The fourth in an ongoing series on the Cinema of the Teen Girl–since it’s almost Halloween, this month we’re featuring something a little creepier! Cover image “It Follows” by Stephanie Monohan.
“But now that we’re old enough, where do we go?”
Jay is neither a good girl nor a bad one. She’s young, pretty, and living at home. She rides in cars with older boys sometimes, but keeps her own company just as well. She wears nice underwear but only when she knows someone might see it.
We first see her in a modest one-piece, swimming in a suburban above-ground pool. When focus on her, the camera does not make us feel what it would be like to look at her, but what it would be like to be her; suspended, content, watching an ant crawl along her arm.
It was only moments ago that we watched a different girl in another neighborhood, fleeing in last night’s heels from an unseen terror–but there’s nothing she can do. She drives to the beach and waits. The image of this girl’s broken body in the sand, like Jaws’ poor Chrissie, sours our palate just before we meet Jay and follow her through her own ordeal.
The horror enthusiast will find a wealth of genre-specific homage in It Follows, director David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore effort from 2014. Taking note from John Carpenter’s Halloween in particular, Mitchell imbues the suburban landscape with a sense of dread, the clean lawns and driveways making a sterile panorama of vanishing points in all directions. Even the menace driving the plot, a deadly entity that pursues its victims at a slow yet unstoppable pace, is an almost comically literal interpretation of a genre trope–the sexually-transmitted curse.
However, the purposeful dream-logic of It Follows allows us to linger on Jay as a character, as opposed to the obligatory Final Girl, the sympathetic audience proxy. Her opening scene establishes her as subject rather than object, and Maika Monroe’s performance works well under Mitchell’s unmannered direction. Monroe balances vulnerability, intelligence, and a teenage pretension of worldliness. In the afterglow of her backseat tumble with Hugh, the older boy who passes It on to her, Jay wonders aloud at their young stage in life, and what, if anything, comes next. As if in answer, Hugh shoves a chloroform rag in her face and her nightmare begins.
Mitchell frames Jay’s struggle against It as an entropic encounter with the fact of death. No matter where she goes, It will follow–walking forever, until she dies or puts someone else at risk. What complicates It as a symbol for a primal fear of death is Its basis in the erotic. Only Jay and the others It has cursed can see It, and as if to pervert her fear, It sometimes appears in the forms of its victims’ corpses, or even their own loved ones.
Jay remains unwilling to endanger others, even strangers, and so finds little protection in her friends. She refuses the martyrish advances of her childhood friend Paul for his own protection (though it’s clear he would rather die than pass up his dream girl). Mitchell is careful to emphasize that her reservations are not a lesson in chastity, however. She sleeps with Greg, an ex, because he “didn’t seem scared” and wanted to ease her mind. Greg dies pinned under the sexualized ministrations of It in the form of his mother, naked, water or urine spilling from Its crotch as it drains him. The juxtaposition of intimacy and death twists the knife, alienating as It destroys.
The philosopher Julia Kristeva has a term for this deathly aberration– the abject. In her essay “Powers of Horror,” Kristeva locates the abject somewhere near disgust, a recoiling, neither subject nor object, but rather
…violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. […] It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. […] Abjection…is immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady; a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it…a friend who stabs you…
She goes on to draw examples of the abject from history and memory (between which, “in a well,” abjection lives), describing the sight of a pile of children’s shoes at a Holocaust museum. Happy images of her own childhood arise unbidden, curdling her horror at the war’s industrial-scale death at Nazi hands. “The abjection…reaches its apex when death, which, in any case, kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things.”
The possible salvation of the intimate sexual act, then, breeds not only death in Mitchell’s film, but an encounter with the abject. “It” is an utter perversion of both life and death in the form of a vile parody, a horror that interferes even as it consumes. In the film’s climactic scene, It makes Its final attempt on Jay in the form of her own father, and nearly drowns her in the public pool she loved as a child. Paul, the scrawny boy with whom she had her first kiss there, shoots It in the head. She cannot bring herself to tell her sister what It looked like.
Jay’s struggle with It has worn her down from the confident, normal girl at the beginning of the film. She couldn’t protect Greg from dying or her friends from getting hurt fighting It off. When again Paul begs her to let him take It on from her, just in case they didn’t kill It for good at the pool, she finally agrees. She knows she can’t save anyone.
Jay might be the Final Girl, but David Robert Mitchell does not gender her as a protagonist. Not only is the leering POV of the slasher absent, but Jay’s sex life serves only as a plot device. Her frank treatment of sex and its consequences feel less like an after-school special and more like the caution of experience, or general anxiety around coming-of-age. The film depicts nothing less than Jay’s first brush with death and its abjection, one we all must face.
Adulthood looms in all its uncertainty, and the easy intimacies of childhood warp into something strange. When before Jay lacked direction in her life, somewhere to go, now she does– away from It.
Caroline Fulford is a data librarian, podcaster, and writer based in Brooklyn. She has been known to get emotional on the internet. Listen to The Loose Canon Podcast, her interview show about personal histories of film, here or here.