Regular contributor Laura Tansley talks about David Robert Mitchell’s modern horror masterpiece It Follows via the pains of adolescence and the isolation of burgeoning sexuality.
I’ve never been good with scary movies. Ever since those early sleepovers when we hesitantly poked at our ideas of adulthood by watching Eighteen-rated videotapes rented by someone’s more easy-going mum. The Ring was my final straw, the aftermath of petrified sleeplessness and a fear of my own TV tipped me over the edge and it’s been about a decade since I watched horror for fun. I did an arts degree so there were some exceptions (a very serious essay on the postmodernism of Blair Witch, a viewing of Eraserhead to impress a guy into thinking I had cultural currency), but mainly I’ve avoided them because they give me nightmares.
Lately though I’ve been thinking, I’m an adult now. My bad dreams are about economic anxieties not zombies and it frustrates me that I’m maybe missing out on a whole genre of stories that could be saying something to me. So recently I watched It Follows, the first horror film I’ve watched in a very long time. And it made me realise, or reminded me, to not be so hard on my adult self. Growing up is complicated.
It Follows (Dir: David Robert Mitchell) is about a sexually transmitted curse that stalks the open end of the last encounter until it can be passed on for someone else to deal with. Trouble is, if the curse does its job and eliminates the latest to experience a little death, the curse reverts back and back, continually searching for its own origin story.
It’s also about Jay (Maika Monroe), a student who seems to be existing in that mollified, lulled place before life really gets started.
Just after unwittingly contracting the curse Jay, lying in the back seat of her boyfriend’s car, says, “I used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates, drive around in cars…it was never about going anywhere really, just having some kind of freedom I guess. Now that we’re old enough, where the hell do we go?” Her date then chloroforms her, reveals the curse to her and dumps her back at her house in her underwear. This is not the adulthood she used to dream
There is an odd, hard to pinpoint space between childhood and adulthood that is replete with unreasonableness, secrets, uncertainty and a kind of hypnotic thrill at the prospect of having a past because there is an irascible drive towards the future. It’s terrifying and thrilling, which makes it a perfect theme for a horror film. But It Follows isn’t body horror like Ginger Snaps or Teeth, there is something slower at work here, like the curse itself. Nothing is for sure and reality rebels against imagined expectations of maturity while characters contend with their
The opening scene of It Follows is of a fleeing girl trying to escape what we later understand is the unstoppable curse that stalks the last link in a sexual chain letter – walking all the way, seen only by holders of the curse, and taking the form of loved ones or presumably previous victims, just to be extra creepy. The unknown girl waits on a beach and makes one last phone call, to her dad, to apologise for her bad behaviour, to say that she can’t explain why she’s “such a shit sometimes” before she is brutally murdered.
I get this; I so palpably get this that even though this bit scared the hell out of me because of how lonely the landscape looked and how predatory the electro soundtrack by Disasterpeace was, I kept thinking that’s exactly what I would have done too. I have no idea what it was that made me moody, annoying my mum, so bad tempered that sometimes she would just have to walk away. What I remember of those moments is the helpless feeling of simultaneously wanting your folks to fuck off but also to fix you, because you feel so fantastically weird in your own skin and they’ve sorted out everything else that has happened up till then, but you can’t explain it so you become passive aggressive instead. Oh the trauma of being a teenager.
I have a memory, actually I have several, of being young and doing something or saying something that received such an irrationally strong reaction I knew I had crossed some kind of line that I didn’t understand. There was the time I was wearing a top, not quite ready for bras, and my older brother completely freaked out and called me disgusting, I guess because my pubescent tits were showing and he sensed that was wrong but didn’t know how to express it and I got upset, confused because I had no idea that I even had tits and my brother was yelling at me.
There’s a similar story in It Follows: Jay is talking to Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a childhood friend with a massive crush who has offered to stay up all night in solidarity, to prove that there’s no one stalking Jay or that he can at least try to protect her. They remember the time when they found a load of porn mags in an alleyway one day and sat out on someone’s lawn to read them and laugh at all the preposterously posed bodies until someone’s mum came out and told them all off, and they knew they were in trouble but for what they weren’t sure.
We all experience those moments, during that blurry stage of not quite adult and no longer children that occurs when our bodies are signalling something that our brains haven’t yet got to grips with. Before broad sexuality and after understanding the basics. In those early stages it’s nothing but confusion, but it persists as we develop an understanding of what we think adulthood is like and then slowly gather enough experiences to know what it’s really like. We move back and forth from being kids to becoming grown ups, two steps forward one step back, negotiating what we’re ready for, what we need and what we can reject – in It Follows part of this is our parents.
This need to pull away from adults makes them almost entirely absent in It Follows. We see Jay’s mum but she is mostly silent. And when the curse makes Jay’s friends concerned, perhaps she’s experiencing a psychotic break, they don’t confess to adults, parents or police, because they wouldn’t believe or even understand.
Jay’s dad does appear briefly, as a slow-paced manifestation of the curse that has tracked Jay, her sister (Lili Sepe), Paul and Yara (another old friend played by Olivia Luccardi) to the swimming pool they used to hang out at as kids. The pool is where they hope to trap and kill the curse and the others, needing Jay to give directions because they can’t see it, ask what it looks like and Jay can’t bear to tell them. Jay’s dad is only ever seen in photographs in the film and as absent as he is, appearing in the form of a sex curse that is trying to kill her is understandably too much for her. But I wonder if underneath all of this his presence seeks to remind her that she’s on his side of the adult/child divide; that he is or was a sexual person and so is she and that moment of realisation is always a distressing one because parents become mortal, imperfect gross people with urges, just like everyone else. And if owning the boxset of Cracker has taught me anything it’s that sex and death go hand-in-hand. Knowing your parents have sex is knowing that they will someday die and so will we. They can’t protect us from sex or death, even if they do try to scurry away our porn to prevent it from happening prematurely.
This fallibility extends beyond the body to knowledge too; how parents, those trusted people who once held the answer to everything, turn out to have flawed logic and are perhaps unreliable when it comes to the facts. Yara, on the way to the now abandoned swimming pool for what they hope will be the final showdown with the curse, says, “when I was a little girl, my parents wouldn’t allow me to go south of Eight Mile, and I didn’t even know what that meant until I was little older, and I started realising that’s where the city started and the suburbs ended. And I used to think about how shitty and weird that was, I mean, I had to ask permission to go the state fair, with my best friend and her parents, only because it was a few blocks passed the border.” There’s a point, if we’re lucky, when we realise that rules are arbitrary, inventions of our elders, and parents prejudices are prescriptions we don’t have to follow.
The fact that the manifested curse can only be seen by the cursed reminds me of the great divides that existed between those with experience and those without when we were teenagers. Communication could just break down completely because what preoccupied one person was no longer what someone else cared about. The curse in It Follows is kind of like that, because sex and sexuality is by its very nature such a personal thing, the experience is almost impossible to comprehend for someone who isn’t quite there yet. It’s a pleasure but it’s also a burden because it’s isolating.
Jay is alone in her fear for most of It Follows because no one else really understands how terrifying the curse is. And Paul is desperate to know this burden, offers himself to Jay several times so he can understand and help her but Jay refuses. Instead she has sex with Greg (Daniel Zovatto), a neighbour she slept with in high school, “no big deal”, especially because Greg never really believes in the curse. He is sexually assaulted and killed (by the curse which manifests as his mum as a consequence of his blasé behaviour creating a devastating metaphor for the dawning realisation of the fallibility of our families, their sexuality and their inability to keep us safe.
Jay only sleeps with Paul once she deems it safe to, once they think they’ve broken the curse by shooting and drowning it at the pool. Afterwards I found it so poignant that they each ask the other, ‘do you feel different?’ Because the first time we do it, whether it’s regular or post-supernatural-curse sex, we’re always expecting some great change. But growing up happens so incrementally, having sex or doing anything for the first time is only one notch on a long line of significance that we have to create for ourselves. And neither Jay nor Paul feel anything like different.
But there’s a figure following them down the street as they hesitantly hold hands, setting up a sequel, and another opportunity to know that life is not experienced in a straight line. There are connections and disconnects, comings and goings, paths that cross and distances created across our relationships. And all of it is totally unknowable except for one indefatigable fact: the future is slowly coming for us. And that’s fucking scary.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Laura Tansley’s creative and critical writing has been published in a variety of places including Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, The Island Review (with Jon Owen), Kenyon Review Online (with Micaela Maftei), New Writing Scotland and is forthcoming in NANO Fiction. C.J. Cregg is her TV inspiration, Jonathan Ames’ insecurity is her reality.