Content Warning: Sexual assault, mental illness.
Horror films (and particularly slashers) are known for their rules. From Scream (1995) to Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010), the genre has become hyper aware of its conventions and expectations. A term like ‘final girl’ is so widespread that it can be written with the expectation that a general audience knows what it means. The only rule as well known is the equation horror films draw between sex and death. If a girl (or a boy) has sex in a slasher film, they are almost certainly doomed to die at the hands of the monster. While initially part of the moralistic messaging of the Reagan/Thatcher era, the rule still remains in the genre often as mere convention, sacrificing a nuanced exploration of theme for cheap thrills and piles of dead women.
However, there has also been an re-emergence in the last decade of films which bend the rules of the slasher film to comment on the role women play in them. While examples like Happy Death Day (2017), or recently Freaky (2020) are fresher in the mind of audiences, 2014’s It Follows remains a vital exploration of the connection between sex and death in horror.
The film tells the story of Jay (Maika Monroe), a girl who becomes infected with a supernatural curse after sleeping with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) for the first time. The curse, passed from one person to next by having sex, summons a monster to slowly and continuously walk towards its victim, killing its way back through the line of those infected. The film has often been read as an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases based on how the curse spreads and the pale appearance the monster takes when on screen. However, this view is severely limited. After all, sex in It Follows doesn’t result in any affliction on the body. The damage done to victims (beyond the monster itself) is entirely internal and more closely resembles the symptoms of PTSD and clinical anxiety. The film utilises genre conventions and filmmaking techniques to create a terrifying metaphor for the longstanding damage trauma inflicts on its victims, and settles on the idea that the anticipation of violence is sometimes worse than the act itself.
It is a reading the film fully acknowledges. While the sex Jay and Hugh have is consensual, the moments immediately after are anything but. In an attempt to show her that the monster exists, Hugh chloroforms Jay and ties her to a chair to be used as bait. “I’m doing this to help you,” he insists, convinced that he is somehow virtuous, despite also being the one who passed the curse onto her. It’s reinforced by the depression she suffers and the way two local mothers talk about the incident. “Breaks my heart… the things he said to her.” Although never spoken out loud, Jay’s friends and family initially have the same reading of the events, thinking that she has created a monster as a way to avoid confronting the harm done to her and dismissing her claims that she is in danger.
The reason for this disbelief is that beyond the initial denial that often occurs in horror films, the monster in It Follows only appears visible to those infected, and more importantly, can take the form of any living person. “Sometimes I think it looks like people you love just to hurt you,” remarks Hugh. Like anxiety, the way the monster functions in the film is that it calls into question the reliability of Jay’s senses and her memory. After all, without the visual language marking the monster as explicitly hostile, any person who gets too close to her could be trying to kill her. While nearly talked about to death by now, It Follows is able to invoke this unease through it’s near constant use of extreme wide shots and by placing a figure in the far distance who approaches the camera slowly as any given scene progresses. The question of whether this figure is the monster is irrelevant. The important part is that it both places the audience in the same unsettled state as Jay, and creates a sense of dramatic irony. The approaching figure may not be the monster, and even if it is, the viewer can see what the uninfected characters cannot. Jay’s terror comes both from being in constant danger, as well as never being able to confidently feel that she is safe.
It is here where the second rule the monster follows comes into greater focus. Once someone is infected, the curse will never leave them. Even if they pass it on to someone else, this only moves them further down the line of the monster’s kill list. In short, all having sex with someone else does is delay the inevitable, and having the curse turns every sexual interaction into a moral decision. It is a no win situation which can lead those infected into a self-destructive spiral. This is most apparent with Hugh. During his date with Jay, he is incredibly paranoid, constantly looking over his shoulder and talking about how it must be nice to be a kid since “they have their whole life ahead of them.” While tracking down Hugh in a quest for answers, the teens come across an abandoned and decaying house where he lived. The building is littered with pornogrpahic magazines, and sound traps. Likewise, later in the film, Jay ends up in a car crash after fleeing an ambush, and lands herself in a hospital. It is not merely the manifestation of trauma that kills its victims. It is the paranoia of not knowing when or how the monster will strike that keeps survivors on edge, devastating the ability to live in the way they had before suffering sexual trauma. The fear of being harmed again or killed leads both Hugh and Jay into social isolation and erratic behaviour, fixated on a single goal: survive.
The film warps its narrative around this singular drive and forgoes all other aspects of the characters’ lives. With the exception of the learning how the monster functions, It Follows is incredibly sparse when it comes to exposition. When characters do speak, it is only about sex, relationships, or about the situation they find themselves in. The film goes long stretches without any dialogue at all, letting the eerie synth tones of artist Disasterpiece’s incredible 80s style synth score carry the film’s mood, oftentimes accompanied by shots of the dilapidated Detroit cityscape where It Follows takes place.
While the film’s world-building is sparse, it serves its theme quite well. Suffering from sexual trauma and PTSD are states which empty out emotions. Constantly being in a panicked state prevents one from forming memories and makes it increasingly difficult to form meaningful attachments. Despite the copious amount of sex Jay and her friend Greg (Daniel Zovatto) have in an attempt to stay ahead of the monster, the people they sleep with are only seen for a second, discarded and never heard from again. The fact that the monster has returned to terrorise Jay and her friends is the only evidence that these people have been killed off screen.
It Follows takes no pride or glory in the violence this monster can inflict. While the film begins with showing a mangled corpse, it only does so after showing the victim trying to make amends with her parents. The only time the monster is shown killing in the film, it does so by taking the form of Greg’s mother, killing him in a sexual manner that is best not repeated in print. This monster is not a vigilante of moral purity. It is a creature of attrition, letting the fear that comes with potential violence hollow out its victims long before it arrives. There is no moment of catharsis. Jay finds that confronting Hugh is ultimately empty. Despite his apology, it does not alleviate the damage he did her in the name of protecting himself.
People like Greg are in denial about their trauma and people like Hugh believe that they can avoid confronting it by passing it on to others instead. It Follows argues that the only way you can move forward is by first acknowledging that trauma changes how one sees and experiences the world, especially threats that others may not even recognize. The only way to even have a chance to overcome them is by reaching out to those who understand those experiences. Hugh lives alone in fear, hyper fixated on his own potential downfall. By contrast, Jay survives only because her friends choose to believe her and take responsibility for her protection when she needs them to, both by being there to protect her while she is in danger, and by taking on the curse themselves.
While sex is a death sentence in It Follows, the films uses this premise as a way to explore how the cycle of abuse develops and the psychological burden experienced by those suffering from PTSD. It also deliberately does not shame it’s characters for having sex. Instead, it offers an exploration of how to recover one’s sense self after trauma occurs, and the necessity of being honest about losing a sense of security. After all, even if harm is inevitable it does not remove the chance to live a good life. You need only take the hand of someone close, and move forward.
by Emma Ambrose
Emma Ambrose (she/her) is a queer trans writer interested in the incredibly light topics of body horror, coming of age stories, and cyberpunk film. When not desperately yearning for season two of Euphoria, she can be found roller skating (badly) or playing video games (decently). Favorite films include Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, The Handmaiden, and Blade Runner 2049. Any complaints, concerns, or flirtatious compliments can be directed to her on Twitter.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism, Films
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