*Content warning for a graphic depiction of sexual violence*
The conceit of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is as simple as its title. There’s a shapeshifting entity, invisible to all but its quarry, and it follows that quarry at a walking pace until it catches and kills them. It determines its prey by a sort of contagious curse, passed by sex from person to person, retraced back up the chain with every killing. It’s the stuff urban legends are made of, a half-sensical brew of sexual anxiety and faceless menace capable of penetrating any boundary. The closer it gets to you, we’re told, the more likely it is to take on the appearance of a loved one or family member.
Protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe) is thrust into the entity’s path when her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) intentionally passes the curse to her. It’s Jay’s first sexual experience, and it starts off as a rust belt daydream, all derelict factories, backseat fumbling, and dandelions blowing in a warm summer wind. Then Hugh clamps a chloroform-soaked rag over Jay’s mouth and nose. What comes after plays out with nightmarish deliberation. Jay, duct-taped to a chair, gets her first glimpse of the entity and a crash course in how to avoid it before Hugh dumps her on the curb outside her house and speeds away into the night.
Jay’s experience bears more than a passing resemblance to rape, and like rape it tears open her preconceptions about her own safety and the nature of the world around her. From there the movie unfolds a singularly painful and alienating depiction of what it’s like to live with the aftermath of sexual violence. So much fiction about rape directs its focus solely or primarily at the act itself, but for survivors an assault is only the beginning of a struggle that can last a lifetime. It Follows digs into that pain with white-knuckled intensity, and in doing so it sheds much-needed light on what being a “survivor” means for one’s day to day existence.
A Hostile World
Director David Robert Mitchell’s paranoid camera renders the entire world of It Follows a hunting ground. Negative space yawns around Jay, especially whenever she’s alone, and simple knowledge of the entity renders any unseen space a source of mounting dread. Whenever a shot lingers, the very bodies of the actors form negative corridors of space down which the entity could approach. The film’s mood roughly corresponds to the psychological condition known as hypervigilance, a state of anxious and oversensitive awareness common in traumatized individuals.
Nor are traditionally safe spaces proof against the entity, which attacks Jay in group settings more than once and makes its way into the homes of several of its victims during the film. The first and only time we see it kill, it takes the form of its victim Greg’s (Daniel Zovatto) mother (Leisa Pulido) and drains his life through intercourse, bending and twisting his body like a plaything as he dies. When it comes for Jay in the film’s climactic sequence, it wears her dead father’s face. This primal violation of the bonds on which we depend for stability and happiness shows just how completely rape shatters one’s capacity to trust in others, as well as the ways in which families can conceal violence and sexual predation against children as easily as they can shield them from it.
Once Jay has seen her pursuer and learned what it can do, she must live with the realization that it could be anywhere, that it could look like anyone. Every room is now a death trap, every crowd tall grass where stalking lions could conceal themselves. Living with the knowledge of your inability to protect your own body from violation is a transformative experience. You can never go back to believing you’re safe.
Rape and Isolation
“Just sleep with someone else,” Hugh (whose real name, concealed by the false identity he used to seduce Jay and pass on his curse, is Jeff) tells Jay when she tracks him down for advice. It’s a familiar sentiment to anyone who’s ever self-medicated their post-traumatic symptoms with sex, drugs, or self-harm. The impulse to reenact trauma with ourselves in the positions of the people who hurt us is a common experience for survivors, one of the ugliest things we carry forward from our traumatic episodes. Jay does sleep with other people during the course of the film, often joylessly or purely out of a sense of functionality, and when after the Entity’s defeat she finally sleeps with the jealous, sulky Paul (Keir Gilchrist) it’s hard not to imagine that on some level this is still precautionary, an effort to insulate herself from a sense of insecurity she may never fully escape.
It Follows provides real insight into how this sense of isolation manifests. The film’s opening sequence depicts a nameless young woman (Bailey Spry) fleeing from the Entity, which goes unseen, down her suburban street. Her parents call after her. Neighbors look on in befuddled concern. In full view of her neighborhood she watches her own death walk toward her. No one else can see it. No one else believes it’s real. Each step the Entity takes toward her renders her more and more profoundly alone, lost in a dangerous reality no one else can see or interact with.
Later, after fleeing in her parents’ car, the girl spends her last moments alone on a windswept shore in the sodium glare of the headlights, the night sky a deep and total black over the water behind her. The isolation the Entity’s pursuit forced upon her even in the middle of her home and family is translated with stark brutality into an image of the void. Even had she survived, had the Entity not snapped her body like a popsicle stick and left it broken on the sand, how could she ever have been anything but alone? For survivors of sexual violence, forced to carry their worst memories unseen and unacknowledged wherever they go, the experience of loneliness can become inescapable.
This is the white-hot flame at the center of It Follows, the thing that cements it as a horror classic. It takes a traumatic experience with which so many of us struggle and sublimates it into something that communicates to all its viewers exactly how terrifying and skin-of-your-teeth desperate that struggle is. Crisis images like the sight of the Entity wrapped in Greg’s mother’s skin as it rapes him to death impress on audiences through raw terror what it feels like to live a hunted life, to wake every day uncertain of your safety. The imparting of empathy through fear is one of the greatest gifts that horror has to give.