The 13th Floor

Scares & Sexuality: An Exploration of IT FOLLOWS

IT FOLLOWS just hit Netflix Instant watch, which means for many people, this will be the first time they get to experience one of the most effective horror films of the modern era. IT FOLLOWS tells the story of a girl named Jay (Maika Monroe), who after having sex with a prospective boyfriend named Hugh (Jake Weary), is drugged and tied to a chair.  When she awakes, Hugh explains to her that he has been harboring a secret, that a shape-shifting entity has been following him and by sleeping with her, it’s going to now follow her instead.  While it would be quick to dismiss this concept as ridiculous, let us not forget that we all once believed that a razor glove wearing, burned face ghost that could shape shift and kill us in our dreams was a solid premise.

The film was released in minimal theaters and did so well, it garnered a wide release. This never happens for independent horror films, let alone an independent horror film that is earning points solely on its merits (and not because it has a twenty-year fan base backing it up. I’m looking at you, TUSK).

Around the twitterverse and blogosphere, there was a slight backlash calling IT FOLLOWS a run-of-the-mill “slut shaming” horror film that demonizes anyone that chooses to have sex.  Horror has a pretty terrible track record in terms of the way it approaches female sexuality and sex positivity (how many times have we heard “the slut dies first?”), but IT FOLLOWS should not be reduced to this category. Jay is a college student, but there are plenty of references to her past sexual history during her high school years.  In one instance, she dismisses having sex with a previous partner because “it’s not a big deal.”

She’s right. It’s NOT a big deal that someone had sex in high school.  For a line like this to happen in a film, a medium that has an entire subgenre dedicated to young men trying to lose it before high school graduation, this “minor moment” is extremely important.  While Jay is being terrorized for having sex, the film never puts her in the position of being at blame or deserving of her terror.  We root for this girl, we want her to overcome this monster, and by us knowing she can save herself by “passing it on,” we almost want her to run around and screw everyone on the planet just to stay alive.  The film makes the audience genuinely crave a sex scene not for titillating arousal, but for survival.

Sexuality is an evolving and detrimentally important aspect of human nature, despite the fact it’s almost always a misconception presented to teenagers that it’s one of the most “special and sacred things two people can do.”  It can be special and sacred, yes, but it doesn’t have to be… and we’re not bad people for having sex simply because it feels awesome.

This is where it gets complicated and why David Robert Mitchell’s script is something deeper than a surface-level metaphor for STDs.  IT FOLLOWS exercises the way an audience perceives rape culture.  The film sets us up to view everything from Jay’s point of view, so we feel the things she feels. Hugh, on the other hand, is presented as a huge jackass for knowingly passing on to Jay this curse. He’s vilified almost immediately for doing EXACTLY what we will later spend the entire duration of the movie hoping Jay will do.

When Hugh has sex with her and she delivers a monologue about the way we as children glorify what we believe dating will be like when we’re older, we’re smitten by her honesty.  As the sound effects kick in and we notice that Hugh is up to something, we fear for her.  We as the audience are meant to identify with Jay, and since we wouldn’t want to be cursed with a scary sex monster, we don’t think she deserves it either.  We completely lose the perspective of, “Hugh is just trying to survive too, man.”  Instead, we focus solely on Jay and wanting her to overcome everything.   Jay isn’t presented as a bad person for trying to pass this thing on to unsuspecting people, but we demonize Hugh for doing the same thing.  This is 100% rape-culture, but it’s the inverse of what audiences are used to being force fed.  The blame is in the right place, the perpetrator, but once Jay goes from “prey” to “predator” we have a difficult time transitioning our perception of her as a character from “victim” to “villain.” Had the film followed Hugh instead of Jay, we would feel the same way about her that we do about Jay’s “victims” of Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the men on the boat, and resident “nice-guy,” Paul (Keir Gilchrist).

The patriarchy hurts both sides, folks.

And what of our resident “nice guys finish last” character of Paul?  Paul started out as our “Duckie” from PRETTY IN PINK in this storyline, but shifted into Oskar from LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.  A boy so dedicated to his female crush, he is willing to live a doomed life alongside her, even if she’s only with him to save herself.  It could have been easy to make his character a giant metaphor for “only have sex with the one you love and all of your problems will be solved!” but…he’s not. The “It” following Jay cannot go away, and that’s refreshing.  This “it” puts all sexual encounters on an even playing field.  It doesn’t matter if you love someone, just “like” someone, or if you’re having meaningless sex, it’s all the same.  The act is always the same, the intention behind it is what changes our interpretation of said act.  In the same regard, we’re meant as an audience to view Paul as this selfless hero willing to give himself over to share the burden of this horror, but he’s ultimately just found a loophole to get what he’s wanted for years: Jay.

Now, it’s already been discussed how Jay is never presented as the villain in this film, and that’s precisely why it needs to be debated. If anything, Jay is a much crueler character than Hugh because while drugging her and tying her to a chair is a problem, he at least warned her what was coming. Hugh prepared her and did the responsible “contact your sexual partners” sort of informing and Jay did not. Jay willingly gave the “it” to three dudes on a boat to give herself some time.  While this can be excused as desperation, it is very reminiscent of the way drug addicts “get their fix.” In this instance, the “fix” that Jay is seeking is the comfort knowing she has a small amount of time to not look over her shoulders. This sweet, albeit temporary relief is something she craves, but she does not consider the long term effects of her actions on others.

Now, she does pass the “it” to two other friends (Greg and Paul) but because these friends offer themselves to her, we therefore see her as an innocent party.  It was consensual, they knew what they were getting themselves into, and we can’t view her as the villain. Jay is, at heart, a kind and empathetic soul. She cares about her friends and her family, but she doesn’t take the selfless role we want for her, she instead acts just as terribly as Hugh, if not worse. Does being burdened with an awful sexually contracted legacy mean she should be forced to live on an island? No. Does it mean she should warn people before boning that she has an awful sexually contracted legacy that will follow her partner? Yes. Yes she should.

IT FOLLOWS isn’t perfect by any means, and it’s actually a bit problematic at times, but it forces us to look at sexuality in horror films from an entirely different perspective.  Ultimately, I hope that someone is inspired by IT FOLLOWS and fills in the cracks the film left behind.  I am not on team “OMG BEST MOVIE EVER” but I am on team “This is going to scare the squares and make us discuss something we never take the time to talk about.”

*Photos: IT FOLLOWS – RADiUS/The Weinstein Company