Ethics in Horror Films – It Follows

I wanted to discuss some horror films before Halloween and have watched quite a few in the last couple of months. I haven’t been too impressed with what I’ve seen. Last year I wrote about the somewhat pompous but ultimately enjoyable Only Lovers Left Alive (which featured Anton Yelchin, may he rest in peace) and wanted to look into more vampire films. I remembered seeing Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction some years ago and watched it again and was… well, kind of appalled. Was it really that unredeemingly pompous when I first viewed it? Was the dialogue that stilted? Was Lili Taylor’s character that tiresome? Not even Christopher Walken could save it and I lack the energy to write about how sincerely disappointed I was.

I then watched The Hunger because I’ve watched it several times and always loved it (and, of course, may Bowie rest in peace). But this time it hit some sour notes with me. It was hard to see Susan Sarandon’s allure. She lacked any sex appeal – she seemed like she had no muscle in her body, her eyes bulged like Barbara Bush, and her very voice made me wonder how I ever bought the notion that after living with David Bowie’s character for years Catherine Deneuve found Sarandon to be a good replacement. But I’m also in what my late mother used to call “a mood.” I’ve found myself hating everything lately so maybe I just need to avoid discussing vampire movies I’ve seen several times. I’d hate to go on record as hating this film and next year realize my views were altered because I was in “a mood.”

So I watched a few I’d never seen before and found some good films. What We Do in the Shadows was fun but there’s not much to discuss in something that is successfully funny without much depth beyond the humor. The Collector and The Collection were also fun in that improbable way that complicated “fiend” movies often are. Josh Stewart is actually a pretty good actor and the films had a The Cell-like quality to them, especially The Collection. But I do confess that I appreciated style over substance and when I make a conscious decision to enjoy that which will fall apart if analyzed, I try to avoid discussing it. We all have our failings.

But then I watched It Follows, the film everyone was talking about in 2015. People either loved it or hated it. First time I watched it, I hated it, too. But something about it niggled in the back of my head and I watched it again and suddenly everything about it that seemed wrong with the first viewing fell into place. I realized that the ending that I initially found pointlessly ambiguous showed a clear moral decision on the part of two of the characters as they deal with the supernatural evil stalking them.

Oh my god, I am going to spoil the hell out of this movie in the discussion that follows under the jump. Stop reading now if you have not seen this film yet but are planning to see it. In fact, you should always assume I am going to spoil the hell out of everything I write about here, but seriously, I am going to ruin this movie for you if you haven’t seen it yet. Clear? Good! Let’s discuss the ethics in It Follows.

To refresh your memory, here’s a synopsis of It Follows: A young college student named Jay begins dating a man called Hugh, who attacks her after they have sex for the first time. He takes her hostage briefly and explains to her that he has passed to her through sex a terrifying condition – she is now going to be stalked by a supernatural entity that can take on the appearance of anyone it wants. It moves slowly, but it is always moving and will always seek her and there is no real way to outrun it. It’s persistent and relentless. But Jay can get rid of it if she has sex with someone and passes it on to that person.

But there’s a catch – if the person who currently has the entity following it gets killed by the entity, the entity then begins to follow again the person who had it before. You will never be wholly safe from it but you can eventually be so far down on the list that you can be reasonably sure that you won’t have to deal with it again any time soon. Hugh, who is living under a fake address and fake name, selected Jay because he was reasonably sure that she was intelligent and resourceful enough to evade the stalking entity and pass it on without getting killed.

It takes Jay a while to understand what is happening, but she, her sister Kelly, and her friends, Greg, Paul and Yara, figure out that Hugh indeed had told Jay the truth and that Jay needed to pass it on in order to survive. The rest of the film shows how Jay and her friends navigate this horrible situation and the carnage it creates. Obviously, the film’s themes revolve around the ideas of sexual disease, the dangers of sexual vulnerability, the inevitability of death, the relentless way life wears you down, trouble figuratively stalking you the moment you become an adult. But the ethical choices involved in how characters handle this supernatural evil are what stood out to me the second time I watched it.

Before I discuss the interesting ethical decisions Jay and her friends make, I need to mention the reasons why I got so derailed during my first viewing, and these reasons caused other people to dislike the film. The film has a strange relationship with setting and time. Initially I thought it was set in current time because Yara has an interesting little e-reader that looks like a compact in the shape of a clam shell. I loved it. I want an e-reader in the shape of a clam shell compact. I asked Mr OTC who made such things and he gently, in the tone an adult uses to tell a child that Santa may not be real, told me that there is no such thing as a clam shell e-reader. Then I noticed all the TVs in Jay’s house were tiny boxes with antennas, incongruous in a film where a girl can read Crime and Punishment using a plastic compact as the medium.

The e-reader that doesn’t exist is just one jarring element of the way the film sets time and scene. One day Jay is swimming in the above ground pool in her backyard and the next she and her sister are bundled up against the cold, taking a walk. I have no idea when this film happened, season-wise, because it happened in all of them at once. No idea the year this film was set in either, because there’s the futuristic e-reader but everyone drives old cars and the kids dress like it’s the late 80s, early 90s. The film had a 1980s, Spielbergian feel because when the kids all stayed at Jay’s house the girls slept all over the place – cocooned in blankets, curled up on the floor, the sort of domestic chaos that permeated supernatural films like E.T. Jay’s family lives in a post-war Michigan neighborhood and are clearly lower-middle class. Late 70s furniture and appliances, worn wallpaper, fingerprint smudged door jambs and light switches. Across the street, Greg’s family is far wealthier, with modern stainless steel appliances, clean walls, more modern internal layout. It’s not that one family hit on hard times and their home didn’t get updated – these are homes from two different neighborhoods in two different times right across the street from each other.

I even had trouble knowing exactly who Yara and Paul were. Initially I thought they were step-siblings to Jay and Kelly. Then I thought they were former step-siblings, because Paul was clearly in love with Jay and wouldn’t express it if they were currently related to each other through marriage. It seemed like Yara and Paul had lived in Jay’s rundown house at one point because they seemed so comfortable coming and going, slouching on the couch reading, never seeming to go back to their own homes. But Paul and Yara were only friends, though extraordinarily close to Jay and Kelly.

I didn’t realize it at the time but as my mind processed all this conflicting information, I became uncomfortable. Tense. My monkey brain realized something was amiss, that things weren’t making sense. I think the director may have misjudged how discordant his choice to have deliberately and aggressively ambiguous time and scene settings would ring to some viewers. But once I understood that these were not errors, that these were clearly elements included to cause tension and worry in the viewer, I found myself enjoying the film far more and appreciating the nervous anxiety not being able to pin down time and scene caused me.

Now let’s discuss the ethical choices made in It Follows. Hugh, whose real name is Jeff, established a residence in a burnt-out downtown Detroit home, assuming a different name, dating Jay in what I interpreted as an attempt to test her mettle. He spends a lot of time talking to her, feeling her out, and avoiding the entity that is stalking him. He has sex with her in the back of his car and then knocks her out with ether, tying her into a wheelchair and taking her into a parking garage. When she recovers consciousness he explains what is happening, that he passed to her the burden of being the victim it follows and what she must do to stay alive and pass it to someone else. No one else can see the entity except for those who have been followed or are being currently followed. No one else can see the evil stalking and they will not be hurt by it, either.

In a sense, Hugh/Jeff is a cad. He’s set Jay up, used her sexually, putting her life at risk. But he is doing far more for her than was done for him when he was given the burden. But even as Hugh instructs Jay on what to do, it’s clearly born from a place of self-interest. As explained, if Jay gets killed before she passes it on, the entity will return to stalking Hugh. He has a vested interest in selecting an intelligent, strong victim. There is little noble in his attempt to teach Jay what she must do to survive because his survival rests on her shoulders and her ability to live long enough to pass it on. He also needs her to be clever enough to choose an equally resourceful victim.

Here’s where it starts getting interesting. Paul, a close friend of Jay and Kelly since childhood, clearly loves Jay. Her feelings for him are more ambivalent but she also cares about him. Greg, the across the street neighbor, is their age and is a good-looking, sexually active kid. (The sexual tension among all these characters was interesting as well – only Yara seemed to have no sexual feelings for anyone in the quintet, though Greg certainly is interested in her.) Everyone but Greg comes to understand that Jay is not crazy, that this is really happening to her. Greg, sexual adventurer and borderline cad in his own right, offers to have sex with Jay because he doesn’t think the entity exists. One may think he’s doing it in an attempt to help dispel what he believes are Jay’s delusions but the more likely reason is that it gives him a chance to have sex with pretty Jay.

But why did Jay sleep with Greg, someone she knows and likes and has had sex with before? Well, she doesn’t know entirely that he doesn’t take her seriously, but even if he doesn’t she knows Greg has a lot of sexual partners who may not be particularly discriminating in their own sexual adventures. Even if Greg refuses to take it seriously, Jay knows he will have sex with someone else soon and pass it to her, and there’s a strong chance that girl will have sex with someone else shortly after, and pass it on to her next partner. Jay could conceivably create several links in the victim chain if Greg acts according to his nature.

And he may well have done so. The viewer doesn’t know. But if Greg passed it on, the next victim died very shortly after and the entity comes looking for Greg and kills him. The entity has now been passed back to Jay.

Paul, sweet and intense Paul, who is far less good-looking than Greg but of far better character, offers to sleep with Jay, but she refuses. The viewer may think it is because she is not attracted to Paul, and that may well be the case, but regardless of sexual allure, Paul is far more valuable to Jay than Greg was. She does not want to risk him. Jay’s friends protect her as they attempt to find a way to defeat the entity without harming another innocent person.

They concoct a plan to lure the entity to a large school pool. Jay will be swimming in the pool and Paul, Kelly and Yara will be on hand, having assembled a huge array of electronic devices. Once the entity is lured into the pool, Jay will exit the pool quickly and her friends will sweep all of the devices into the pool, electrocuting the entity. The viewer sees the failure inherent in this Scooby Doo plan but this scene illustrates another aspect of Jay’s character.

When the entity arrives on the scene, it’s appearance is that of Jay and Kelly’s father. This upsets Jay, and it is all the more upsetting because nothing goes according to plan. Kelly can see her sister’s distress above and beyond that which is expected in a girl who is being stalked in a pool by unspeakable evil. She begs Jay to tell her what is happening, who is there, but Jay will not tell her. She does not tell Kelly what is happening because she simply cannot let her sister know that the form of her father is trying to kill her. Their father has been conspicuous by his absence and we don’t know what happened to him, but he shows up to kill his daughter and the film gives us signs that he has died – Jay’s mother is a day-drinker, the neighbors remark on how messed up the family is. There is a sense he may have killed himself. There is no way Jay can burden her sister with the visual image of their father coming to kill her.

They manage to get away, though Yara gets shot and ends up in the hospital, reading her clam shell. Jay decides then to have sex with Paul. He’s offered, he knows the risks inherent in being the victim it follows. Jay does not have to worry that he will end up like Greg because she knows Paul will choose a good victim, or at least a victim he knows will pass the entity on quickly. After they have sex, Paul is seen driving past a couple of prostitutes, but he drives on, not engaging either one of them. He sees no sense in passing it on to a woman who may not be able to understand the implications or believe the situation at all. He may have no faith that the next man who employs the prostitute will have sex himself quickly enough to create those needed links in the victim chain to keep him and Jay safe from the entity.

The film ends with Jay and Paul walking in their neighborhood. A hundred yards or so behind them it is following them. They pause, hold hands, and continue to walk.

That holding of hands is the astonishing ethical conclusion to this film. That hand-holding signaled to me that Paul and Jay have made the decision to pass it back and forth between themselves until they can find a better solution than continuing to pass the entity on to innocent people. It’s a difficult conclusion but it works so well when I think about it. Paul and Jay have a tight bond. It may not be love but it’s a friendship based on long-term affection. They both can see the entity because both have been the victim it follows. If they have sex, taking turns being the victim, they can watch over each other effectively. The problem with permitting Kelly and Yara to watch over Jay is that they could not see the entity. Now Jay and Paul can trade victim status back and forth. While one is a victim, the other can stand watch. When the victim gets tired, they can have sex and switch status. They’re keeping the entity, the sexually transmitted evil, between them until a better solution becomes available.

It is a quietly heroic moment. The entity is still out there. They can’t kill it. But they can make sure there are no new victims until they know for sure how to end it once and for all. They are willing sacrifices for themselves and also for those around them. And it makes sense. How many horror movies have I seen wherein the hero vanquishes Michael Myers or some similar supernatural but human killer only to realize it fell two stories, got shot 20 times, stabbed in the brain, yet stood up and walked away. In a way, It Follows is a very honest film. No pyrotechnic heroics. The heroine isn’t saved by the unlikely male lead. The unlikely male lead isn’t saved by the heroine. Instead all they can do is bond together, socially and sexually, in an exclusive relationship that can never include others, and protect each other from that which humans cannot immediately defeat.

And it’s a strangely sweet moment, too. Subverting the horror film trope wherein the virgins always die shortly after having sex, the sexually experienced join hands and close ranks against that which seeks to kill them. This film that deals with the fear of sex, the fear of death, the desperate human need to postpone death for another day, permits the heroine and the unlikely hero to live through the sexual relationship they negotiated to save themselves and others from harm.

What an amazing little film. I am so glad I watched it a second time. It’s not often that the horror genre can serve up these quiet revelations. Sixth Sense came close but it relied so heavily on the twist that the twist replaced the contemplation about the implications of the plot, but it comes closest to resembling the deft story-telling that happened in It Follows. If you’ve read this far, hopefully you took my spoiler warnings to heart and have already seen it. What do you think of this film? Did you have a similar interpretation of the ending? What horror film should I watch next?

I plan to have several entries up for the week before Halloween, finishing with a cemetery exploration Mr OTC and I undertook recently. We went in search of an infamous grave belonging to a supposed witch and what we found was alarming, but not in the way you think. Good times!

6 thoughts on “Ethics in Horror Films – It Follows

  1. Glad to see you’re back! And I’m glad you wrote about this movie, I liked it a lot.

    You interpreted the ending completely different than I did. I thought Paul did give the entity to the prostitute and that it would keep the chain long enough to keep the entity at bay for awhile. At least hoping it would, but that the plan didn’t work. I didn’t think they could keep trading the entity back and forth, but look at it that way does put a different on the film.

    When I watched it, I viewed it more as being about the loss of innocence that being about sexual diseases. Especially with the scene of Jeff talking about how he wishes he could trade places with a young boy. I viewed the sexual angle as being more of a parallel to how becoming sexually mature and losing ones virginity tends to come with realizing the weight of the world. The idea of passing the entity back and forth fits that in that having someone to share the weight with prevents it from collapsing on you. From the sexual angle, it could be seen as a criticism of promiscuity. I’ve seen more than person read that interpretation into it.

    I saw this film at a screening in a cafe near my apartment. I had a pretty interesting discussion with the other patrons. There was one person who thought the entity was symbolic of sexual abuse/rape trauma, but that’s a viewpoint I honestly can’t see.

    The clam e-reader struck me as the director not wanting to have a brand name e-reader and deciding to do something that couldn’t be mistaken for any of the types out there. It seems pretty impractical to me, the screen looks smaller than my phone, and reading e-books on my phone screen got so tedious I finally bought a Kindle tablet.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen THE BABADOOK yet, but I do recommend that one if you haven’t seen it yet. I see it paired with this movie, mostly because they’re both indie horror films with highly symbolic monsters. That, and a number of horror fans have said they’re “not horror” (fucking why?). THE VVITCH is in a similar vein and I love the hell out of that movie. I highly recommend that one if you haven’t seen it.

    I’m looking forward to the other Halloween posts!

    1. Ben, I have a hard time pinning down exactly what this film’s theme is but I don’t see why it can’t have several at once. The loss of innocence, the danger in sexual vulnerability, the tiring nature of adult life and the way the world drags down everyone. I don’t see the rape/sexual assault angle that clearly but in a way I can see where that idea comes from. Passing the entity without full warning beforehand is almost like a crime of omission, like obtaining sex via fraud because few would be willing to take on such a burden willingly, but that seems a stretch, really.

      I have not seen the BABADOOK yet. I sort of wanted to see it last year but forgot about it. I’ll have to put it on my “to watch” list. However Mr OTC has, as he calls it, The Witch with Two Vees, and I think I will persuade him to watch it with me tomorrow.

  2. I love this movie for so many reasons, but one is that invites so much speculative brainwork.

    My take on the discordant set elements (the clamshell, the TVs, etc.) is similar to yours — I think the intended effect is to evoke a feeling of dreamlike uneasiness, a play of tension just below the surface experience (this is consonant with the sub-bass and cracking elements in the sound editing). It’s also possible to think of the action taking place in a parallel universe, and from that vantage the opening sequence becomes especially curious since (I think) it’s the only part of the film where a character uses a cell phone.

    Your take on the ending is fascinating and makes me want to see the film again, and soon. I personally didn’t think it was obvious that they were being followed at the end, and I wasn’t sure about what course Paul had taken with the prostitutes (though that scene has an interesting parallel in Jay’s beach scene, doesn’t it?).

    Beyond a strict account of the ethics of the characters’ choices, part of the “je ne sais quoi” of It Follows may be in how the story is tinged with a strange and almost world-weary moral gravity — something jarringly out of sync with the established narrative vocabulary of horror cinema.

    I scribbled about the film after I first saw it here:

    1. Chip, after reading your comment I went back and rewatched it. I was wrong in one respect – they were already holding hands when the scene began and the camera pans down to their hands and they sort of reposition their fingers and I that’s why I think I remember a pause, then them taking each others hands.

      Interestingly, no one is walking behind them when the scene begins and the pan to their hands shows specifically no one is behind them. Then when the camera moves back up, there is a young man who sort of appears out of nowhere, walking behind them on the sidewalk. He couldn’t have turned the street corner onto the sidewalk because the scene is moving so slowly he would have been noticed. He just appears out of nowhere.

      The thing that follows is slow. It doesn’t materialize out of the ether nor does it move quickly. The ending could be far different depending on how one looks at that materialization. I still think it was the thing that follows, creeping behind them and I still have belief in my notion that they have decided to pass it back and forth between them until they decide how to best handle it.

      But… yeah, when you compare the prostitute scene with Jay stripping down and walking into the water when she sees the young men on that boat… That scene didn’t stay with me for whatever reason but it adds another wrinkle. Did she consider passing it on but decided not to, as I think Paul did with the hookers? Or did something else entirely happen?

      It’s been a while since a film made me think so carefully about what exactly is happening and I like that the director threw up a lot of distractions with the scene and time questions because once you get past those there’s suddenly something so much more open for interpretation waiting. After I posted this I went back and read some reviews and my belief that Paul and Jay decided to keep it between the two of them is not a particularly popular idea. However, I also found out there may be a sequel wherein Jay tries to trace that which follows back to its source. I wonder if a sequel will help resolve question like mine or just fuel another speculative conversation. Frankly, both options are great for me.

  3. Hi Anita,

    Excited to see that you’ve got so many new posts up! I’ll read through them over the coming days.

    I saw It Follows at the film festival in Bergen shortly before its release and I really loved it. The ambiguity with time and place was one of the things that made me warm to it, because along with the John Carpenter referencing soundtrack near the start of the film, I felt like it was very consciously situating the film in the Universe Where Horror Films Take Place. This disjointed overlap of 70s, 80s, 90s and a little bit—though not much—of the contemporary world seemed to me to just be a montage of visual elements from the history of film. The movie is part late 70s horror, part first Terminator film, and I felt like the mixed setting of time and place referred to this, yet that jarring moment later with the e-reader was deliberately subverting that sense of it being a throw-back. To me it was something that made the suspension of disbelief easier, because it was consciously a fictional landscape, though not in a really obvious and showily po-mo way like in, say, Refn’s Drive.

    I didn’t think about it at the time, but I might feel this way too about the relationships between the characters in the film, which are ambiguous enough that their existence before or outside of the film is difficult to imagine. I’d really have to see the film again to say for sure, but I seem to remember I really felt that Greg existed mostly as a juxtaposition to Paul, and that this was a very conscious nod to how teenagers are constructed in Teen movies and horror films.

    Your reading of the ending is really interesting. At the time I saw it as another skillful piece of genre manipulation, with the more or less ambiguous threat in the closing frames being a staple of horror movies. What I thought was really nice in the case of It Follows was the sense that it’s not clear whether this figure behind them is the thing that follows or not, and that once infected it is exactly this uncertainty they will live with for the rest of their lives. Yet they have found a way to share this task of constant watchfulness. Your idea that they pass the infection back and forth puts another, extra spin on the moment that makes it even more powerful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *