained
- Outlast 2 Ending Explained – What Really Happened
If you want more ideas on what to watch next, these guides might help you out: