With A Most Horrific Year, Senior Staff Writer Randall Colburn analyzes and reflects on the most critically acclaimed horror movie of every year, starting in 2015 and moving backwards.
It Follows (2015)
Worldwide Gross: $14,674,076
Certified Fresh: 97%
Sex is scary.
It’s less so now, I suppose. We’re more open, more aware, more understanding.
Yet, we’ll always approach it as we would any herculean endeavor — there’s the giddiness and the anticipation, dread and the awful unknowing. The measure of physical and figurative self-worth. The pain. Good pain, but pain nonetheless. And the act itself, once idealized, is now either normalized or idolized. Regardless, you’ll look in the mirror after and marvel at how nothing’s changed. At how you’re still the same. And they’re still the same.
What’s not the same is the air in between you.
What’s not the same is the way you’ll remember them.
That’s the fear that follows you.
It Follows opened in early 2015, but had been running the festival circuit for the better part of a year. It was written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, the filmmaker behind the decidedly non-horror The Myth of the American Sleepover. It tells the story of Jay (Maika Monroe), a 19-year old who sleeps with a boy only to discover that, through the act, he’s given her not a disease but a spirit. It takes the form of strangers and loved ones, it follows you, and, should it catch you, bad things are bound to happen. To lose this spirit is to give it to someone else. Through sex. Before ridding herself of it, however, Jay tries to understand it. But there’s not much to understand. You run and it follows.
There was ample buzz. Mitchell was coasting on the goodwill of his previous feature, and audiences were curious to see a horror film from somebody with credibility outside of the genre. And horror was riding high when the film debuted at Cannes in 2014. The Conjuring, a well-regarded exercise in studio horror, sustained Hollywood’s interest in the genre, while a number of under-the-radar titles — Escape from Tomorrow, Stoker — were offering innovative approaches to the genre that were, if not scary, at least intriguing. More conventional but infinitely more scary were indies like Willow Creek, an overlooked found-footage entry from Bobcat Goldthwait, and the much-ballyhooed The Babadook, an Australian spooker lauded for its strong central metaphor, empathetic characters, and, obviously, its ability to frighten.
It Follows very much pivoted off the success of The Babadook, but, aside from being handsomely filmed by a burgeoning writer/director with a clear vision, it established itself as something altogether singular. For one, It Follows is far more indebted to the cult horror of yesteryear, with John Carpenter exerting his influence over Mitchell’s lens, use of tension, and score (an original composition by electronic artist Disasterpiece). And though Mitchell’s monster can take on many forms, it most often evokes Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees in both gait and temperament. Yet, despite its nods to the ‘70s and ‘80s, the film caters far more to millennial audiences than the motherhood-focused The Babadook, what with its young, attractive cast and a muted sense of cool that extends to both its aesthetic and score. For young audiences bored with found-footage and Blumhouse horror, both of which were wisely scaling back by 2015, It Follows resonated for both its milieu and its ability to scare in ways no studio movie had in years.
And It Follows truly is scary. The film’s critical acclaim wasn’t solely due to its clever filmic influences, nor to the mastery of tone and tableaux that Mitchell exhibits throughout. The setup is presented with efficiency, and the ever-shifting appearance of the movie’s monster allows for a sense of dread and anticipation not unlike what’s provoked by the Final Destination movies. As in that (vastly subpar) series, It Follows creates disorientation by making every small detail untrustworthy. Background extras are suspect. Turned corners are a potential confrontation. It Follows isn’t relentless — the film has a simple, effective sense of humor — but it also isn’t afraid to explode an otherwise serene scene. The scariest monsters are the ones who persevere, who reappear in the rearview whenever you feel like you’ve lost them. It Follows’ greatest trick is the implication that it never goes away. The truly horrific can’t be defeated, only accommodated. Once it is introduced, it is with you forever.
I lost my virginity when I was 20. I stopped after 30 seconds, but I suppose that still counts. I stopped because it felt wrong. For reasons I could never quite articulate, I saw sex as a sacred sort of thing, an act that could only unfold in the throes of perfection. This moment, blurry, drunk, and sweaty in a mid-Michigan bathroom, was not perfect. Such idealism came from no moral standing, just some misguided romantic one; I wasn’t even a Christian. Well, not yet.
I’d had chances before. I wasn’t a casanova, but I had girlfriends. I remember chatting with a classmate over AIM my freshman year of college. She was alone and wanted me to come to her dorm. I went, but I brought my friend in an act of unconscious self-sabotage. The three of us sat there, awkward. Finally, she sighed, “I’m horny.” My friend looked at me, asking with his eyes if he should leave. I shook my head. We left a few minutes later.
I can’t tell you why I was so scared of sex. I was never traumatized, nor was I unsure about my own sexuality. I watched porn and jerked off. The act itself, though, was something I actively avoided. The night I lost my virginity just happened by accident — we were drunk, we got naked, and soon our bodies just simply aligned. She wasn’t mad when I pulled out before finishing; I think she felt awkward, too.
It came as an odd sort of relief, then, when I fell in love with a preacher’s daughter named Wendy a few months later. And she wasn’t the rebellious kind; she read the Bible every night, played in the worship band, and spoke in tongues. But we still made out, laying on my bed as Cat Stevens and Lagwagon underscored all manner of heavy petting. One night she had an orgasm and started crying. She felt guilty. The guilt of arousal, the guilt of indulgence, but more importantly, the guilt of inaction. She wasn’t doing anything to save my soul. When I said I already was a Christian — a casual Catholic, at best — she burst into tears again: “But you’re not saved.”
Then I’ll get saved, I said.
So, my face pressed into her neck, her tears falling on my cheek, I repeated every word she said. And in my wood-paneled bedroom in the Casa Loma apartment complex, I gave my heart to Christ, telling her all the while: “It’s okay. I’m saved now.” So she pulled me close, “I want to do something,” she said. And she began speaking tongues in my ear. I stared at us in the mirror, the way her mouth formed the words. I stared at us in the mirror, and of course I believe in God. I was baptized by water a week later, baptized by fire some months after that. I began speaking in tongues myself. We didn’t make out on my bed anymore. We held hands in church; we kissed goodnight. I began to hate myself for masturbating. I would show up crying to her in the morning, telling her what I looked at on the computer. She prayed over me. We fell asleep next to each other, fully clothed.
“I want to marry you,” I said to her.
We were together three years and never had sex.
Some might attack It Follows for being “sex-negative.” Others might brazenly compare the film’s demon to an STD. Neither of the comparisons hold up, likely because Mitchell himself never set out to make any sort of grand statement about sexuality. Sex has always been an intrinsic part of horror, after all; when mainstream horror became self-aware with Scream, it became commonplace to call out the various cliches, namely the ones that applied to virgins and promiscuity. But horror’s evolved past such meta-theatrics, as has our world; society’s increasing integration of both feminism and queer culture have helped establish sex and sexuality as a means of empowerment. That Jay has sex with a guy she’s only been out with a few times isn’t a point of contention; the implication is never that “sex is bad.” And it’s not as if the resulting horror sours Jay or her friends on sex. Sometimes we just fuck the wrong person and have to deal with the consequences.
Because the sex itself isn’t the horrifying part. This isn’t Species. It’s the “following” that’s scary. A few months before the film’s US release, a viral video called “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” was released. In the two-minute clip, actress Shoshana Roberts walks through various neighborhoods in New York with a hidden camera capturing the various forms of harassment she encountered, which includes being followed for several minutes. The video helped legitimize street harassment as its own form of abuse and gave women an opportunity to speak out against something they’re required to deal with on a daily basis. Sexual abuse and misogyny was a staple of the news cycle in both 2014 and 2015, what with Ravens running back Ray Rice’s elevator assault and Bill Cosby’s litany of rape charges both coming to light and igniting conversations about a culture that allows such atrocities to be swept under the rug. Now, It Follows isn’t about physical or sexual assault, but it makes sense that critics and audiences would connect with the horror of a woman being menacingly followed as a consequence of her sexuality.
There’s also the fact that millennials are having less sex. Multiple studies have shown a steep decline in the amount of sexually active teenagers, a curious statistic in a time when the US is more sexually liberated than it ever has been. Maybe it’s the easy access to porn. Or maybe it’s an increased dependence on SSRIs, which tend to diminish one’s sex drive. Or maybe we’re just all so comfortable with the idea of sex now that there’s less pressure to actually have it.
Or maybe it’s what comes after that scares us. Nobody wants a disease, after all. And fewer and fewer people want babies. But, perhaps most intriguingly, there’s a fear that’s beginning to accompany intimacy. Because to be intimate with someone, no matter how casually, is to bond yourselves in a way that’s irrevocable.
The question is: If I let this person inside me, what are they going to leave behind?
Years passed. Wendy lived two hours from me. I visited her when I could. We still didn’t do much else besides french kiss, but we were happy. In a way, it’s the part of our relationship we never had to worry about. We joked about the sex we’d have when we got married. We laid in bed and came up with scenarios: the way we’d undress, the positions, the couches and counters we’d soil. Sex remained fresh in our minds, unspoiled. We had faith that they’d happen in much the same way we had faith we’d go to heaven when we died.
Back home, I played guitar in the worship band at her dad’s church. I met a girl named Tara. She was pretty with big eyes and made me feel wanted. I led her on too long before revealing I had a girlfriend. At her job, Wendy was propositioned by a married co-worker named Matt Wayland; he wanted to leave his wife for Wendy. I wrote a play with a villain named Matt Wayland; I thought she would find it funny. She didn’t.
“He’s not a bad guy,” she told me. “He’s just sad.”
When I visited, Wendy was distant at dinner. She was distant at home, too. I laughed too hard during a movie and she was visibly annoyed. But at night, something was different. As we made out, she touched my penis for the first time. I didn’t acknowledge it, and she did nothing else. The next time I visited, I took off her bra. She let me. And, three years after we dry-humped to Cat Stevens on my bed, I realized:
We still have not seen each other naked.
And that maybe I never actually thought we would.
And that maybe things are spiraling out of control.
Her bedroom was so dark on my next visit — New Year’s Eve — that I could barely make out her silhouette. We grinded against each other to the sound of a distant party down the street. We did it for more than an hour.
I didn’t stop because I was afraid she’d drift away, she’d evaporate. We’d reached the point where the only time we were present was when we were tentatively moving forward sexually.
We eventually realized there was nowhere else to go.
Our faith prohibited us, sure. But so did our fear of what would come after.
We fell asleep in silence. It wasn’t even midnight.
She broke up with me through an e-mail a few months later.
It Follows ends on a moment of ambiguity: Jay, now in a relationship with the timid Paul, who she deflowered, walk through their subdivision holding hands; someone follows them, but the question of whether or not it’s “It” remains unanswered. It’s a fitting image to close on, as the permeating horror of It Follows isn’t about the act of sex so much as it is the fear of its legacy. How will those with whom you were most vulnerable resurface over time? How will they affect your current relationships? In what form will they manifest? In It Follows, the manifestations are evil. In life, they’re more complicated.
They’re still haunting, however. With Wendy, I was terrified I’d feel the same sense of guilt I’d felt when I lost my virginity. I worried of how, should it surface, it would spoil this otherwise perfect love. In the months after our breakup, I lost faith and entered into a toxic, co-dependent relationship that could only be summated as “emotionally abusive.” We had sex all the time. And I regretted it every time.
Often, I would think back to a Labor Day weekend with Wendy. We were staying at my parents’ house; they were out of town, the weather was warm, and there was a hot tub out back. We drank champagne, ate steak, and later, in our pajamas, laid in my bed in the basement, hands touching under the covers.
She looked at me, her eyes wet.
I was crying, too, I realized, and I didn’t know why.
And without thinking, the words left my mouth:
“Do you want me?”
“Do you want me?” she asked.
And I don’t remember much else, except that it was lovely and that, as the sun spilled onto the bed the following morning we were praying, thanking the Lord that we had been able to control ourselves, to honor Him with our obedience, to remember that sex is a sacred thing. And that, somewhere in the midst of that, as our bodies sank into each other beneath our stifling clothing, I whispered in her ear: “This is God.”
In that moment, she didn’t disagree with me.
We were supposed to have sex.
Jay doesn’t choose abstinence after her experience. She perseveres beyond fear. She finds a relationship. She keeps having sex. Because if we don’t make ourselves vulnerable, if we don’t risk inviting the demons inside, we risk sacrificing intimacy with the people we truly do love.
Everyone we fuck haunts us. The only thing It Follows doesn’t show is that their ghosts don’t have to be bad ones.