I’ll say it up front: This is a niche post. It alienates all but those who have had the chance to view David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. (See how I smoothly slipped that spoiler warning in there? Proud of myself.) If that weren’t bad enough, it’s also openly pretentious. So if you want out now, it’s cool, you can peace out, no judgment on my end.
Still here? Great! So without further ado…
David Robert Mitchell’s 2015 horror film It Follows is less a movie than it is a work of cinematic literature. What I mean by this is that most films, especially films that conform to a conventional narrative structure, lend themselves to one plausible interpretation. Sure, one could go digging for evidence to support a devil’s advocate argument, but in most cases, cinema avoids ambiguity in its metaphor and other literary devices. It Follows does the opposite. It Follows presents you with endless moments, each individually begging to be interpreted in different and unique ways. Some have argued that the titular It is a metaphor for the lingering effects of trauma suffered by victims of sexual abuse. Others have suggested that It is simply a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases.
I posit that It is a metaphor for the inevitability of death.
More broadly, It is a metaphor for the process of aging, maturing, growing up, all eventually leading us to the end of the line.
The film’s protagonist, Jay (Maika Monroe), begins the film as a relatively carefree, innocent child. Yes, she’s had sex before, but it’s never been with someone she had real feelings for, and that detail isn’t revealed until much farther into the film. She begins the film passive. She lives in her childhood home. She talks about boys with her little sister. The moment after she has sex with Hugh/Jeff (Jake Weary), she waxes nostalgic about how she always dreamed about this kind of moment, staring at a blooming flower as she absent-mindedly plays with it.
Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell places the flower in a POV insert, as he does later with a shot of Jay’s hands on her knees while talking to the police and a shot of her laying out picked blades of grass on her leg whilst talking to Jeff. These shots evoke a sense of youth in the audience (us), placing us in her mindset–the mindset we had when growing up, when we were loosely fascinated by or purposefully distracting ourselves with the minutiae in front of us. Mitchell also never shows us an “adult” in focus, outside of It and, very briefly, Jeff’s Mom, just one instance of representing the youth’s ignorance of aging and death. Plus, the facts that a) Jeff still lives at home with his mom at age 21, paranoid that It will return for him, and b) Jeff talks about how he wants to be a kid again and shed all his responsibilities in favor of youthful freedom, both signal his unwillingness to embrace/fight death.
Jay won’t tell her mom about It, and she’s afraid to talk to the police. Basically, Jay’s a kid. So when It first appears, she’s in denial, and she’s traumatized–though Jeff tried to make the reality of the threat facing her as easy to understand as possible for her, It is an unceasing threat, and it’s tough for anyone the first time you realize that It is coming for you. Jay proceeds to deal with the problem like a kid would. She goes to eat ice cream, curled up in a ball, and whine to her friends about it. When It attacks her in her house for the first time, Jay flees to the old playground, an eternal symbol of childhood. It eventually forces her to take action, to fight it–like Camus argued in his existentialist works, one must fight death, despite its inevitability. She learns to shoot a gun, for instance. But still, Jay runs from It, and winds up in the hospital, where she passes It onto Greg (Daniel Zovatto), very passively—it’s his choice, it seems. She’s on bottom, and doesn’t seem all that into it. It’s not love. It’s not passion. It’s just ‘can I get this over with?’
Greg represents the arrogance of youth–the belief that death will never come, etc. His physical resemblance to Jack White, who himself resembles a carefree, fuck-you sort of high-school dropout cool-kid type who thinks he can beat anything the world throws at him and projects maturity when, really, he’s just a fucked-up kid like you and me with as much experience as any 19-year-old (which is to say, very little). (And not that that’s necessarily an accurate description of Jack White, either—just the stereotype it seems like he would have fit into back when he was the age of the film’s protagonists. Probably should have come up with something better for that. Oh well.)
So it’s no shocker when It dispenses of Greg quickly. He doesn’t fight It at all—despite Jay’s warning, he opens the door, not afraid—and It just fucks him to death. It should be no surprise that It takes the form of Greg’s Mom, who’s established earlier on in the film as the one responsible for (figuratively) screwing Greg up by stunting his maturity.
Jay continues to run from It, driving to the beach. Seeing three guys on a boat, she undresses and gets into the water. This could mean a couple of things—one, she’s attempting to have sex with the boys on the boat—which is later revealed, if it happened, to have failed—OR, two, a baptism, representing an attempt to wash off It with religion (many folks’ go-to when attempting to deal with the inevitability of death)—holy water.
Water represents innocence throughout the film—we meet Jay in her family’s pool, which is inexplicably destroyed after an encounter with It; It does not enter the water until the final scene, when Paul (Keir Gilchrist) shoots It and forces It in; the pool is the location of childhood memories for all of the main characters—Kelly’s first beer, Jay & Paul’s first kiss, and, tellingly, Yara’s first excursion past 8 Mile (a sketchy area in Detroit popularized by 2002’s 8 Mile)—the first realization of the distinction between the innocence of the suburbs and the dangerous, adult reality of the city. Yara, played by Olivia Luccardi, especially represents an adulthood and maturity not found in the other characters—she reads complex novels about death on a futuristic gadget not afforded to the other, 80s-stuck protagonists. It’s telling that the film’s climax ends with Jay seeing the clear, pure water in the pool tainted by an ever-growing opaque cloud of blood–perhaps a menstrual metaphor for the pains of adulthood.
When Paul offers his help near the end of the film, out of his love for Jay, Jay rejects him, wanting to deal with It on her own, trying to take on more responsibility than at any point in the film prior—and chooses to trust Paul when he comes up with his plan to KILL It once and for all. She’s opening herself up emotionally, and in a far more mature manner–but her transformation isn’t yet complete, and so:
Of course, Paul’s plan fails, and It takes on one final, menacing form—that of Jay’s father. And here’s a subtle plant paying off—Mitchell hints strongly that her father’s dead. He’s in family photos, but we never meet him. Jay never refers to him; when she says “don’t tell mom,” she doesn’t mention dad. He’s there when she’s the most frightened—and she must face him, her memory of him, her final tether to the innocence of youth, in order to complete her arc and become an active, mature adult, facing the inevitability of death, not without fear, but with a choice to fight It—by growing up and, well, being an adult. As Jay and Paul remark after they have sex—Jay’s now on top, taking responsibility, and embracing her feelings for him—it “doesn’t feel any different” now. But then again, when does one start to feel like an adult? I’m twenty-two, I’ve graduated from college, I have a job, and I’m on my own in LA… but I don’t feel all that much different than I did when I walked in the door on the first day of sophomore year.
Side note: While many pieces on this film have likened It to an STD, and assert that It Follows makes sex ‘scary,’ I believe that the opposite is true. While the film, it could be argued, demonizes passionless, loveless sex and implies a slight critique of modern hookup culture, the scene in which Jay and Paul have sex insinuates that the film believes that sex can be beautiful and wonderful and symbolic of maturity. Mitchell, I believe, is making a more complex point: that sex alone does not a mature human make, subverting traditional coming-of-age movie tropes (Superbad, anyone?), and emphasizing that adulthood is achieved when one understands the difference between sex and real love. Anyway, enough about that, back to the main point:
With the final lines of the film, Yara quotes Dostoyefsky on her hospital bed, discussing the torturous nature of the inevitability of death:
“When there is torture, there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented by the wounds until the moment of death. And the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant—your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain. The worst thing is that it is certain.”
The film’s final two shots depict Jay and Paul, walking hand in hand, as a figure follows, out of focus, in the distance—presumed to be It. They’ve become adults. They know death is coming. But they’re united. And they’ll continue to fight It… if only by surviving.