‘It Follows’ and Sexual Horror

David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” is a monster movie in which a girl finds that, after a strange sexual encounter, she is forever followed by a menacing and unstoppable creature. If you can stomach horror movies, I highly recommend this one. Horror as a genre is at its best when it’s serving as a metaphor, tapping into some “real” terror beneath all the supernatural. “It Follows” is no exception, tapping into the inherent fears many young people share about the act of sex. Specifically, the movie does an excellent job of tackling the “grayer” areas of sexual assault and its lasting effects in a way that I’ve never seen. Spoilers from here on. 

What makes “It Follows” so successful is that the main character’s terror is not only tied to her supernatural stalker, but also to the real-world horrors she endures. To illustrate, I’ve deconstructed the plot of the film as though there were no literal shape-shifting monster in the movie. Now, of course, some of the characters’ actions make little-to-no sense without a physical monster to escape. However, I would argue that many of the emotional reactions to events remain very believable. Below is a plot summary as though the movie were simply a character drama:

A young college student, Jay, goes on several dates with a boy she likes. She trusts this person, thinks he cares about her, and decides to have sex with him in order to take her relationship with him to the next level. Meanwhile, the boy, Hugh, has only been pretending to care about Jay for his own benefit. He has no real interest in Jay and is only interested in sex. Once the deed is done, Hugh immediately pulls a complete one-eighty and reveals himself to have been manipulating Jay all along. He drugs her, commits an act of violence towards her, and then dumps her from his car in front of her house. The cops show up and ask Jay what happened. She tells them about the drugging and the violence, but feels she has no choice but to say the sex was consensual, even though the truth is significantly murkier than that. The police leave, everyone goes home, life goes back to normal.

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Except it doesn’t. Jay is a paranoid mess. She put herself in a vulnerable position, and was then used, attacked, and discarded. She suddenly starts seeing random strangers as predators. Her trust shaken, she doesn’t know who to confide in. Even friends and family have an air of menace to them, and no one understands what she’s been through. Jay starts blaming herself for what happened. Sex for her has become something dangerous. She uses meaningless sex as an escape, but only with people she doesn’t know in order to avoid hurting the people close to her (and herself). However, the escape she finds is only temporary, and it mostly just succeeds in hurting someone else and passing along the monstrous cycle.

Meanwhile, Jay’s friend Paul actually cares for her and wants to help her through the pain, though he is pushed away again and again. After a long run of trying to escape her trauma, Jay finally overcomes her fear of hurting Paul. The two have sex, and while meaningful, it is still tainted by the baggage of the sexual assault. “Do you feel any different?” Paul asks. “No,” Jay responds, “Do you?” The film ends on a somewhat hopeful, yet fatalistic note. Jay and Paul share the burden, and can never fully escape it, but choose to move on with life together as best they can.

Without the monster, the core story of “It Follows” really doesn’t change. Jay’s emotional state remains consistent with many accounts from sexual assault victims. What the Horror genre provides is an excuse for the characters to externalize many of the reactions that would otherwise be much more muted. Novels can provide an inner monologue to help readers understand the main character’s thoughts and feelings, but the language of cinema relies much more heavily on character actions and reactions. “It Follows” successfully puts the audience in a victim’s shoes, with the titular “It” monster mostly serving to convey Jay’s prevailing sense of paranoia, dread, and hopelessness.

Of course, the interpretation of a film will vary drastically from person to person, but this reading was one I personally found inescapable. To me, the movie works because the lingering terror leaves the audience with a slightly better understanding of real-world trauma (incomplete though it may be). I applaud “It Follows” for even attempting to approach such a difficult subject, let alone succeeding so well in its execution.

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