it follows: the new kind of horror

*The following essay includes spoilers for It Follows (2014)*

Despite failing to connect with mainstream audiences before the ’60s, the horror genre has always functioned as a mirror which filmmakers hold up to society. Social values are inherent to the stories we tell, and when it comes to film the way we tell these stories depends largely on the era in which we make them. From the fear of otherness in post-WW2 America to the sexual revolution and upheaval of traditional values, the influence of society and its fears can be seen throughout the history of horror. Such generational fears manifest as possessed little girls, chainsaw-wielding psychos, and a killer stalking babysitters from the bushes.

Scientific advancement, technophobia, and the fear of losing control have become major thematic components of horror movies in today’s digital age. Recent years have seen a shift in approach to how filmmakers get their scares. Nearly gone are the days of creature features and summer camp slashers; in their place are a rolodex of “real life” terrors ranging from home invasions to claustrophobia to the simple human inclination towards violence. Making people jump is easy, but in the last few years horror filmmakers seem preoccupied with stories that resonate on a deeper level.

David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 release, It Follows, perfectly represents this kind of generational impact on horror. The film is both a connection to and departure from classic horror, defining the genre by what it was then and what it is now. It Follows artfully balances a unique premise with age-old scare tactics; the result is a stylistically brilliant, unnerving reflection of youth in the modern age. Kicking off with a stunning 360-degree pan, the film opens on a young woman stumbling through her suburban neighborhood. Immediately we are introduced to a number of ideas as the girl’s father, barely shown, calls to her across the yard. She assures him everything is fine (though it’s clearly not). Then, in a series of quick cuts: the girl’s car charging towards the beach; the girl leaving her father a panicked but heartfelt voicemail; the girl’s mangled body after a brutal but unseen death.

Albeit a simple introduction, it packs a symbolically heavy punch. An over-analysis of the scene would expose an underlying mark of the millennial generation. For starters, we have a young woman among suburban, middle class life. She is running from something unseen, thus reflecting fears of an uncertain or undecided future. This ties into several components of millennial culture: the turn away from traditional education/careers (i.e, influencers), plummeting marriage rates, and the stigma of “adulting,” to name a few. 

We could also consider that millennials are widely regarded as the generation of laziness and immaturity, supposedly struggling to grasp concepts of adulthood. This idea can be found in the girl’s attire, which includes a casual outfit contrasted with a tall pair of red heels. While the shoes suggest womanhood and a kind of sensuality, as the girl fumbles her way through the neighborhood there’s a sense of a child playing dress up with Mom’s clothes. We could also consider how the girl’s relationship with her father is depicted: Kept offscreen and distanced from his daughter as she lies about the direness of her situation, he becomes a symbol of parental ignorance which suggests the fear of not truly knowing one’s children. 

This latter concept is the through line of the film; the things teenagers get up to in their journey through the opportunities and limitations of young adulthood. Namely, sex, as evidenced once we are introduced to the film’s protagonist, Jay (Maika Monroe). Jay is a young adult going through the motions of summer with her younger sister and their friends. After a seemingly successful date, her and Hugh (Jake Weary) have sex in the back of his car. This leads to Jay being drugged, tied to a chair, and brought to an abandoned (or, at least, super creepy) parking garage. And here we’re introduced to the film’s ultimate evil: sex- or, more accurately, that which follows it.

This idea comes to fruition as Jay and Hugh’s post-coital scene reveals the film’s “monster”- a shapeshifting curse which is passed on through sex. To simplify: once someone has slept with a carrier of the curse, it gets passed on to them until their next sexual encounter. In this time, the curse manifests as a person (whether a friend, family member, or a complete stranger) which slowly yet unrelentingly follows the last person infected. This continues until said person has slept with the next victim. However, passing the curse on doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. If the curse manages to “get” someone, it backtracks until it has killed everyone once inflicted by it.

The obvious implications are there; a personification of STDs, unplanned pregnancy, and other sexual horror stories. Thematically, the film is about the fear of something inescapable- even to pass it on means a possibility of the curse coming back to get you. What makes the threat so terrifying is its form, both in context of the movie and its underlying message. The monster, for lack of a better term, can look like anyone. It will not chase you, but its pursuit is unrelenting. There’s no way- at least, one provided in the film- to truly neutralize or prevent the threat. This gives the overall sense of entrapment, while still proving to be allegorically sound; just as the curse is inescapable, so too is the protagonists’ impending adulthood.

Let’s next consider the stylistic elements of It Follows, which only serve to enhance the aforementioned themes. There is a consistency and simplicity among the editing, shot composure, and score which give a fresh take on the horror genre. The cinematography, while beautiful, unsettles. If the characters are in a room, we are given the time and space to take in their surroundings. This puts the viewer in their shoes, making sure we are constantly checking for an exit route. And if we are to see the monster, it is through dynamic, handheld shots. Again, we are one with the protagonists, feeling unnerved and unsaved. Combined with the soundtrack’s relentless beat, the visualities of the film fill you with a perpetual sense of dread. We cannot feel relaxed, and we cannot feel distanced.

In a genre of jumpscares and overdone tropes, It Follows is the beacon that shows us a new way. A gentler, yet equally (if not moreso) effective approach to horror. The movie builds tension in every way, from what we see and hear to what is simply left to the imagination. The result is a thematically, stylistically, and critically sound take on a new kind of horror. It Follows acts as a doorway; showing us the genre not as it is, but as it could be.

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