If you haven’t seen the film It Follows, a word of warning: this article might spoil it for you. Do not read this if that is something you’re worried about. Do go see it. There are plenty of reviews out there. What I wanted to contribute on this film, was something more like an observation than an appraisal. I think it’s fucking great. There, that’s my review. Now let’s get to what I really wanted to talk about.
I don’t know if it was by design, but the trailer for, the upcoming social media horror movie, Unfriended was attached to It Follows when I saw it. The trailer reminded me that I didn’t like that real-time gimmicky film, Timecode. If you don’t remember it, it was that movie that ran in four separate boxes at the same time so that you would watch the story unfold in “real-time.” Neat idea, boring movie. Anyway, I say “by design” because, while it doesn’t really play any part in the movie, It Follows left me thinking a lot more about the age of social media than I think Unfriended, a movie that appears to be taking place entirely in social media, ever could.
A few weeks ago I finished reading the David J. Skal’s excellent book Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. In it he starts with early traveling freak shows and takes you up to the late 90s, cataloguing both the invention and growth of the horror film and the real life horrors that the fear in those films reflected back at the audience. The basic thesis is that horror films are a mirror image of what keeps up any given generation at night and it’s a compelling one. Leaving It Follows, I was overcome by the urge to get home and thumb back to the sections on the 70s and 80s. There’s a good deal of sexual anxiety that pops up in films starting in the late 60s with of course, Rosemary’s Baby and then going into the 70s you have Carrie, It’s Alive and Eraserhead amongst others. Then in the 80s you have a lot films and books about vampires, this being the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.
I went to those sections because on first glance It Follows is a film about sex. Only it’s not about sex. That’s the thing I realized on the drive home. Once this curse has been sexually transmitted to Jay all of her closest relationships begin to be destroyed. Her friendships are strained both by her fear and by what becomes common knowledge between them that sex appears to be the only way to stave off the curse. The closest thing you could find to a love triangle in the film is between Jay, a childhood friend who is legitimately in love with her and Greg, a neighbor and Lothario-type. Yes there is sexual tension, but the tension ultimately comes from the fact that a positive and healthy relationship with the guy you’d normally be rooting for, is something of a death sentence for said guy.
This turns the typical sexual narrative in horror on its head. What usually happens to the girl that sleeps around in a slasher flick? She doesn’t usually end up being the final girl does she? Yes Jay contracts this curse by having sex, but it’s with someone she thought she could trust and her only protection afterward is wanton promiscuity. This brings me back to Unfriended and why I don’t think this is a movie about sex. It’s not news to say of social media that the more it brings us together, the more it pushes us apart. Yes, we can maintain friendships from many miles apart but we also tend to foster relationships with faceless, relatively anonymous people in quite a similar fashion. This can poison our real friendships and, in some way, bring every relationship we have to the same low standard of the facebook post.
So, going back to Skal and the idea that horror reflects our contemporary anxieties. I think that It Follows is more about how we are becoming less and less able to foster meaningful relationships with each other and are instead consuming each other in a detached and dispassionate way. Sex loses its intrinsic emotional power and is instead a method of survival. Pushing away those we love is a way of protecting them and love is a synonym for dread. No amount of social media gimmickry can make a statement as elegantly as this film does. It Follows instinctively understands the times in which we live instead of trying to convince us by putting on a mask. It doesn’t need to live inside a computer. Social media is entirely absent from it. We are left at the end of the film with the haunting question have we just witnessed the beginning of a loving relationship or an unwitting murder-suicide pact?