Facing our monsters

April 9, 2015

John McDonald explains why It Follows is a thoughtful--and terrifying--meditation on sexual trauma.

THE FIRST scene of It Follows opens onto a wide angle shot of an idyllic suburban block dotted with middle-class townhouses, all awash in the soft light of dusk. As the camera pans, a brooding synth backing track kicks in and a teenage girl hurls herself out of a doorway, swallowing the serenity of the fall evening and replacing it with an inescapable sense of dread.

Everything about this sequence, from the tree-lined suburban streets to the John Carpenter-influenced score, is meant to be a compact and technically proficient signal that we are operating within the conventions of the slasher subgenre. Even the uninitiated will know that one of the defining "rules" governing movies of this type is the moralistic "If you have sex, you will get chopped into little pieces" trope.

In a nod to this ubiquitous semi-puritanical sentiment, our terrified female protagonist is even wearing red high heels and a negligée as she runs from who (or what) is chasing her. In case the absurd fashion choice was too subtle a touch, this allusion is made more explicit when the scene cuts and shows us a profile shot of the girl laying dead on a beach, her blank but bloodied face staring straight at us with her legs raised above her head.

David Robert Mitchell's It Follows
David Robert Mitchell's It Follows

This brilliant opening establishes several things about It Follows. Most obviously, it demonstrates that writer-director David Robert Mitchell prefers to rely on expertly mounting tension rather than buckets of blood in his attempts to scare audiences out of their seats--a refreshing departure from horror's torture-porn-dominated status quo.

Second, though this only becomes clear as the movie unfolds, it also sets up the foil for the film's post-moralistic politics. Both the posture of the body and the girl's footwear are clear visual cues that she violated the "no sex in a horror movie" dictum, and the audience is thus invited to reflect on whether she "deserved" or "was asking for" the sexualized violence that brought about her untimely end. The remainder of the movie (which is to say all of it) is a patient, systematic and absolutely terrifying attempt to unspool the problems with this line of questioning--an endeavor that happily subverts many of the slasher genre's assumptions along the way.

Review: Movies

It Follows, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, starring Maika Monroe and Keir Gilchrist.

To be explicit, It Follows is simultaneously a remarkably well-executed horror movie, and an exceedingly thoughtful meditation on sexual trauma that adroitly draws on its generic source material to force us to confront the anxieties, contradictions and lingering effects that "follow" survivors (and perpetrators) of sexual violence.

FOLLOWING this opening, we are introduced to Jay (Maika Monroe), a 20-something college student from an unnamed Detroit suburb, her group of friends, and the monotonous suburban boredom of their seemingly average lives. Jay prepares for a date with a new boy. Her sister Kelly watches old monster movies. Her friend-zoned childhood companion, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), casually sips from and passes around a flask. To underscore the mood, off-colored Yara even reads passages from Dostoyevsky's The Idiot off a bright pink seashell-shaped cell phone. Everything in their sleepy lives exudes a timeless teenaged ennui that is shattered after Jay's date goes horribly wrong.

Parked in the shadow of a towering abandoned building, Jay and the aforementioned new boy--Hugh--have sex in the backseat of his car. Post-coitus, Jay nostalgically reminisces about her childhood fantasies of being old enough to have a boyfriend, while Hugh tenderly kisses her back and neck before thrusting a chloroform rag over her mouth. When Jay regains consciousness, she finds herself disoriented, in her underwear, and bound to a wheelchair in a dusty rubble strewn room.

Hugh assures her that what he's doing is an act of kindness, imploring her to listen very carefully. We learn, with Jay, that by sleeping with her Hugh has passed along a thing that will follow her, and eventually kill her, if she doesn't give it to someone else. As he hurriedly explains everything else he knows about this curse--that it can only be seen by those it follows, that it can take any form and that it will come back after him if it gets her--Mitchell's monster makes its first appearance, as a jarringly naked woman ambles onto the scene, eerily creeping toward the incapacitated Jay.

Finished introducing us to the titular "It," Mitchell spares no time making clear what his movie is "really about." In quick succession, an off-frame police officer unfeelingly asks whether Jay's sexual encounter "was consensual," she is shown in a cold hospital room with a silent doctor preparing to examine her, and she stares blankly into the bathroom mirror in her underwear.

That Jay is shown, immediately following her assault, navigating a series of the all-too-familiar shaming/stigma-inducing interactions faced by rape survivors both accentuates her feeling of isolation (and thus our own anxiety about her situation) and establishes that the movie has a thing or two to say about sexual trauma.

Sex and sexual trauma have long served as a subtext integrated into the grammar of nearly all slashers, but It Follows makes this issue central to both the effectiveness of its scares and the impact of its thematic content. Survivors of sexual assault can be haunted by fear, shame and guilt. For Jay, these enduring effects of her assault are given monstrous, corporeal form, and they follow her everywhere she goes.

Unfortunately a full-throated defense of this interpretation requires a discussion of several central plot points, so the remainder of this review will contain fairly significant spoilers. Consider this a:

THE FIRST place Mitchell can be seen fusing his scare tactics with an understanding of the lasting effects of sexual trauma is in the way he evokes the ever-present anxiety of the survivor through long, sweeping, wide-angle pans. These scenes begin occurring after Jay's assault, and all feature numerous people who can be seen vaguely walking toward the camera, forcing viewers, like the characters, to guess whether "It" is among the crowd.

This touch leads us to channel Jay's terror, and also references, and subverts, the way that Carpenter, Bob Clark and other early partisans of the genre used point-of-view shots to force an uncomfortable voyeuristic identification with their murderers. Where these earlier behind-the-mask shots were, at least in part, a Faustian invitation to revel in the violence of the genre's boogeymen, Mitchell's camera work instead demands a hyper-vigilance from viewers, thus inviting an identification with our protagonists.

But the place where this unity of message and terror becomes most pronounced is in the presentation of the monster. The first time "It" directly confronts Jay in her home, it assumes the form of a woman with her hands tied behind her back, her clothing torn away from her chest, and her front teeth knocked out. This phantom woman, in the only slow-motion sequence of the entire film, is shown urinating on herself and the floor as she steps toward a petrified Jay. Most of the other examples are slightly less explicit than this, but each of the monster's guises are horrifying, at least in part, because of the way they show outward signs of having been past victims of abuse.

In one scene, "It" appears as the young woman from the movie's opening shot. In another, it's a towering but deathly pale man with deep circles around his eyes. This pattern is so clear that when the monster wears the skin of Jay's loved ones, we are left with the strong feeling that they, too, must have been past victims of sexual trauma.

Shortly after Yara is impersonated by "It," we get a clue in the form of an uncomfortable silence after an aside, that someone who brought her to the city pool assaulted her. Jay's father, who the monster chooses as a mask in the film's climatic final confrontation, is seen only in a photograph pinned to Jay's bureau mirror, and viewers are given the impression that he was an abuser. We are never given any explanation of why he left, nor do we learn why Jay's mother is a semi-functional alcoholic, but taken with all of the other evidence about why the monster chooses certain forms, we are left to deduce our own answers.

Taboos about sexual trauma--particularly when said trauma is of an intimate nature--are deeply entrenched, meaning that even those closest to its victims never learn details, a fact Mitchell seems to be referencing when he implies, rather than makes explicit, these points about Yara and Jay's father.

Even if the view that the monster only morphs into past victims of sexual trauma is a step too far, its very nature does masterfully illustrate the conscious and unconscious ways that abuse is transmitted, transforming victims into perpetrators, in ways that are too-often invisible to those not directly affected.

Jay, despite rejecting Hugh's advice to sleep with an unwitting boy in all due haste, has her sexual autonomy ravaged by what has been done to her. In the course of the film, she has consensual sex with several people--most of whom know what they're entering into--but each time it seems more out of necessity than affection.

The first is while confined to a hospital bed with a lusty, womanizing next-door neighbor, and the dissociative glaze of Jay's face makes the already uncomfortable coupling seem doubly so. The second on-screen sex scene reads as a resigned attempt at a return to normalcy with the lovesick and over eager Paul after Jay and friends believe they may have dispatched the monster.

The final shot of the film, where the two of them walk hand-in-hand down the block shrouded by a morose silence--a slow-moving and slightly out-of-focus figure walking behind them--leaves us wondering whether they've actually escaped.

The ambiguity of this ending furthers the argument that It Follows draws much of its scare power from its commentary about sexual trauma. Whether one assumes that this figure in the final shot is the monster or not doesn't actually matter--the point is that we, and by extension Jay, won't ever know if she's still being followed. Safety and comfort have been stolen from her, and even though her wounds are invisible they may never heal.

LIKE ALL good monsters, "It" can be interpreted in many different ways, and has been by reviewers. Numerous writers interpret the monster as a metaphor for STDs, a warning about the dangers of teen sexuality, or an exploration of "the way the consequences of life follow us." Leaving aside that most STDs aren't nearly as scary as the moralists would like us to believe, the fact that none of the numerous articles discussing the movie so much as mention sexual trauma as one of the possible readings of the monster is utterly staggering. Moreover, if the monster is understood as standing in for any of these other things listed above, then we would be forced to conclude that the movie is just another slasher film conducting a clichéd morality play.

Yet unlike other movies in the sub-genre, It Follows documents all of the awful things we are driven to do as a result of our guilt, grief, shame or other expressions of trauma, but at no point falls into a hectoring or condescending mode. Neither Jay, nor any of the men she sleeps with--including Hugh--are presented as neatly condemnable or contemptible for their actions. They are all contradictory, yet mutually trapped by their circumstances.

Mitchell's film, like last year's The Babadook, eschews neat answers to its crushing, impossible, thematic questions, and is both scarier and more politically interesting as a result. That mainstream commentators completely miss this only proves how deeply our societal aversion to discussing the topic ultimately runs.

Horror movies live or die on whether they allow the world that lurks in our nightmares to leak into the reality of our waking lives. The most memorable and lasting entries in the genre often succeed at scaring us in direct portion to their ability to give metaphoric-corporeal form to the terror and dread of society's darkest fears. In choosing sexual trauma as the source material for its monster, It Follows draws from one of the deepest of these wellsprings.

Mitchell stretches boundaries by having his monster, in some ways, embody the source of its psychic power, rather than signifying it. Movie monsters have always served as the symbolic visual articulation of real-world anxieties, but they usually do so in metaphoric fashion. They have always been many-sided, slightly ineffable, their scales or knives or masks representing societal fears.

In It Follows, the monster almost demands that we recognize it for what it is, even if it offers other readings. It appears in the form of victims of sexual trauma. It is passed to other victims through sexual trauma. It forces its victims to endlessly repeat patterns of sexual trauma. In choosing to forego artifice and subtlety in this, It Follows rips away the layers of metaphoric representation that in some ways have always served as the protective gauze that has provided the distance the genre needed to terrify without being so mortifying as to become unwatchable.

It is in its choice to confront its thematic subject--sexual trauma--more directly than is normally the case that It Follows begins to chart a path toward recovery, if not escape. It offers no definitive answers, but does demand that we start by shining a light on the unthinkable and frequently ignored prevalence of sexual violence.

The nature of Mitchell's monster provides an insight into both who usually commits these hideous acts--friend, family, significant others and not the masked killer waiting to jump out of the bushes--as well as why--victims becoming perpetrators in an attempt to demystify their own trauma. The politically conscious will recognize the inadequacy of merely identifying these realities, but, as the tone-deafness of most of It Follows' reviewers shows, overcoming the societal unwillingness to so much as talk about sexual trauma is an important starting point.

It Follows is everything that horror can be at its technical and political best, and should be seen by everyone interested in furthering an open conversation about its subject matter. Though it's probably best avoided by those not likely to include "getting one's socks scared off" on a list of things that qualify as a good time.

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