It Follows: Murder v.s. Martyr and the Death of Youth
The characters’ individual narratives in It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014), appear to be unified, however a deeper reading of the film proves this to be false. What is scary about this film depends on the perspective one adopts. First is the perspective of the “unaffected” teenagers who are never cursed by the creature. Then there are the “affected” teenagers who are not so lucky. The narrative of the unaffected teenagers is based on the universal fears of mortality and adulthood. On the other hand, the narrative of the affected teenagers relies on personal fears and past trauma. The dual narrative of It Follows, through the creatures unearthing of “surplus repression,” (a term coined Herbert Marcuse and used by Robin Wood to represent societal fears buried in the psyche) in the film’s suburban teenagers, displays youth as something to both reject and cherish.
The unaffected in It Follows experience the shallow fear of impending death that clouds the creatures deeper capabilities of terror. Paul, Yara, and Kelly (Jay’s sister), are never cursed by the creature. However, their fears and feelings towards the creature are familiar because the film often shows this perspective. The creature is invisible to the unaffected. This limits their fear of the creature to what it is capable of doing rather than what it looks like. The film rarely shows the creature’s physical appearance. This leans comprehension towards the perspective of the unaffected. Near the film’s end, Yara reads a quote from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot saying: “And the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves, but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, and now at this very instant your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain, the worst thing is that it is certain.” This quote represents the fear that plagues these teenagers: mortality. Both the affected and unaffected experience this, but in surprisingly different ways. The unaffected receive fear from realizing death’s inevitability and focusing it into their limited youth. On the other hand, the affected receive fear from their impending physical death which is presented as the worst memories of their youth. This quote proves that the main fear of the unaffected is not dying, but the realization and knowledge of an inevitable death.
This fear of mortality is embodied as the creature and, more specifically, the teenagers’ feelings towards strangers. This is done by framing everything within Suburbia. A portion of the fear experienced by the unaffected is characterized as the idea of the creature since they cannot see it. However, the physical characterization of their fear is people, specifically the concepts of strangers and strange lands. To set this up, the film focuses solely on the teenagers. At no point in the movie is the face of a parent shown in focus or near the camera. This separates the teenagers lives collectively from their family lives and ultimately secludes them into a suburban bubble. In a scene, Jay and Kelly are walking home when they pass a rural household and hear screaming and domestic conflict within. They both seem indifferent and continue walking showing that they naturally avoid domestic instability. This is most likely because they have repressed it. Yara later recalls her mom telling her not to go past eight mile and not to leave the suburbs because it is dangerous. Jay says her mom told her the same and they both talk about how misleading that was while they walk through a non-affluent neighborhood. This shows their childhood repression of understanding society outside of the suburbs while also putting the blame on the parents. In Robin Wood’s essay, “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70’s,” he establishes “the other” as the force that threatens normality. The other is the creature in this case. He also states other cultures, ethnic groups, and ideologies as forms the other can take. Considering this essay, the film digs up repressed feelings towards these groups and shapes them as the idea of the creature.
The movies that the teenagers are watching also point to this repressed suburban childhood. The characters are seen watching Killers From Space which is about aliens invading Earth. They are later watching another old sci-fi film where men in spacesuits are killing aliens. This imagery of foreign invaders parallels their feelings towards strangers which intensifies the fear of the creature that plagues their friend and which they cannot see. The teens’ recognition of their secluded childhood’s paired with these subtle images of invasion display xenophobia as one of their repressed fears.
The unaffected teenagers’ fear of mortality is further expressed as the fear of adulthood and losing youth. The teens appear sheltered in the film. This is seen through their childish games like old maid, their lack of alcohol, and immature acts like farting on each other. While Yara, Paul, and Kelly sit on a porch, they are seen playing the card game Old Maid. The camera zooms in on the Old Maid card specifically. This is important because the goal of the game is to not get the Old Maid card. All of the cards are youthful happy people, but the old decaying lady means you lose. This directly parallels their fear of growing old which they associate with leaving home. Then, while at the hospital, a scene pans over several rooms showing different groups of people. Each room either contains an adult couple, a child with their family, or an old man; no teenagers. The shot ends on Greg and Jay having sex. This, with the card game and their mannerisms, creates a space between them and adulthood.
The music of the film nuances this focus on youth. The soundtrack is an homage to the 1980’s composed of synthetic sounds. In the scenes without the creature, the music is treble based and sounds like something a young person would listen to. One could expect a horror film to have an orchestral score or something dark, but this soundtrack is lighter. When the creature is on screen, the music does not change from synth and, in most cases, the bass barely increases. The music retains the synth but distorts it heavily. This strengthens the frame that the film is placing around the age of the characters.
In the film, the comfort of youth is clearly separated from the dangers of adulthood by the colors red and blue. Blue symbolizes the safety of their childhoods while red is the foreign uncertainty of desire, sex, and adulthood. Greg always wears blue and his car is blue. This makes sense because Greg serves as Jay’s protector and contrasts from Hugh who is a threat to Jay. There is always water near the teens which is connected with the color blue. In the hospital, Jay’s gown is blue. Jay’s house is full of paintings of blue beaches and her clothes are sometimes blue. These blue accents establish a protective force in these scenes and create tension when colliding with red. The blue, in a way, correlates with the unaffected because they find comfort in youth.
The affected are often related to red because they are closer to adulthood. The first victim of the monster is wearing red heels which feel out of place and draw attention. Jay’s nails are always bright red and undamaged. The kid that stalks Jay wears a red jacket and throws a red ball at her window. At the beginning, Hugh is wearing red. This is also seen when Paul and Jay are on the couch. Jay wears a blue blanket around her shoulders and a red blanket sits between them serving as a barrier. A major example is when the creature bleeds in the pool at the end. The red spreads through the blue pool and overtakes the color. All of these examples involve the affected characters. The use of red, as seen in these scenes, separates the affected from the unaffected. Red shows the affected as teens that are moving, either by force or by choice, towards maturity while the unaffected remain clinged to the protective blue of immaturity.
The narrative of the affected is almost always shown through Jay. Her friends appear comfortable with their youthful lives, but she is tormented by hers. The film does not explain this narrative, but rather shows it through quick images and subtle repetition. Both the affected and unaffected fear adulthood, but the affected see it as the better of two evils. Jay is in constant battle over whether to retain her immaturity or to grow up. The creature creates this dilemma by promising death while also bringing about the “return of the repressed,” as Robin Wood calls it. The dug up repression of the affected is far worse than that of the unaffected. While the unaffected deal with the repression of what could happen, the affected see the their repression of what has already happened.
The creature communicates this repression to Jay through its appearance which only the affected can see. Over the course of the film, the creature, to Jay, takes the form of a naked woman, an old lady, a rape victim, a tall man, Yara, a child, a naked old man, and a middle aged man. The first woman and the tall man seem to serve gimmicky roles; the woman establishing the creature and the tall man being objectively scary. The others, however, can be directly connected to Jay’s past and personal fears. The old lady symbolizes Jay’s basic fear of mortality. This is reinforced by the fact that this scene precedes the Old Maid scene. The rape victim can quite obviously be the embodiment of the fear of rape because Jay is a girl and is probably scared of rape. The creature appearing as Yara on the beach could mean either that Jay is jealous of her or that she has had sexual feelings towards her that have been repressed. The child she sees is the same child that stalks her by throwing his rubber ball at her window and watching her from his bike. This could mean she fears him or the idea of a voyeur. The naked old man on the roof, when compared to the picture of Jay and her grandparents that is focused on earlier, strongly resembles Jay’s grandfather. This could imply that she was abused, either physically or sexually, by her grandfather when she was younger. The creature’s final form is a middle aged man. Since the only one of Jay’s parents shown is her mom and because the only middle aged men shown are police officers, this final form could be Jay’s father. This makes sense because her father is not involved in her life and could either be dead or divorced from her mother for cheating on her or even for abusing them. All of these forms are what Jay would least like the creature to look like. This makes her narrative and experience of the creature far scarier. She cannot retreat to her childhood, like the others, because the creature makes her antagonize it.
Since Jay cannot find safety in her childhood, she instead seeks out water for safety. The film includes water in many scenes, especially when Jay is, or appears to be, safe from the creature. The first victim of the creature runs to a beach before she is killed which establishes water as a safety mechanism early on. Jay is first seen floating in a pool and appears safe in a state of serenity. While in this pool, an ant crawls on her arm and she drops it into the water, slowly killing it. This could represent her immaturity that she still has, because she does not give the ant much thought. Conversely, this could also be an example of Jay leaving her youth and leaning towards maturity because she purposely disregards the ant’s life. Regardless, this scene sets her apart from her friends because she is outside swimming, while they are inside on a couch watching a movie. When Hugh and Jay go on their second date, Hugh takes her by water and she feels safe enough to have sex with him. When Jay is shocked by the rubber ball hitting her window, she moves to drink water from the sink; another example of her seeking water as safety. When the creature first enters her house, Jay yells at her friends, “I need water!” With no explanation, water is what she sees as her priority in the moment when the creature has found her. The gang also retreats to a beach to get away from the creature. The image of water as an escape from the creature and from growing up is made evident by its consistent presence in the film.
The safety of this water is unfortunately limited. After Greg, who symbolized Jay’s protection by having blue and water on his t-shirt, dies, the creature’s influence successfully convinces Jay that her only option is to pass on the curse. This symbolizes her decision to pursue adulthood by giving into her repressed sexual feelings and evading her past. She immediately goes back to the beach, but this time she swims out to a group of boys on a boat. A quick cut from the boat to her driving, covered in water, implies that she had sex with at least one of those boys. This event finalizes her decision to leave youth for good. When she returns home, she finds that her swimming pool has been broken and all of the water has drained, though the reason is unknown. She decides to use water to destroy the creature rather than hide from it. She hatches a plan to lure it to the high school swimming pool and electrify it with appliances. Though they only stop the creature for a short while, the final scenes of the film are set in rain. This display of nature providing water around Jay shows that she has successfully grown up and feels comfortable that way, despite the still impending danger of the creature. Symbolically, she is not scared of being an adult and, separated from her youth, no longer fears death.
Other than water, the film uses small details and Jay’s repressed sexuality to show her path to maturity. Throughout the film, the teenagers experience a level of independence they did not previously know which is caused by them having to deal with the creature. A clear example of this is the food and the pill in Jay’s room. After her bad date with Hugh, Jay is left a plate of food with a pill and some water from her mother which she refuses to take. Later, after a few run-ins with the creature, they are in the bedroom and the camera quickly pans over the food. Upon inspection, the food has not been touched and has faint signs of mold. The pill, however, is not there, implying that Jay took it, but on her own accord. Rather than have her mom force it, she self-prescribes it. She is showing signs that she does not need her mother to take care of her. Jay also enjoys plants and flowers. She toys with a small flower after having sex with Hugh. This changes, however, after she is affected by the curse. When she runs into Hugh after he ditches her back at her house, she sits, with her friends, in his backyard. Instead of listening to him, she tears pieces of grass and lines them up on her knee. There is something contradictory about this. Her act is inherently childish, but her treatment of nature is more destructive than when she caressed the flower. In Robin Wood’s essay, he describes the first form of repression, in horror, as sexual energy. This is important to the film because the creature’s curse is both caused and relieved through sex. Jay states that she has already had sex before by telling Paul that she had sex with Greg earlier on in High School. Jay is presented as sexually active, however her desire to have sex becomes distorted. After being affected, she fears sex and desires it for the same reason: passing on the curse. Wood describes the childhood repression of the desire of sex, specifically outside of marriage, as one of the major examples of repression in modern culture. Through returning this repressed sexual energy to Jay, the creature gets her to have sex with Greg and with the boys on the boat; both things she probably did not want to do. Wood’s essay also relates this repressed sexual energy to creativity. This could explain why the creature is capable of taking on the shape of whatever you fear to see. It is scary, but it is also a form of expression.
The seemingly unified narrative of It Follows is subtly dichotomized. However, this positively affects the film. The tragic events, that befall these teenagers, and the concept of youth take on new meanings and levels of horror when the perspective is changed from one character to another. The cinematography creates opportunities for one to gather the pieces to complete the puzzles of the film. One can be guided by the visual and auditory elements of the film in the right direction to feel the adolescent struggle of the characters and even think of their own youth. Unfortunately, some of the details that appear, “on-the-nose,” can distract one from exploring the meat of the film. Ultimately, if one does not find this film scary, they should watch it again.
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