One of the most legendary scenes in horror cinema occurs in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), when Randy stops the Halloween VHS as Mr. Myers is about to make a crucial kill. The only logical reason to stop another great moment in horror movie history is to explain the rules of surviving a horror movie to a bunch of ignorant young’uns. The first rule, he says, is that characters can never have sex. At this very moment, the riled-up, drunken teenagers boo in disapproval and throw popcorn at him as he tries to explain the reasoning.
We may know the other two rules, and there are plenty of other rules not mentioned, but this rule is likely the most remembered out of all of them. Why is that? Is it because it’s one of the most oft-repeated conventions of the genre? Is it because sex is one of those highly treasured rites of passage among many a teenage boy and girl, so the thought of sex equaling death is supposed to frighten us on some psychological level? Or is it because of some reason I can’t quite think of at the moment? Either way, David Gordon Mitchell’s It Follows is the best reason of any I’ve seen to heed the warnings of yesteryear’s horror nerds.
The best way to explain It Follows is that it takes that ‘sex equals death’ trope and applies it to a grand scale. After a really bizarre sexual encounter, Jay feels that someone or something is following her. It can take the form of anything, is visible only to her, and is out to kill her. It is such a simple, yet ingenious concept that has been executed with an unsettlingly stylish flair. If there’s anything that It Follows is best at, it is building a piercing atmosphere of paranoia that continually builds upon itself with each engrossing minute.
The opening scene of the film gives you a small taste of everything that is to come, and when the first long take makes you bite the hook, you don’t realize that you’ve been successfully reeled in until the chilling last frame. Once this scene grabs your attention, it leaves you to the characters you will follow for the rest of its duration. These characters essentially live in a Peanuts universe, with very few adults who have little to no impact or presence on proceedings, so we really have no choice but to follow these teenagers.
But here’s the thing: I want to follow these characters. That sort of Peanuts universe – I really have no other way to explain it, so help me out if you can – is highly reminiscent of Wes Craven with films like Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), especially. Craven was so incredibly good at eliminating the usefulness of adults and creating an environment that heightens the helplessness our protagonists feel, gives them little to no options for escape, and forces them to claim the milieu as theirs as some outside forces invades it. These characters are so believable and relatable that we find it impossible not to consider them extensions of ourselves. But the terrors these characters find themselves confronting are not the only reason why we connect with them.
A lack of adults, in addition to emphasizing protagonist helplessness, provides the illusion of a youth utopia, where we can enjoy our surroundings and ourselves and revel in making decisions that have relatively no consequence. We can hang out with friends, go on dates with people who make us blush, we can simply enjoy being young. But when that strange being infects Jay’s life, not only does her fear affect her outlook, it affects the lives of her friends and the environment she’s called home. Everything that she has found comfort in begins to deteriorate, as evidenced by one unfortunate backyard swimming pool, an eternal symbol of the vibrancy and freedom of youth and place where time stops.
That’s what this monster seems to be – at least, given how I viewed the film. The monster is the sudden end of our youth – or perhaps when we interpret our youth has ended – and the uncertainty that the future presents. This thing that follows forces us to recognize when we have to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood, which is often scarier than it appears. It is a monster that doesn’t need to look like one in order to inspire fear, and in many ways its shapelessness makes it scarier than the Krueger’s, Voorhees’s, and Myers’s of our imagination.
It Follows is no mere cautionary tale aimed at the older teenagers in the room. It is something that strikes a chord with all of us, because that fear of uncertainty has come to visit all of us, young and old. It hits us during every moment of transition we face in our lives. It only really goes away by continuing to press forward, even in spite of knowing what follows behind. I really hope I’m right about everything I’ve just written, otherwise all of this pretentious philosophizing has been pointless.