The Horror of Settling: “It Follows” and the Eternal Teenage Now
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows has earned the kind of reviews horror films rarely do, and has many critics and anonymous internet pundits proclaiming it a modern classic. Such is the buzz for the film that its distributor, Radius/TWC, has decided to open the film wide starting March 27th and delay its VOD premiere. This is good news for horror fans and cinephiles in general who take genre cinema seriously, but it also could lead to a major backlash: both because of the hype surrounding the film, which has reached a fever pitch in its limited release, and due to the fact that a surface reading of the film can easily construe It Follows as misogynist and sex-negative. Anyone who is not inclined to spend much time thinking about subtext in films could come away with the idea that writer/director Mitchell is simply emulating the ancient slasher film formula wherein sex is punishable by death. While Mitchell approaches this tired concept, long standard in the horror genre, as a jumping-off point, he uses it to explore much different ideas than previous genre films, and his use of a subtly surreal style helps ingrain It Follows in the subconscious like a nightmare that cannot be shaken off.
The obvious surface reading of It Follows is that “It” represents a warning against sex. Having sex means “catching” this “haunting,” like a supernatural STD. Some critics have already complained that the film “punishes” its characters for having sex, and suggested that the way it treats protaginist Jay (Maika Monroe) is a form of “slut-shaming.” This does not bear out upon closer reading, though. Jay specifically mentions during a conversation with her friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) after her neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto) has been killed that she and Greg had sex while they were in high school. Earlier in the film when Jay and her friends confront Hugh (Jake Weary), the young man who passed “It” to Jay, he explains that he got “It” from a one-night stand that he met in a bar. The implication seems to be that Hugh has probably also had sex other than just with Jay. These statements are crucial information when considering what It Follows is specifically trying to address. Writer/director Mitchell clearly sets out that in this world, sex does not equal death. In fact, it appears that sex does not necessarily mean the loss of “innocence” in a traditional sense. Jay and Hugh have had previous sexual experiences that did not result in their being “haunted” by this unknown force that wants to kill them. It is only after they have been used to offload this curse that they are afflicted.
It Follows, then, seems to address a very specific type of “lost innocence”: the realization that some people are compelled to use others for selfish purposes, and that this can often lead to a cycle of victimization. While it is incorrect to assume that the film “punishes” Jay for having sex with Hugh, it is correct that she is a victim. The fact that Hugh attacks Jay while she is talking about how she imagined dating would be when she was younger underlines this concept. Hugh shatters Jay’s idyll; he may actually like and have some feelings for her, but he has just used her to get rid of something he would rather not deal with. It is therefore significant that when “It” comes for Jay during Hugh’s explanation of what has happened that “It” takes the form of Hugh’s mother, who the audience sees later when Jay and her friends go to Hugh’s home. When “It” kills Greg, it does so in the form of his mother, and as Jay looks on, its attack on Greg is blatantly sexual. During the final confrontation, “It” takes on the appearance of Jay’s dead father. This reads like a somewhat unsubtle (but still effective) allusion to the Oedipus and Elektra complex. The idea here is that sex is not inherently damaging or “bad,” but that it can be used in selfish and destructive ways to attempt to deal with (or avoid dealing with) psychological issues, and this can in turn cause issues for the “used.”
Significantly, once Jay is “used,” she is “initiated” into being able to see “It,” which can also be seen by its other victims. This is emblematic of the lack of trust that many victims of abuse suffer. Hugh explains to Jay that “It” can be a random person in a crowd, or someone she knows. Once she has “It,” the world is different. Suddenly, anyone can be out to harm her. Jay did not know Hugh very well, but she trusted him. After the attack, that trust is gone, replaced with a fear that anyone may want to hurt her, even people she knows. It is also important to note that “It” may be invisible to anyone who hasn’t been part of the “chain,” but they know it is a real thing. During a scene at the beach and later at the indoor pool, Jay’s friends physically interact with “It.” More than just an invisible, incorporeal ghost, “It” poses a real threat to both its principal victim and anyone who might try to interfere with its mission. Anyone is a potential victim of this force, even if somewhat indirectly. Even knowing this, though, is not enough to dissuade Paul from wanting to “help” Jay. Jay repeatedly rejects Paul’s advances during the course of the film, at least until after “It” appears to be destroyed. After this, Jay and Paul have sex and seem to end the film as a couple, but this is hardly an unambiguous happy ending.
Throughout the film, Paul has proven himself to be selfish and unwilling to take Jay’s “no” for an answer. Paul neatly represents the “Nice Guy syndrome,” in which a man does kind things for a woman in the hopes of eventually convincing her to have sex with him. Paul jumps at the chance to try and protect Jay from “It” by sleeping over at her house, and during a late-night conversation observes that it is the first time he has stayed the night at her home since they were kids. “There’s a reason for that,” Jay says ruefully, implying either that Paul had done something inappropriate the last time he stayed over or perhaps just that Paul’s sexual interest in Jay (and/or her sister) had become too obvious to ignore as he got older. During the same conversation, Jay reveals that Paul was her first kiss, and he confirms she was his (this kiss took place in the same indoor pool where they return to kill “It”). However, shortly after that kiss, Paul apparently kissed her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and Jay lost any romantic interest in him. Jay does have sex with Paul after he seemingly kills “It,” but in the next scene Paul is shown cruising for a prostitute. The final shots of the film show the couple walking hand-in-hand along a sidewalk, first facing the camera while a figure walks behind them, following at some distance, and the final shot from their back, looking forward. Neither looks back toward the camera.
There is a fair amount to unpack here. First, Paul’s persistence seems to pay off, especially after he relieves Jay’s fear of “It” coming for her. It is not specifically stated, but Jay may feel grateful to Paul and feels obligated to start a relationship with him because his presence is comforting and “safe.” After seeing the swimming pool filling with blood, Jay probably thinks that “It” is really gone, and trusts Paul to take care of her. But Paul proves in the next scene that he does not trust her. “It” may be dead and gone, in the past, but Paul believes it is still a threat, and thusly threatened, he goes looking for another person on whom to dump his insecurities. We see them walking together at the very end of the film, but it is a temporary calm. Jay has opted for familiarity. She enters into a relationship with someone who she knows, even though she also knows he is not trustworthy. “It” may be gone, but the fear of other people it instilled in Jay lingers. Paul is a known; he is unchallenging. To paraphrase Ordell Robbie, Jay can’t trust Paul, but she can trust Paul to be Paul. In the final shot, Jay does not look back because she feels confident she has put “It” behind her. Paul does not look back because he is certain he has passed “It” on to someone else. Whether he has or not, their relationship is doomed, either to end when Jay regains the confidence to move on from Paul and find someone who truly trusts her, or to unhappily continue perpetuating the status quo. The final horror for Jay, it seems, is settling.
Mitchell’s perceptive evocation of a lower middle-class suburbia, as well as his actors’ convincing representation of the film’s teenage characters, is seemingly at odds with the nightmare logic of the film. This has caused some commenters and critics to get stuck on minor details, or to balk in confusion at what time period the film takes place. There are hints throughout the film that Mitchell has not placed his characters in a concrete reality, but instead (to borrow a phrase from a friend) in an “eternal teenage now.” There are cell phones, but (thankfully) no one ever sits down at a computer. One character carries a monochrome E-reader built into a makeup compact, while at Jay’s house a large wooden console television is used as a stand for a much smaller tube television. All of the televisions in the film seem to broadcast old 50s horror movies or 70s/80s cartoon commercials. At no point in the film do we see any of the characters interacting with their own parents, although parents do exist on the fringes of the film’s action. No one seems particularly upset that Greg is dead, and other than a wooden panel covering the shattered window that “It” used to climb into his house, his death seems to have had no lasting impact on the neighborhood. And, of course, there is the nightmare logic by which “It” exists: it takes any form it needs to get close to its victim, it appears to have no other purpose than killing its current victim, it walks slowly but relentlessly, and for some unknown reason it has an aversion to water.
There are several moments that Mitchell uses to drive home the unreal nature of “It.” It is not uncommon for one to dream about a person who appears to be someone but is not actually themselves. Jay sees “It” as her friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi), Greg’s mom, and Jay’s own deceased father. This can be conveyed to someone to whom a dreamer is describing a dream as “It was you, but not you.” Additionally, the last time we see “It” before it appears at the pool is as a nude old man standing on the roof of Jay’s house, standing in place and watching as she and her friends drive away. This is a completely irrational thing for “It” to do; throughout the rest of the film, we have only ever seen “It” walking, slowly. But “It,” despite its physical presence that others can interact with, is supernatural by nature. It does not have to follow the standard physical rules by which humans are bound — even Hugh is only sharing with Jay and her friends what he has hashed out from his own experience. That final look at “It,” standing on the roof, tells us that what we have assumed we know about what it can or cannot do is incorrect. Ultimately, “It” is still an unknown. It is that thing in a nightmare that comes after us, no matter where we are, that can be anyone and anywhere.
Whether or not It Follows becomes a classic of horror cinema, of course, is something that will only shake out long after its wide theatrical release. For many viewers, it has already sunk in its claws, which it does somewhere deep in the fears of adulthood that are a natural part of being young. Mitchell’s dreamlike approach to the form and style of the story help the film bypass the rational part of the brain, although some viewers have already become stuck on specifics that they do not immediately understand. Looking at the film as a whole, Mitchell’s approach becomes clear. Unlike many modern genre pastiches, It Follows does not simply emulate the look and feel of the past, but uses familiar tropes to explore more complicated issues in a different way. For anyone willing to dig under the initially familiar surface, It Follows offers plenty to think about. But after the film opens wide, such viewers are advised to remember a simple rule to retain their sanity: don’t read the IMDB comments.