We’ve all been attracted to someone without the ability to explain the attraction’s origin. You know that person you used to work with who you just couldn’t stop thinking about? A person you met at a party who allured you? Sometimes we’re just drawn to people without knowing why. Like, sure, the person is attractive, but what is it about this particular person that is so enticing? I think we’ve all been there: we’ve fallen victim to the unexplained crush. Well, It Follows is my inexplicable horror movie crush. When It Follows came to the theaters, my boyfriend, Michael, and I saw the movie four times. Michael doesn’t feel the same affection for horror that I do, but even he was gripped by the film. It’s such a delicate, subtle little film that’s doing so many things, but four times? Why did we see it four times? What is it about It Follows that makes it such fantastic cinema? I’m writing this piece to figure out what it is I love so much about this movie.
Let’s start with the title: It Follows. Now let’s emphasize the phrase “it.” Sometimes, miscellaneous predators seem so blasé. I often prefer a good ghost. But this anonymous “it” packs a lot of punch; we watch the entire movie without really knowing anything about it. We know the protagonist, Jay Height (Maika Monroe), has sex, and through sex a boy (Hue, whose real name is Jeff – Jake Weary) passes along the deadliest of STD’s: Now that they’ve slept together, the thing that’s been following Jeff will follow Jay. It will amble toward her slowly, but methodically, and it will never stop following her, until she passes the sexually transmitted curse on or it kills her. We know “it” can be passed on sexually, and we know “it” takes human form, without ever being human. If we’re looking closely, we may even notice that “it” is always wearing white if it’s not nude. But we never know a thing about “it” otherwise. We don’t know the origin of this curse. We never hear a backstory, never learn how the curse got ignited, so it remains a mysterious plague that torments its victims. This mystery makes “it” a lot creepier, and makes the movie more memorable.
The way “it” moves is quite unsettling. Jeff tells Jay, “it’s very slow, but it’s not dumb.” (As an English teacher, I tell my students to avoid using “it” in writing whenever possible; I cannot, alas, help but use “it” here). “It” is scary because it doesn’t need to speed up to be effective. It can stroll at leisure with a goal in mind; if you stroll after someone forever your bound to catch them eventually. Part of “its” terror lies in “its” slowness. Whether “it” appears in the form of an old woman or a naked young woman, it’s always walking toward you. “Its” slow pace and its constant presence enhance the terror “it” provokes. It doesn’t need to run, and it’s always walking toward you.
The fact that “it’s” a shape-shifter amplifies its scariness, and provides interesting topic for conversation; why does it choose to take the forms it does? Sometimes, Jeff says, it does this to get close to you, and sometimes it takes the form of someone you love just to hurt you, but some of the forms “it” takes when it chases Jay have to have deeper significance. When she’s sitting in her college class and sees it walking toward her out the window, it’s dressed as an old woman in a hospital. Why an old woman? Certainly, old women in horror movies are creepy, but morphing into an old woman on a college campus will hardly allow you to camouflage yourself. When Jay sleeps with Greg, it comes to kill Greg in the form of Greg. And why does it often take the shape of a nude person? The shape-shifting nature of this beast makes it infinitely scarier, and makes the movie more memorable.
Beyond just “its” inherent scariness, other elements of the movie make it an excellent view. First, the characters are incredibly endearing. Watch a horror movie like The Gallows or Unfriended. The teenage main characters are snarky jerks who are all sleeping with one another’s boyfriend/girlfriend. The acting is excellent in It Follows, and the characters – who are late high school and early college aged – are incredibly endearing. As a watcher, I actually care that poor Jay is getting chased by this thing, because I like her. In Unfriended and The Gallows, I was practically rooting for the ghost. Even Jeff (“Hue”) who passes the curse to Jay does so out of necessity; you can see the pain on his face when he holds a towel to her mouth to make her pass out, so he can tie her up and show her the curse is real. Being followed by this undefined thing would cause anyone to lose his or her sense of balance, and Jeff feels he has no recourse but to pass it on.
Furthermore, Detroit serves as an excellent backdrop for this film. A story about a predator slowly following, promising death, sits perfectly in a suffering city like Detroit. Jay and Jeff have sex behind an abandoned building, and he wheels her around an abandoned parking garage to show her that “it” is real after he sleeps with her. Placing It Follows in Detroit gives the movie a darker, more Gothic vibe. More significantly, still, the elements of the setting are virtually anachronistic. The television in Jay’s house is always showing black and white movies, the furniture looks like a byproduct of the 70’s, many of the characters dress as if they’re from the 70’s or 80’s, and the movie is rife with old cars. So the movie lingers in 2015 but simultaneously out of time. And the movie is delightfully free of smartphones; the most modern technology is Annie’s e-reader, which looks like a little pink seashell. She’s reading The Idiot.
Which brings me to a final reason I have a crush on this film; it’s so intelligent. Annie quotes The Idiot at choice moments when the material can be at least loosely related to the situations of the characters. Jay’s often shot swimming in the pool in late summer, a scene that has to be symbolic; it’s as if she’s grasping to hold onto summer as the leaves fall, just like she’s grasping for the life of normalcy she experienced before she had sex with Jeff and started getting followed by this thing. The camera will often pan to Jay looking at the grass, or touching the green grass with her red fingernails, a color combination that, while visually appealing, also probably has greater significance. If nothing else, the color red indicates something alarming intercepting the calm.
And toward the end of the movie, the kids discuss the fact that their parents told them never to go below 8 mile, where the suburbs end. This very Detroit-specific information seems arbitrary but must be completely intentional. It’s ironic that the kids are told to stay above 8-mile, when the real danger – the mysterious but relentless “it” – can follow someone anywhere.
Just imagine being followed by a thing day in, day out. Imagine being constantly on the move, driving all the time to distance it from you, ensuring that you stay in rooms that have two exits to get away from it. Imagine waking, startled and sweating in the middle of the night, wondering if it’s near you, outside, about to break a window, standing on the roof. The thing about It Follows is that the characters are alive at the end of the movie, but we know they’re still damned. Heroically, Paul has volunteered to shoulder the burden of the curse for Jay by sleeping with her, but if it gets him, it will go for her, next. Once you’ve “contracted” it (for lack of better words) you’re never safe again. Jay is damned from the beginning, and the movie ends with Jay and Paul walking, hand in hand, ironically in white, damned together. They will be hunted until they are caught; their prospect is dismal. But the movie is brilliant. A cautionary tale? Who knows.
I’m torn: on the one hand, I want a sequel to It Follows that explains more about what “it” is. On the other hand, perhaps I don’t want to know, for much of the fear lies in the mystery. In any case, there are many reasons why I love this movie, but ultimately, it allows me to imagine the hell the characters are experiencing; it depicts that hell poignantly, and for that reason, becomes unforgettable.