Over a year ago, when I started Just Dread-full, I wrote an extensive piece about a film I’d seen recently that had more or less captivated me. The film – a low budget, atypical, but indisputably creepy horror flick – was called It Follows, and Michael and I saw the film four times in theaters when it came out. There were myriad elements of this film that made it exceptional – its deeper characters, its unique treatment of setting and theme, its distinctly unsettling, creepy ambiance – but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was, about this film that made me want to see it over, and over, and over again. Unsurprisingly, I purchased the film, and one December eve not so long ago, when I needed to take a break from course work, I watched it again. And it occurred to me, after re-processing one of my all-time favorites, that It Follows, more than your typical horror movie, deals, both directly and symbolically, with our near-universal and immanent fear of death’s imminence, its inescapable closeness and the insidious fact that it could consume us, any time, without warning. Don’t get me wrong: most horror movies use the possibility of death as a vehicle for frightening us. But It Follows does so in ways that are careful, intentional, and cut to the core of our fear that just as the devil chases down rock n’ roll stars (at least, according to some of their lyrics) death is always following us, snapping at our Achilles tendon in hopes that we’ll bleed out completely and wink out from life on this earth. And wouldn’t that be terrible. But that is the beauty and terror of a film that is modest, subtle and independent, but remarkably genre bending and genre defining.
The crux of the film’s terror lies in a sexually transmitted curse. If you have sex with the wrong person, and they’re being followed by it – the undefined thing that takes a variety of human forms to mask itself and moves slowly toward you, with the intent to kill you – they’ll pass the curse onto you. You’ll be the new person escaping the curse, and the person who slept with you will only be pursued if (or when) it overtakes you and kills you, and it needs its next victim. More eerily, still, this sort of spiritual – or anti-spiritual – plague, is never called a curse in the movie, a word that would somewhat minimize its terror and conjure images of less frightening things like conniving gypsies and monkeys’ paws. In fact, its origin or specific nature is never explained; we simply know that some unnamed essence inhabits a bizarre variety of human forms and slowly – but steadily and smartly – pursues its victim, until it kills the person and moves on to the former victim, the one who passed the curse along through sex. The filmmaker’s decision not to name or define the curse makes it more inexplicable and ambiguous, and thus more terrifying. But it also has the convenient effect of making it more symbolic. If it’s not a specifically named plague or evil, it’s easier for it to stand for a broader, more universal concept—in this case, death. In It Follows, the embodied curse – literally, the curse in a body – that pursues its victims slowly but maliciously until it zeroes in for the kill, symbolizes death’s relationship to all of us. Really, death slowly follows us all, and its ability to consume us is inevitable and universal. The reality of death is, after all, one of the only wholly shared elements of the human condition – a dark but inescapable equalizer.
The film’s main character, Jay, sleeps with a boy she’s dating named Hugh who intentionally passes this curse to her to save himself. One can tell he feels rather bad about doing so, but the terror is ultimately too much for him to handle, so he sleeps with the beautiful Jay and assumes she can pass the curse easily on to one of the many men who would be interested in her. After sleeping with her, he drugs her and ties her to a wheelchair so he can force her to linger close to “it” – the thing that will begin to follow her – while they’re in an otherwise abandoned parking garage in a sequestered, dilapidated area of Detroit. It’s essential that she believe this seemingly ludicrous story so she doesn’t get consumed by it; not only is he, hopefully, concerned for her welfare, but if it consumes Jay, it moves on to him again. Sure enough, as Jay sits, still hazy from the effects of the drugs, but terrified all the same, shirtless and tied to a wheelchair on the third or fourth story of an abandoned parking garage, a completely nude woman comes slowly sauntering up to the garage, and ascends the stairs until she reaches Jay’s level. The woman moves toward Jay assiduously, and Hugh lets the woman linger just close enough to terrify Jay before moving the wheelchair. Ultimately, he sets Jay free and drops her off at home; she is frightened and shaking. And the rest of the film follows Jay’s attempt to escape it, the curse, a curse which is, symbolically, death embodied. We realize, as we watch, that we are not very different from Jay, who is pursued by death at every second. As the less subtle and artistic horror film Final Destination emphasizes, the possibility for death and destruction exists at every moment of our being. Jay’s death is simply more visible, more embodied, and perhaps more imminent.
As I watched the film the first time, the second, and the third, it was clear that the film was employing literature for the sake of adding depth and dimension to its analysis, but I didn’t view how simplistic the analysis really was. The film is an exploration of death, and the literary allusions that the film employs to tip us off to this point only reify the supposition. After sleeping with Hugh, Jay, as I’ve related, sees the thing once, embodied as a naked woman, when she’s in the parking garage with Hugh. After Hugh drops her off at home, severs ties with her and goes into hiding – he remerges later and lives at his parent’s house, though his name is different – Jay tries to mentally discredit his seemingly ridiculous story, although the viewer has the distinct sense that the evening in the parking garage has made her irrevocably uneasy.
Jay is sitting, a bit later in the film, in what I presume to be a college class. The teacher is at the front of the room, slowly and rhythmically reading from one of T.S. Eliot’s most famous ironic love poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The film does not tell you that’s the poem she’s reading, but thanks to an amalgamation of undergraduate teachers who must have loved T.S. Eliot, I would know the poem anywhere. The poem is a very image-oriented, seemingly fragmented first person account of one man’s fear of aging and death. Hmmm. Doesn’t that seem significant if we concede that It Follows is a movie exploring death’s reality and our fear of death?
In the poem, the self-conscious Prufrock knows he is getting old, and frets his bald head, skinny limbs, and inability to communicate with an anonymous woman. We also sense that he frets death. He says, in one stanza, “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker/ I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat and snicker/ and of course I was afraid.” The “eternal footman” is – much like the curse in it follows – death embodied (think, the grim reaper with his black hood and sickle). Prufrock’s glimpsing of the eternal footman, and his admitted fear, symbolizes (to the extent that it’s symbolic and not completely direct) Prufrock’s knowledge that death is imminent, and his concomitant fear of that reality: and of course I was afraid (the insinuation, of course, is that fear is inevitable against the reality of death). And this is the line that the teacher is very, very slowly reading, as Jay looks out the window and sees an old woman in a hospital night gown ambling toward her on a campus full of young college students. The teacher reads us the line about the approaching eternal footman just as death literally approaches Jay – for the first time, without Hugh. But in this scene, Jay’s eternal footman is a fear-evoking old woman with long, skinny legs (much like the aging Prufrock’s limbs) and a hospital gown. Jay runs out of the room, only to glimpse the woman in her building, coming toward her in the hall, and so Jay runs home. The film must provide us with a poem about the fear of death to clue us into the fact that this film is about death’s perseverance and the common human fear of an eternal beyond – or an eternal oblivion.
While the ending scene is critical, too – and we’ll get to that – there are indications throughout the film that the film deals with the unity of life and death – the prevalence of death in life, and the juxtaposition of two seeming binaries which might not be really all that binary. Consider, first, that this curse – the curse of being hunted by death as predator – comes from one of the most life-affirming and life-creating acts, sex. The message is, then, that death is the price we pay for life, that death’s possibility is present even when we feel most alive, and that as we seek to create life, death is present and possible. It should be noted, also, that the camera focuses, at the beginning of the film, on a chipmunk running, or some blades of grass – in that way more carefully examining the life that flourishes against the backdrop of death. More significantly, the movie takes place in the transition from summer to fall. Fall is a season associated with death or dying, and the transition from late summer to early fall signifies the process of warmth and life slowly dying, as decaying leaves blanket the ground. Couple that with the fact that the film takes place in Detroit which is, sadly, a dying city, and while the film shows some very nice parts of Detroit, parts of the film also features abandoned parking garages and buildings – things that symbolize economic death.
I will omit much of what happens toward the middle/end of the film, but at the film’s conclusion, one of Jay’s friends, who has been with her on her journey to escape death throughout the entire film, is hospitalized as a direct result of It. The thing, the embodied curse, has physically injured her. Jay’s friend has had, both literally and figuratively, a brush with death. She sits in her hospital bed, notably content and munching on a sandwich, while she reads a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” (the film does tell you what she’s reading in this case), and the quote directly addresses the terrifying reality of death. Now, I don’t know as much about Dostoevsky, or, especially, about “The Idiot” (I did not have any professors who were lovers of Russian realism, which, one might argue, is a hard thing to love).
Notably, a Russian-realist author is the perfect sort of guy to deliver a literary allusion in this film, and one need not know about the work to see its importance, once one accepts that the movie is about death’s imminence and our need to escape it and run from it. While I do not have the exact quote (I apologize) Jay’s friend reads about that moment when the soul leaves the body, that moment when one “ceases to be a person.” And Dostoevsky concludes (or so Jay’s friend reads) that this is possibly “the worst thing of all.” Death embodied has just brushed the group, the film is about to conclude, and Jay’s friend reads a line about the inherent tragedy of death as the film seeks to explore both its prevalence and its unfortunate consequences – how and why we run from it. The film ends with a shot of Jay and Paul (one of her friends, and a potential boyfriend) walking hand in hand. Paul has just slept with Jay to relieve her of her burden, and we see a blurred vision of a person – or a “person” – in the distance. Death embodied will continue to hunt these two victims.
To say that It Follows is about death is not to say much, because this much is obvious. To say that it deals very intentionally, symbolically – even allegorically – with the reality of death, death’s prevalence and imminence, and solidifies that examination through setting and allusions, is to make a more precise argument. Jay’s situation is an exaggerated microcosm of the human condition. Another character in the film, after all, may have easily died from an unexpected occurrence before death embodied ever overtook Jay, because none of us are immune. Just as death takes on many different person-forms in the film – sexual assault victims, old women, Jay’s deceased dad, a strange looking tall man – death, in life, takes on many forms: accidents, cancer, homicide, heart attacks. Death will, ultimately, overtake all of us, and to that end, we are all part of the same grand tragedy. And still, Jay perseveres, she runs, she fights to live. In that way, this part-morbid, part-exploratory film is also a celebration of life.