Girl, You In Danger: Sexual Politicking and More in It Follows

I make some questionable decisions in life.

More specifically: I have this weird curse, somewhat reminiscent of the one haunting the group of kids in It Follows. Somehow, no matter when or where, I always end up on a date for a highly acclaimed film that ends up going completely left field.

Highlights include:

  • Took my then-girlfriend to see Blue Velvet. Never take your girlfriend to see Blue Velvet.
  • Another hyped up date with said girlfriend to see Thor. I had to drag her there and then we both ended up hating it. (It was horrible. Don’t debate me on this).
  • A late night date to see The Wolf of Wall Street. That movie is inappropriate for life, let alone a date.

You get the theme here.

Anyway, on a balmy afternoon a good homie and I went to see It Follows in Berkeley (shout out to the Rialto, it’s real quaint.) Luckily, we got the entire theater to ourselves because the more well-to-do population were all out eating brunch and discussing tennis, or whatever.

Thus, there was much talking and analysis during and after the film.

In a nutshell: the film follows a group of youths haunted by a real life urban legend after main character Jay has sex with her new boyfriend, Hugh. After the act, he kidnaps Jay and proceeds to explain that she has to have sex with someone else or face a grisly fate at the hands of a lumbering phantom that likes taking the shape of people in your life. Hugh’s a great guy.

Dude, Get to The Damn Movie Already

Okay, okay.

The film is micro-budget, clocking in at around $2 million. The fun part is, you can and can’t tell. It Follows does drum up a few great jump scares, but much of the art of the film is in the score and narrative tension. There’s some real power in a film that can do that. Namely: when you’re afraid that any person walking in-frame is “It,” a stationary daytime shot suddenly becomes a dreadful endeavor. Some of the best scenes employ this, not unlike Jaws and its famous beach scene.

Similarly, the screeching, pounding score is a direct callback to 60’s-80’s era horror (I know that’s a broad span. But I’m specifically thinking of things like Jaws, Evil Dead, and Suspiria. Go watch them.) One of the scariest moments in the film is the opening scene, specifically because of the soundtrack. If you cut the sound out, it’d be unremarkable. But somehow, the juxtaposition of churning synth and an otherwise ordinary revolving camera incites a real sense of fear in you.

And that’s great because Follows is a very domestic horror film. So there’s no need for off-the-wall effects or amazing car chases. In fact, at its core, the most horrific moments in Follows are tied directly to intimacy and personal crises. This is specifically true of every choice to engage in sex in the film. At each of these moments, there is a strange courting process. The men in Jay’s life, Greg and Paul, choose to take on Jay’s curse without much concern for their own safety. As characters, they believe it’s some noble act. But as viewers, it’s put to us to question their true motives. This is especially true when we take into consideration the fact that the curse never stops. Rather, it is simply a transferal of debt: if you are killed by “It,” the people behind you will be next.

So, while it is too much to ask Jay to consider other options (suicide, running away forever, abstinence, etc.) the film throws us into an interesting moral morass wherein we’re consistently at odds with two forms of emotional investment: disgust and sympathy. On the latter end, we’re rooting for these kids to live and survive this onslaught of terror (for obvious reasons: they’re just so gangly and innocent-ish, that you just want them to be able to go back to watching old sci-fi movies and hanging out.) But, conversely, we’re also slightly disgusted by the fact that they choose/feel forced to pass on the curse instead of dealing with it definitively. For example: when an ambiguous scene potentially implies that Jay has a foursome, we’re torn between sympathizing for her as a young woman dealing with life and death, and being disgusted with her as a reckless person who’s only concerned with protecting her own life while endangering others. In a similar ellipsis scene, the film implies that even simpin’ pimpin’ Paul succumbs to simply passing “It” on in the aftermath of his plan failing.

They have no damn idea what they’re doing.

The lack of solid direction here, on the part of these characters, is also squarely and evidently juxtaposed (and enforced) by the lack of adults in It Follows. Following many films before it, Follows works on a classic paradigm of “youth experiencing horrific situations without wanting or successfully soliciting help from adults.” Follows, however, takes this a step further by excising nearly all adults from the narrative. So much so in fact that I kept yelling “where the hell are these kids’ parents?!” and “How they gonna explain ‘ole boy gettin murdered in his own home?!” several times during the film.

But mind me not.

Either way, it’s an interesting world the film constructs wherein a bunch of kids are without more knowledgable people to guide them in a fight against a seemingly unstoppable force.

Which brings me to subtext.

The most obvious analog here are STD’s (my date immediately said “this shit is about AIDS/HIV.”) Cuz there’s a lot of raw diggity dog sex in this film. On a surface level, it fits right into the narrative, considering its focus on following these youths and their tribulations. On a deeper level though, Follows is playing an interesting niche: defining, humanizing, and questioning the human condition as it exists at the intersection of sexuality, youth, and authority.

Please Put On Your Egghead Thinking Caps

This guy.

Enter our friend and film critic Robin Wood. In 1979, he wrote a great treatise on the state and form of horror cinema that paved the way for its legitimacy in film canon. Sadly, the damn thing is only really available through a film school connect (see: professor or bright-eyed undergrad) or some site with a pay-wall. So, you’ll have to do some digging to get at the goodies.

Anyway, Wood is relevant to this conversation because he pushed and posited the idea that horror as a genre worked heavily within the arena of psychological phenomena. Much of this revolved around Normality vs.The Other, Dominant vs. Repressed (see also: oppressed.) More specifically, any given “monster” in horror is often a manifestation of normality’s repressed self and/or normality’s fears of that which isn’t deemed normal; The Other.

The Other then becomes a catchall cloud of fears, doubts, repression, oppression, subjugation, etc. from which horror filmmakers can mold a frightful thing to tell stories around and about and through. If we apply this (very, very scant reading of Wood. I encourage you to dig into the theory, just a likkle) to It Follows, we get some fun nuggets. Namely, the repression of healthy sexuality in young people. Again, if we drive towards a “curse = STDs” reading of the film, this line of thought fits.

The “It” afflicts several victims throughout the film, claiming them with a slow and deliberate conviction. And yet, from the initial exposure, the kids do nothing more than stress over its existence and maintain secrecy about it from any and every (non-existent) adult in the film. This secrecy in effect seals their fate. Notwithstanding the fact that the adults most likely wouldn’t believe them, because this is a film with a narrative agenda and plot points to hit. Rather, their lack of proper knowledge about the thing, with a specific focus on it effectively having no origin, dooms them to make very limited of choices.

This limitation of knowledge, and subsequent choice making within the film, can be seen as a direct analog to the current state of sexual health politics in America as it pertains to young people. To this day, some Americans are still fighting to properly educate and arm young folks with facts and good practices about sexual health. Unfortunately, whether by religion or otherwise, many Americans believe that a zero-sum policy of abstinence is the only solution for unmarried single people. This mindset (whether by choice or proxy) refuses to acknowledge the complexity with which sexuality is developed in the nascent adult years. In addition to the fact that abstinence is just not a reality for many young people.

Whether that’s right or wrong, morally, is a whole other conversation. But what stands is the fact that by maintaining abstinence as the only solution, the sexuality of the people involved (see: youths) is subsumed within the normalcy of submission to authority (in this case: parents, religious figures, their partners, etc.)

The problem here is that more often than not, the dangers of sexual activity (not just limited to pregnancy), are also skewed, subsumed, and mysteries to youth. As such, if they do decide to engage in sexual activity, they take on monumental risks that they have little to no knowledge of. Thus, if we speak in terms of the film, running away from and/or shooting your problems seems extremely logical.

Furthermore, hencewith, so forth, hither and thither: the telephone-esque way in which information on the “It” is disseminated is frighteningly similar to how we all kinda learn about sexual things at that age (if not younger.) Add in the disruptive cocktail of transformation that are pubescent hormones, and you’ve got a shitstorm on your hands, at best.

“I’m Never Going To Have Sex Again”

This was uttered many times between myself and my date as the film closed its nearly 2 hour run time. While I knew that I was lying through my teeth, it was calming to know she was similarly affected by the film. Thus the date wasn’t entirely ruined, thankfully.

At the end of the day though, Follows is frightening without a lot of blood or well-designed creature suits. Rather, it strikes pretty hard at a very simple set of issues and presents them in a nostalgic lens. It’ll definitely creep you out and it’ll make you wonder how they managed to shoot in Detroit and only get about six black people in the final cut (yes, I counted.) And in hindsight, those last few ambitious ellipses do more to unsettle you as a viewer, than much of the rest of the film. In some way, I think the narrative revels in that uncertainty as it shows you one last ambiguous person walking behind Paul and Jay.

So, in addition to adding this to (a hopefully growing list) of great horror films (word to The Babadook,) I’d definitely recommend watching this film.

Just don’t make it a date night movie.

Stay strapped folks.

Originally published over at REELYDOPE

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