David Robert Mitchell’s sinister It Follows exacts its chills from a simple central idea: an entity (“It”) that pursues its victims endlessly and slowly (at walking pace but is apparently a strong swimmer). The entity can take any human shape, and frequently takes the shape of its quarry’s loved ones. “It” only pursues one cursed victim at a time. The curse can only be passed on through sexual intercourse. If “It” catches and kills a victim then the curse reverts back to the previous recipient, and so on. “It” can only be seen by those who have possessed the curse and seemingly cannot be significantly harmed or destroyed.
The unnameable “It” is an exceptionally fertile concept. It touches the depths of human horror; the kind of horror that is utterly individual and indescribable to another person. The nightmare quality of “It”, that follows you inescapably, speaks of things that are experienced in dreams as terrifying, yet can only ever be half remembered upon waking. Like zombies, pod-people, and other monsters that take human form, “It” can represent whatever you want (Romero’s zombies can be seen as communists/consumers/concentration camp prisoners/the 99% etc.). It simply mirrors an individual’s particular fears. The film is effective because it is open to multiple subjective readings (an obvious interpretation is an AIDS parable. However, how relevant is the AIDS epidemic to the middle class American teenagers in It Follows? The director has attempted to refute this reading. He claims that the curse can be passed on through protected sex and lesbian sex).
It Follows shares a star (Maika Monroe) and an 80s horror inflection with Adam Wingard’s The Guest, another great American genre flick from recent times.
It is this web of references to 80s (70s and 90s also) horror films that encourages me to view It Follows as to do with how we deal with our past. It makes its own lineage apparent so that we might do the same. As I will show, “It” often takes the form of abused children, sexually aggressive adults, and characters in their pyjamas. I suggest that this film explores the trauma of childhood and adolescence via the films that scared us as children.
I’ll take some time here to detail the references and influences that I’ve picked up on. I’m sure there are more. Let’s start with the poster. There were several promotional posters for It Follows. The most interesting/my favourite is this retro styled effort:
This is very similar to the poster for Roberts Harmon’s brilliant 1986 film The Hitcher.
The Hitcher starred Rutger Hauer as an unrelenting and (near) unstoppable killer.
The setting is the first of several homages that It Follows pays to John Carpenter. We open on a street scene that looks very similar to the street in Halloween:
The same street layout (grass buffer between sidewalk and road) is also seen in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street:
Like Craven’s film, It Follows explores the power of nightmares in a suburban setting.
In one scene the protagonist (Jay) is startled by a red and white ball that reminds me of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.
The source of this ball is shown to be a child wearing a red coat, just like the apparition that torments John Baxter in Don’t Look Now:
It Follows also echoes Don’t Look Now’s themes of pursuit and water.
Other influences I’ve noted are the relentlessly pursuing mimic of James Cameron’s Terminator 2, the curse that can be passed on of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, and, as in Bernard Rose’s Paperhouse, an antagonistic father figure who appears in a dreamlike landscape. There are also references to T.S. Eliot and Dostoevsky, and most interestingly, to surrealist painting. At the start of the film we witness the mangled body of one of “It’s” victims:
The bizarre positioning of the corpse reminds me of Salvador Dali’s ‘Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)’.
Dali claimed that his painting predicted the Spanish Civil War (it was painted 6 months prior to the conflict) and represented the power of the subconscious mind. This suggests to me that “It” is another representation of both repression into, and the potential of, the subconscious.
Mitchell also takes stylistic influences from horror directors. There are similar shots to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead where the camera seems to take the point of view of the stalking menace. Mitchell’s main influence is clearly John Carpenter. Like carpenter, Mitchell uses wide angle lenses to make a low budget film look beautiful (The Fog is the best example of what Carpenter could achieve on a budget). He borrows the setting of Halloween, and also the concept of unnameable, shape-shifting horror from The Thing. The fluid identity (thingness of things) of “Thing” and “It” means they never become fully subjectified, making them ever more horrific and un-knowable.
The biggest nod to Carpenter is via Richard Vreeland’s (Disasterpeace) acclaimed electro/synth score. In a month where Ennio Morricone has bemoaned the state of movie soundtracks (and the abundance of synthesized compositions) it is refreshing to be reminded how effective and innovative electronic film music can be. Vreeland’s score doesn’t just ape Carpenter (although listen to that bass), but also space music pioneer Isao Tomita, and legendary synth pounder Vangelis.
The soundtrack mirrors both the the film as a whole, and the nature of “It”. All three engage with the past. They repackage it into something palatable: a worthwhile or understandable experience. This experience can be a critically acclaimed film, or it can be recognition of a horror and a threat that was following you without your awareness. I will now take a closer look at “It” to explore this buried horrific past it wishes its prey to confront.
The various apparitions of “It” all point towards issues of childhood and sleep. I believe the latter reinforces the dream-like logic of the film, the former is reinforced by the general absence of parental figures.
“It” first appears as a naked young woman:
We never see this version of “It” in close up. The naked woman in the dilapidated and abandoned car park reflects on the previous scene where Jay has sex (is cursed) and is then drugged. This borderline daterape taints (via the curse) all of Jay’s future sexual encounters as she struggles with the trauma of both the curse and the semi-rape.
I assume that this isn’t the form of Jay’s grandmother as she shows no sign of recognition. Note the protective knee pad on the right leg.
“It” #3 is another young woman. We see her in a triptych of shots. The first shows her black eyes, missing teeth, and ripped bra that exposes her left breast.
The second shows a stream of clear liquid that flows from her groin.
Whilst there could be a connection between the injuries and the sports clothing (a violent game of hockey?), the nudity and dishevelled clothing suggest a violent sexual encounter. I believe the exposed left breast refers to divinity in classical art. The virgin Mary is often depicted feeding Christ with her left breast. This leads me to make a connection with maternity (one that reoccurs later). This girl is perhaps the victim of sexual abuse by her parents. The fluid (seemingly water) that drips from her crotch could symbolise bed-wetting, or period problems. Either points to anxieties in early adolescence and early womanhood.
“It” #4 is an abnormally tall young man:
He has bruised eyes. He is one of two “Its” not in a state of undress.
“It” #5 takes the form of Jay’s friend Yara:
She wears a vest top and shorts, a return to pyjama clad “Its”.
“It” #6 is a teenage boy:
Like previous incarnations he has black eyes and is wearing undergarments/pyjamas.
“It” #7 is a teenage girl in a nightie.
At this point in the film Jay has sex with her friend Greg, passing on the curse consensually. She sees “It” #8 as Greg himself, breaking into Greg’s house:
“Greg-It” is wearing long johns and resembles a sleepwalker.
“It” #9 is Greg’s mother:
Her nightie is open, revealing the maternal left breast like “It” #3. She leaps onto Greg and straddles him in an act of simulated rape. Water runs down her arms and from her knickers. The lights flash and Greg lies dead. She then begins to pursue Jay. As Jay gets into her car to escape, “Greg-It” (8) leaves the house and starts to follow her.
“It” #10 is a naked man.
I’m assuming this is an “It”. This one only stands and watches so it may be a naturist roofer.
Jay and co aim to destroy “It” by luring it into a swimming pool and electrifying it with various appliances. The plan backfires when “It” #11 arrives and instead throws the iron/TV/etc. at Jay who is in the pool as bait:
This “It” looks like Jay’s father, dressed for bed in vest and boxers, and wearing a protective pad on his left knee.
Upon being shot several times and falling into the pool, “It” turns into an expanding cloud of blood:
This Shining-like image again evokes menstrual blood. The blood in the swimming pool perhaps refers to an anxiety in connection to school sports and periods. Something like the opening scene in Carrie where Sissy Spacek has her first period in the girls locker room and thinks she is dying.
Following this incident Jay sleeps with her friend Paul. This leads to the last shot of the film with “It” #12 following Jay and Paul. It is another homage to Halloween
Judging by the similar outfits, this “It” is Paul. As Paul is now cursed, he suffers the uncanny fate of being followed by his double (assuming that Jay isn’t holding hands with “Paul-It” whilst being followed by real Paul. But that would be an illogical and awful twist). More on Paul’s double soon but first let’s analyse “It” as a group.
“It” #1,2,5,6,7,8,9,10, and 11 are all dressed in some kind of nightwear (assuming that #1 and #10 sleep naked). This suggests an anxiety to do with sleeping. The relative youth of “It’s” appearances would make the issue specifically to do with sleeping difficulties during childhood. The leaking never-regions of “It” #3 and #9 could mean bed-wetting, whilst the somnambulist #8 could reflect some sleepwalking issue. Rather than representing a specific problem, I think these are more likely to signify a general bedtime “issue” that occurred during Jay’s past.
A darker picture begins to emerge when you combine this with the injuries “It” manifests: black eyes on #3,4 and 6, missing teeth for #6, and the injured knees of #2 and 11. The leg injuries are covered by protective pads as worn by sports players. The injured “It” #3 wore a single sports sock. I don’t think this equates to a fear of sports injuries. I think it ties in with the bloody swimming pool – the anxiety of transitioning from girlhood to womanhood. The injuries point to probable physical, and possible sexual, abuse.
“It” #3 seems to represent the young victim of a violent rape, her maternally exposed breast not proof of parental abuse, only of abuse by an older person in a position of authority. Similarly, the murder/rape of Greg by “It” resembling his mother does not necessarily represent parental abuse. Mother = parental = authorial. The equation of sex and death is connected to previous fears of menstruation. The mother raping/killing the child whilst fluid leaks from her vagina perhaps represents the aspect of motherhood (the menstrual cycle) that adolescent girls must endure. There is no choice in this biological certainty, the maternal aspect is “forced” upon the child.
These anxieties add up to Jay’s fear of sex/nudity, fear of sleeping/vulnerability, fear of physical harm, and fear of water (representing menstruation). There is a moment of symbolic “fear facing” before she decides to (unsuccessfully) confront “It” in the swimming pool. We see her on a beach approaching three men in a boat. The scene insinuates that she is considering passing on the curse. We assume she doesn’t as she is still followed afterwards. The interesting thing is she looks like “It”:
Jay is dressed down, wet, and displays a broken arm. Perhaps the root of Jay’s trauma occurred during a similar set up (swimming at a beach). None-the-less this recreation instils a degree of spirit and clarity in Jay.
I’ve been working with the hunch that the appearance of “It” is subjective, not just to the holder of the curse but to anyone able to see it. Thus Jay sees representations particular to her past trauma. It is true that Greg identifies “It” #9 as “Mom”. I think in this case “It” appears as a general embodiment of maternity. Greg can thus identify his mother, whilst motherhood is suggested to Jay by the exposed breast.
This explains the appearance of the final “It”, Paul’s double. Virtually the whole film is told from Jay’s perspective until she passes the curse to Paul near the end. From here on the action follows Paul. We see him slowly drive past two prostitutes (thinking about buying some curse relief), then in the hospital with Yara and Jay, then the last shot: walking with Jay.
Therefore, the final “It” is what Paul would see. Hence no pyjamas or nudity. That Paul sees his exact double speaks of all kinds of issues to do with image and identity. The film ends here but perhaps the inevitable sequel will explore Paul’s traumatic past.
In summary: the references in the imagery, style, and music of the film signpost a engagement with the past. The formless identity of “It” allows for terror that is completely subjective, either for the viewer of the characters. For Jay this is shown to be a trauma connected to puberty and possible bullying/abuse suffered in gym class and at night.
The nature of the film allows for multiple readings so mine is really one possible solution. I haven’t touched on the literary references or the sea shell imagery. I think there is more to say about the many appearances of swimming and swimming pools.