It’s Not Done

Why did I watch It Follows twice? What was I seeking in the feeling of fear?

It Follows
It Follows doesn’t believe in beginnings or endings, just the forever of perpetual peril.

Photo courtesy RADiUS-TWC

This essay discusses plot points of It Follows.

It’s a girl in a white dress, walking toward you. Now it’s a naked woman, pubes waxed bare and eyes ice-cold, flip-flops slapping the railroad tracks. Now it’s a towering hollow-eyed man. Now it’s your mother, your gym teacher, your college girlfriend, your weird cat-lady neighbor. Whatever it is, it’s always approaching. It’s never screaming, or holding a chainsaw. It’s never running. It never stops.

The premise of It Follows, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, is absurd and simple: Some mysterious shape-shifting creature latches onto a single target and keeps walking toward her at all times with intent to kill. The only way to get rid of it? Fuck someone. Then it follows him. Until he fucks someone. Etc. You can’t destroy it. You can only pass it on.

The inexorability is what’s frightening. It doesn’t matter whether you can see it or not: It’s always coming closer. Part of the brilliance of the film is the idea that getting walked after can be suitably terrifying if you do it right. It’s the inglorious terror of a chronic condition; the unrelenting brutality of ongoingness. In Ongoingness, her meditation on how we make sense of the passage of time, Sarah Manguso writes: “My students still believe in beginnings … I no longer believe in anything other than the middle.” It Follows doesn’t believe in beginnings or endings, just the forever of perpetual peril.

“It’s slow,” one target explains. “But it’s not dumb.”

The first time I saw the film, I heard: It’s not done. Also true. It never is.

* * *

The movie begins with a teenage girl running out the front door of her ordinary suburban house. She keeps glancing over her shoulder. She’s wearing silk pajamas—a camisole, little shorts with lace trim—and red pumps. We hear her pumps clicking on the asphalt as she keeps backing away from something we can’t see. We have no access to the terms of her horror. Eventually she gets into her car and speeds off. The next shot shows her sitting on a lake beach in the dead of night, her back to the lapping waves; she’s telling her dad over the phone that she’s sorry she can be such a shit to him sometimes. Then we realize something has arrived. We don’t see it; we register its presence in her gaze.

The next shot is morning: her corpse. One leg has been bent forward at the knee, one red pump still on her foot, now hovering above her face. Seeing her dead body is almost a relief; at least we aren’t inside the last scene anymore, wondering, what’s going to happen? It’s one of the perverse inversions of a horror film: You start rooting for dead bodies because it will end the stress of worrying when and how everyone is going to die.

The moment we meet our protagonist Jay—floating in a swimming pool in her suburban Detroit backyard—we start wondering exactly this: when and how she is going to die. The world around her feels close and tingly with the latent possibility of danger. The film’s gaze is hyper-attuned to sensory details: the dirt and leaves cluttering the water, the grime and dirt of the pool’s ladder and its plastic walls, the little neighbor boys peering over the fence. We are already preemptively training ourselves to pay attention to any flickers of movement or information. Things are odd and off beneath their surfaces. A squirrel runs across a telephone wire; a bird is perched there awkwardly. It feels very David Lynch—that bird from the Twin Peaks credits, its robotic angled head, or the under-lawn view at the beginning of Blue Velvet—all ordinary suburban insect life until we see the human ear resting on top of the grass.

This sense of darkness in the midst of ordinary life is at the heart of the film: not just embodied by the specter of someone walking—the fact that its central danger is a thing we see every day, banal and inescapable—but by the landscape itself. Detroit is full of buildings that are already ghosts of themselves, husks and vessels. Near the climax of the film—which happens in a community swimming pool whose looming brick exterior looks more like an abandoned insane asylum—the characters discuss how their parents would never let them past 8 Mile when they were kids. It was dangerous to cross: it was where the suburbs ended and the city began. Now the suburbs aren’t safe either. Now it goes everywhere; it walks across any borders it pleases.

The world of It Follows is gritty and stylized and stylish: suede boots and plaid, acid-washed denim vests over animal T-shirts. The era is the late 1970s/the era is the early 1980s/the era is whatever it wants to be: The fashion vibe is very fur-trim-on-anything and the TV has clunky tuning dials, but a gal named Yara is reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on some kind of miniature e-reader shaped like a pack of birth-control pills. Jay fucks a boy named Hugh in his station wagon and wakes up strapped into a wheelchair in a gutted building as Hugh explains the rules of her new life. He offers advice as a silent naked woman comes toward them: Never go into a room with one exit.

Thankfully, Jay’s got a rag-tag crew waiting to help, a posse of suburban kids playing Old Maid on the porch—you can’t destroy it, you can only pass it on. They try to take care of Jay: we’re-in-this-together sleepovers and free fro-yo from the fro-yo shop where they work. This crew fights evil with whatever they can get their hands on: a station wagon to flee to dad’s hunting cabin; an array of domestic appliances (hair dryer, toaster, electric typewriter) designed to help electrocute “it” in that popsicle-blue swimming pool shimmering at the film’s climax.

They are still somehow innocent, these kids, and they are fighting with the weapons of their innocence; and of course the premise of the film is in some way about innocence, and falling-from-grace-via-sex-in-a-station-wagon, but part of what I love about the movie is the way it coaxes and then complicates various metaphorical interpretations of its premise. Getting followed comes from sex, sure; but the only solution is more of it. In fact, the best solution is sex with someone else who will have a lot of sex—in fact, you want to seek out a slut who only sleeps with other sluts who only sleep with other sluts, preferably globe-trotting sluts; a train of infinite and never-ending and very frequent sex is the only way to stop this thing once you’ve got it. Immediately the mind starts calculating, backseat sex-strategizing: You’ve got to fuck someone with so much game, or superhuman strength, someone who could actually kill this thing; you’ve got to fuck a sumo wrestler or an MMA fighter; you’ve got to fly across the world and fuck a prostitute and fly back home. At first Jay doesn’t even fuck anyone. Then she does. Then she regrets it. Then she does it again. All this feels less about culpability, the sexual engine of so many horror stories, and more about powerlessness; it’s certainly not about losing her virginity—one senses that happened years ago, in someone’s mother’s minivan.

When they decide to really fight this thing, they go back to the swimming pool where Jay had her first kiss—and that’s mentioned, as if relevant, as if it makes the pool a natural or even necessary site for this showdown. And once “it” arrives, faithfully following Jay to the water, it takes the form of her father—long-deceased but recognizable to us from the photograph tucked into her bedroom vanity mirror. In this final confrontation; she has to face down the original man, and the original crime. But what’s great is that the showdown fails; the sexual metaphor crumbles. Going back to the sources of the sexual fall—the father, the first kiss—doesn’t mean shit. It doesn’t work.

Jay is constantly attached to pink—pink flower lamp on her desk, pink curtains on her window, pink blanket on her bed, pink dress on her date, pink lingerie underneath, pink bikini at the lake—and the color shows up so frequently it starts to feel like a self-aware joke: All the pink purity in the world couldn’t possibly save her. She’s also got an X tattooed on her middle finger. She’s already marked. She is getting pinned to tropes of girlish innocence in order to suggest the absurdity of considering the world in these terms: innocent and fallen. We’re all fallen, no matter how much pink we wear. We’ve all got targets inked on our skin. Any one of us could look over our shoulder to find the beast shambling slowly toward us.

This is the most obvious metaphoric read of It Follows: Death itself is the slow thing always walking toward us, always advancing toward us from some angle—from some distance—even if we can’t see where it’s coming from, or how far off it might be. The specter of mortality is haunting all the sex we have. It’s the curse we pass on to the creatures our sex creates. Sex itself marks us for target practice.

In case we don’t get it, Yara sits in a hospital bed at the end of the film—nursing a gunshot wound, a bit of friendly fire fallout from the pool—munching a sandwich from a hospital tray, sucking loudly on a juice box, and reads one final passage from her e-reader Idiot:

When there is torture there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented only by the wounds until the moment of death. But the most terrible agony many not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant—your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that is certain; the worst thing is that it is certain

Wait! Hold up. You mean the literal terrors of the film are only a distraction from the metaphysical truth that we’re all facing the undeniable certainty of our own deaths? Fair enough. But the movie gives us this truth through a mouthful of chewed-up sandwich, and its superlative craft—a world so irrefutably and playfully sculpted, very intentional and edgy and full of nods, the soundtrack winking at Carpenter; the particularity and fine grain of its texture, its self-aware retro vibe, all these keep the premise from taking itself too seriously, or dissolving into over-easy metaphysics: We might all die but at least we don’t have some ghoulish perpetual-motion machine bending our legs forward till we’re face-to-face with our own feet.

* * *

What’s the real terror of It Follows? It’s certainly the terror of the chronic, but it’s also the horror of chronic indifference, the creature that doesn’t display emotion or remorse or even react. It never panics or gets frustrated. It just gets the job done, and walks on. There’s nothing you can do that will make it do anything different than what it’s doing. What the fuck do you want? Jay screams at the naked woman from her wheelchair. Its desire is relentless and sourceless and inexplicable.

In his poem “Hap,” Thomas Hardy thinks about the ways in which some power willing us ill is actually more appealing than the possibility of governing indifference:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy …” 

Here, we get none of the comfort of that ecstasy. The creature only follows, betraying no feeling or reaction. In the face of this menacing indifference, we become our worst selves. This it invites us into our own moral humbling; invites us to pass it on, for example, in service of self-preservation. This is an evil that makes perpetrators of us all. Being a hero means fucking someone else, and essentially fucking her over.

This horror is the absence of any true horizon of relief: Even if you could defeat the thing (which you can’t) you’d never know for sure that you had; you’d still spend every day terrified it would simply come walking back.

In the first shot after the climactic swimming pool scene, we immediately see a chair propped against a door. What happened at the pool wasn’t the end; not even the characters believe it was the end. It’s not just that they’re not safe; it’s that they no longer believe in the possibility of safety. Jay is fucking affably nerdy fro-yo worker Paul—her first kiss, who’s had a crush on her ever since—but their sex happens under a window streaked with rain. We are watching that window for what it might show.

But nothing comes. Which is even worse. Now we don’t know where it is. But we think it must be somewhere.

The final shot shows Jay and Paul walking down a sidewalk, a figure walking in the distance behind them. It could be it. It might not. It doesn’t matter. If it’s not, it could happen another day. Any day. In front of them, in several directions, are street signs saying: Dead End. Indeed. No matter which way you turn.

* * *

I saw It Follows twice. First I saw it on date night: a horror film credentialed by the fact that it was playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I placed a certain weight on the film—I’d suggested it, and my husband wasn’t necessarily sold on horror, and every date night means you’re essentially paying triple-price because of the sitter—so I wanted us to get fucking scared.

And we did. We felt the intimacy of that darkened collective, all of us getting scared together—the sense that we were all equally vulnerable to this artificial fear to which we’d simultaneously decided to prostrate ourselves. I spent about a third of the film closing my eyes, another third pushing my fingers into my ears. Sometimes I was doing both at once. I was just burying my head into my husband’s shoulder, hearing and seeing nothing, thinking This movie is SO GOOD! while I didn’t even watch it.  

Mitchell says the film’s premise came from a nightmare he used to have when he was young: “In the dream it looked like different people and was always coming closer. I could always get away from it, but it was just about this feeling of anxiety knowing that something’s always following me.” It certainly followed us. For days after the film, my husband and I joked about it constantly: It follows. It snuggles. It needs to talk about its feelings. The comic horror of doing something—anything—relentlessly; the horror of refusing to desist. I kept wondering what felt so smart about what we’d seen. Why was it lingering? Why did I think the movie was good when I’d spent half the movie trying not to watch it?

All of which is to say: I went back. I decided to see it again, this time by myself. Watching a horror movie alone is a fundamentally different experience than watching it in company. If part of the pleasure of fear, of voluntarily making ourselves vulnerable, comes back to Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime—the pleasure of perceiving danger from a position of safety, that sense of boundaries—then that’s precisely what dissolves even further when you watch a horror film alone: the boundaries.* There aren’t any other bodies standing between you and the fiction of what you’re seeing—a fiction you know isn’t real but still feels real, when your evolution-trained body startles at every sudden figure in the window, every body shambling across the frame.

As I sat in my big cinema seat and the seconds until start-time ticked by, I realized with a sinking feeling that I was going to be the only person in the theater. My eyes kept flicking to the corners of the room. I counted the exits. I switched seats so that the back wall would be directly behind me. The lights started dimming and I almost walked out into the lobby to ask them to keep them on. Couldn’t they do this, since I was the only one? Meaning: There wasn’t anyone else to bother. Meaning: There wasn’t anyone else to protect me.

But I stayed. Something thrilled me about staying, when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to. What was I seeking in that feeling of fear? Whatever is passive about watching movies hits some sort of limit case in horror: We are controlled and manipulated into postures of fear and surprise; doing for our feelings what we do for our bodies on a roller coaster—subjecting ourselves to the most extreme experience of powerlessness that film can offer.

Perhaps the pleasure comes back to the pleasure of experiencing powerful artifice—encountering artifice so forceful it can trump our intellectual awareness of something being made with a visceral feeling of being subject to its fabrications. Perhaps it’s not the imagined danger or the knotted stomach that brings pleasure but the crossing of whatever threshold separates them: the minor but legitimate wonder of something imagined creating something physical, something actual, in response.

Leaving the theater, in the middle of the day, I felt—yes—followed by what I’d seen. Every walking figure caught my eye. I found myself staring at an old woman pushing a shopping cart full of toilet paper. She was coming toward me. She smiled. I smiled back.

We come to art for its bounded spaces—craft is a series of boundaries erected between us and the things we’ve made—but we like to feel the boundaries violated. We like to see old women turned sinister, to feel the dark theater following us back into the light, the noon sky sheltering a thousand walking evils. We’re never out of reach. The worst thing is that it is certain. We feel the bright world restored to us, infected by that certainty.

*Correction, April 22, 2015: This article originally misidentified Edmund Burke as Edward Burke. (Return.)