In horror, there are two kinds of sex: sex that makes you kill or sex that gets you killed. On the one hand, you’ve got the fairly hackneyed sex = death equations you’ll find in a majority of slasher films. Look, I don’t know why Phantasm’s Tall Man needs to pretend to be a hot blonde and get a guy to orgasm during an liaison on Aunt Trudy’s grave marker before slipping a blade in his ribs, but clearly, it’s an important part of the process. Carol Clover’s seminal Men, Women, and Chainsaws, which fully explicated the idea of the virginal Final Girl, spends a lot of time on the lustful male gaze and its conjunction with killers getting stabby. But sex might make a monster of you, too. As Angela Carter reminded us, the worst werewolves are hairy on the inside. There’s what Joe Bob Briggs calls “venereal horror” in the oeuvre of King Body Horror David Cronenberg, his Rabid being the perfect example, with Marilyn Chambers as patient zero in an outbreak of rapey zombies. Vampires are nothing but metaphorical sex-from-the-neck-up, with what True Blood called fang boners, Ken Russell’s libidinous cult of the big white snake that lives in the deep dark hole in The Lair of the White Worm, and bi-curious chomping a feature, not a bug, in supernatural romances ranging from Jonathan Harker and Dracula to Whitley Streiber’s The Hunger. Sure, sometimes there is innocuous sex, but it’s so rare, and when it exists, you can count on it to contrast with some real snugglings of the damned. Think Kirsty in Hellraiser, her normal hook-up with a cute guy serving as the sex-positive baseline against the deeply problematic passions examined in every other frame of the movie. You might say it’s not friends with benefits; it’s friends with consequences.
Where sex functions as a portal to bad places in most horror – we see your bits, then we see your guts, but always at some remove of actual causation — the sex in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) is not deferred, metaphorical, or sublimated in any way. It is right there, front and center, the explicit reason for all the bad things that follow. One of the things that I love about the movie is that it’s comfortable leaving unanswered questions about what the monster in the film actually is or why it’s doing what it does, but there’s no ambiguity about the sex. The monster is, effectively, a fatal STD, although one with a Ringu-like twist. Like a phantom crawling out of an image on a cursed videotape, the monster can be passed on. A cursed person has sex with you, the monster comes after you. You have sex with someone else, and the monster goes after that person. The catch, of course, is it will still come back after you once it’s killed the person you passed it on to, so you better hope no one breaks the chain. Better still, hope that many, many more links get forged, because this monster never stops. The only thing between you and a grisly death is someone else’s.
All of this is explained matter-of-factly in the film, after our heroine Jay (Maika Monroe) – a subversion of the way chaste Final Girls in slasher movies usually have androgynous names – finds herself the latest target of the monster. It’s not clear to me exactly what Jay’s date Hugh (Jake Weary) had planned for her. Giving her a false name and address means he always meant to deceive her, but it also seems like a lot of work to put into actually dating a girl, with quiet, warm moments and shared popcorn, when prostitutes exist, assuming your only object is to get wild and pass your curse to someone else. Of course, Hugh (real name Jeff) knows he could never be intimate with anyone ever again without turning them into monster bait. Still, I’m not sure he really knew what he was going to do until, playing a game with Jay in a packed movie theater, he pointed out a woman in a yellow dress that Jay couldn’t see. Then he knew the monster was back on his trail. Soon afterward, he would take Jay out to a secluded spot, they would have a little romance leading to car sex, and then, he would interrupt Jay’s lazy afterglow with a chloroform-soaked rag and an exposition dump in a parking garage.
Jay fades in from her chloroform nap to find Hugh has strapped her to a wheelchair, but this isn’t some kinky game. He wheels her frantically around a darkened parking garage while spilling the monster’s rules all over her. It never stops, but it always walks. It can look like anyone, even people you know, but there’s only one of it. Never go into a place with only one exit; it’s not stupid. And the way you save yourself is to have sex with someone else, pass it to them. (“She’s a girl, it’ll be easy,” he whines to Jay’s friends when they track him down later.) Hugh waits for the monster to show up, as he wants Jay to see the monster so she’ll know it’s real before she confronts it, inevitably, on her own. What a prince, right? When the monster does appear, it’s a naked woman — just that, a naked woman, walking – but nothing about her is vulnerable or human. Her nakedness itself works as a kind of assault. As sweet and genuine as Jay and Hugh’s date and lovemaking appeared to be, everything in this scene is high Trigger Warning stuff. When Hugh drops Jay back at her house, he dumps her out of the car, leaving her coiled in the middle of the road, wearing only her underwear, discarded with a final warning not to let the monster touch her. I think we’re meant to see her as a rape victim in that moment, even if the sex was consensual. She’s definitely violated, and whether Hugh did it to save his own hide or not, and for all his protestations of not wanting to hurt her, I’m struggling to think how he could have managed worse without a chainsaw.
But here’s also where It Follows isn’t entirely what it appears. Like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, It Follows is a masterfully-executed film that speaks directly to social problems that are often only presented peripherally in horror, if at all, and that simple fact, combined with an elevation of the consciousness of those issues – here, America’s latently rapey and misogynist culture that spurred the #metoo movement and the stigma of sexually-transmitted disease — makes It Follows an obvious allegory for the evils of sex in the modern age. But being topically resonant isn’t either the best or the most of what it has to offer. Apart from succeeding as a damn good scary movie, It Follows poses a more fundamental existential question than anything about spreading HIV or slut-shaming. Filmmaker Mitchell told The Guardian that, although Jay “opens herself up to danger through sex” that also “sex is the one way in which she can free herself from that danger”. While hedging as to whether there’s a correct interpretation of the movie, he observes, “We’re all here for a limited amount of time, and we can’t escape our mortality, but love and sex are two ways in which we can – at least temporarily – push death away.”
That may seem a rather a sunny read on the monster he created, which is ceaseless and cruel in its pursuit, and Jay’s lasting predicament as its quarry. Few will harbor judgment against Jay having sex with Hugh/Jeff in the beginning (although we will all join in hating Hugh), but her choices to have sex later in the movie, while understandable, can elicit harsher feelings. Her sex has been essentially weaponized, and she knows what she’s doing. Unlike Hugh though, Jay’s partners have full knowledge of her situation, so at least there’s no muddiness of consent. But I buy Mitchell’s premise, too. The connections Jay has with her sister and friends, who coalesce around her as a sort of Scooby Gang from the outset, are redemptive, as are the fuzzy, warm entanglements that characterize her lovemaking post-Hugh. That really stands out when you compare Jay to a nameless girl we see get stalked and killed by the monster in the cold open; that girl is clearly on her own, assuring her father that nothing is the matter even as she flees past him for her life. Hugh/Jeff, when we see him again later, is a jittery mess, petrified to be near Jay, and it seems that he, too, has decided on facing this monster alone to better his chances. The paranoid life he’s living doesn’t seem terribly worth it though.
I appreciate that It Follows takes its time, much like its monster. So many moments with Jay from the outset are halcyon, contemplative, even sweet. The first time we see her, she’s floating in the aboveground pool in the backyard, airy synth music massaging the soundtrack, simply enjoying herself. She seems to appreciate that these are moments to be savored, although there’s nothing particularly special about them. She watches a squirrel scurry along a power line; she looks at a bug crawling along her arm that she summarily drowns. She chides young boys peeping at her behind the bushes. But all of these things are minor omens for what comes next, life and death, hormones and male gazes, and while Jay chuckles in the sunshine, unknown to her, there’s still a monster out there, bearing ceaselessly toward someone she cares about, and, ultimately, her, too. But even once Jay herself is on the run, many more of these long pauses between the frenetic thrills of pursuit and flight give Jay the chance to consider exactly what her life is becoming. “Now that we’re old enough,” Jay muses in her last seconds of innocence back in the car with Hugh, “where do we go?”
I think the point of It Follows, or at least the point I’m taking home with me, isn’t about what kills you. It’s about what you can live with. It’s neither cautionary nor prescriptive. Its nightmare logic underlies another truth we recognize peripherally, if at all, but it doesn’t have a hashtag. #Youtoo will die. We all live with death until we don’t, some people more than others. When I was a cancer patient a long time ago, a longer time ago than truthfully I ever had a right to expect, the most helpful piece of advice didn’t come from my breast surgeon, my radiation oncologist, my oncologist, or any of the myriad nurses, counselors, and other patients that were part of my cancer thwacking team. It came from my plastic surgeon, who was singly interested in getting me back to a normal I didn’t fully believe in anymore. I didn’t think I needed a pep talk, but he gave me one, and in it, the strange choice of a momento mori for someone who got to momento her mori every idle moment. “Think of all the people out there, walking around not knowing they have something inside them.” I did. And I realized I was no more mortal than anyone else, though I at least knew I had a significant disease. The relentlessness of the monster in It Follows is intimidating, but not unanswerable. Through a film strewn with graphic violence and trauma, Jay and her Scooby Gang of friends persist in finding footholds for normalcy again and again, until its bittersweet, ambiguous ending. We don’t know if the figure in the background walking towards Jay is the monster or not. But whatever it is, she’s going to live with it.
It Follows is currently streaming on Netflix.
Angela didn’t really have a place to mention it in this article, but she also admires the weird Future/Past aesthetic of 80s, contemporary, and invented technology and fashion in It Follows, especially the seashell-shaped cell phones.