I don’t scare easy. Very few films have ever gotten under my thick skin, and even fewer have kept me up at night. In fact, there are exactly three movies that have managed to do so: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. None of these films rely on jump-scares (though The Thing does know how to use them), instead relying on atmosphere and tone to put the audience on the edge.
While The Shining has haunted me for years, and The Thing still manages to give me restless nights of sleep, It Follows managed to grab me on an entirely new level. I caught the first available screening of the film in Los Angeles. I walked home, on my own, at 10:30 at night, completely at ease. But once I got home, and had time to let everything sink in, I proceeded to not sleep for 4 entire days. Now, I want to make sure you understand me right: I don’t mean I tossed and turned trying to get my beauty rest, I mean I LITERALLY got no sleep for a full 96 hours, 12 of which included work on a short-film shoot, so it wasn’t for lack of exhaustion.
Needless to say I obtained my own copy of It Follows as soon as it hit DVD (buzz off, Blu-Ray is expensive). Upon revisiting I found that while the film retained it’s atmosphere and unsettling tone it did not retain the same impact of that first viewing. Sure, this happens with most films, but that first viewing was so potent. So visceral. Why was it no longer affecting me?
For those unfamiliar, It Follows is about a young woman who finds she has inherited a curse from a boy she had sex with. The curse causes an eerie doppleganger creature to stalk her relentlessly, only ever walking, but never stopping. There is no stopping the monster, the only option is to pass the curse on to someone else, merely buying time until it eventually makes its way back down her.
This is, quite simply, an ingenious premise. Not only does it save budget on the monster but it also provides a built-in paranoia as you can never be sure who you’re looking at is just another person or the monster in disguise. The curse even comes with a very handy metaphor: STD’s. Many people have even coined It Follows as an “STD Monster movie,” a modern-day parable warning about the dangers of premarital sex. But that would be the easy route. It Follows is so much more than that.
Parents and other adults are almost non-existent within the film. Add to that some off-kilter production design that causes the film to feel like a period piece, yet so very clearly being contemporary (or even futuristic) gives the story a timeless feel. This is about more than just sex, this is something bigger… so what is it?
Our heroine Jay (Maika Monroe) is a young college student on the precipice of adulthood. She still lives with her parents and still hangs out with her younger sister and her friends. She may already be a woman, as it’s revealed Jay is not a virgin at the outset, she is still by-and-large a child. Even with the burden of the curse upon her, she seeks out simple solutions that only serve to delay the inevitable… certain death.
When it comes time to truly face the monster in the (admittedly silly) climax, there’s a small detail that is practically glossed over. It’s never made explicitly clear, you need to be an observant viewer to catch it. For that final confrontation the monster has taken the form of Jay’s deceased father, whose death has a small but noticeable impact in an early scene of the film. She is literally made to face the death of her father.
In the aftermath it shown that Jay is apparently moving on and has developed a serious relationship with her friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist), supposedly consenting in passing the curse on to him. Though it is left ambiguous whether he in turn passes it on to a prostitute, what’s most important is that last scene.
We watch as Jay and Paul take a walk through the neighborhood. They pass by modest houses, picturesque trees, and a couple neighbors. The two hold hands, they’re taking this journey together. Everything appears normal, simple, happy even. But all the while, in the middle distance, someone appears to be following them. Is it the monster, is it some random person? It doesn’t matter. Jay and Paul keep walking forward, their eyes fixed to what is ahead of them, never minding what is certain to eventually catch up with them.
But just what is the monster? What does it represent? It transforms to provoke victims but also attempts to blend in. Is it simply death itself? Or, might it be the collective fears of society itself? I’m not sure, but think about the forms the creature appears in throughout the film. It appears as a naked woman (fear of exposure), as an old woman (fear of aging), as an abuse victim (fear of harm), as a giant (fear of standing out), as a young boy (fear of children), as a naked man on the roof (fear of intruders), and as Jay’s dead father (fear of death). Feel free to speculate on the other appearances of the monster, but these all are very real fears in our very adult world.
There’s an idea that maturity and adulthood is reached when one realizes and makes peace with the simple fact that one day, regardless of their choices and actions, they will die. Death is not a choice, it is not an obstacle, and it cannot be run from. Though fear of death can indeed keep us alive, fixation is never healthy. The entirety of the film has Jay fixated on death. It looms over her, and instead of facing it she continually runs. That is until the end. In the end she realizes that running will do nothing. A life spent running from death is not a life worth living. Jay wins in the end because she realizes the only thing she can do is move on, thereby becoming an adult.
This brings me back to the effect the film had on me. I certainly hadn’t all of this processed upon a single viewing, but that underlying notion stuck with me: in no uncertain terms, I will one day die. I sat in my apartment, staring at the closed door, staring at the blinds-drawn windows. I felt trapped in my own life, fearing what might walk in and disturb what I could see before me. In the months since that first viewing I’ve had to make changes and face some hard facts about my life. And though my future is still uncertain, I no longer fear for it. Because that’s just life.