It Follows has become a minor cinematic sensation. It cost about $2 million to make, but has already made eight times that amount in domestic profits (1). Certainly box office numbers aren't indicative of a film's quality, but they can indicate that its narrative themes have tapped into the cultural zeitgeist.
It Follows tells the story of Jay, a college student, who has been cursed with a sexually transmitted phantom. If you think that sounds like a ludicrous plot, you're not alone, because I felt the same way before seeing the film. But like another film regarding sexual trauma and the supernatural, 1983's The Entity, It Follows manages to be genuinely frightening. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
What is Gothic?
Unlike a lot of horror films featuring young adults, It Follows is not a slasher film, but it's no less harrowing. Instead, it feels like a paean to Gothic literature. So what is "Gothic" anyway? As feminist literary critic Ellen Moers states, "But what I mean - or anyone else means - by 'the Gothic' is not so easily stated except that it has to do with fear." (2)
More specifically, Professor Douglass H. Thomson has isolated seven "descriptors" of the Gothic. 1) the appearance of the supernatural, 2) the psychology of horror and/or terror, 3) the poetics of the sublime, 4) a sense of mystery and dread, 5) the appealing hero/villain, 6) the distressed heroine, and 7) strong moral closure. (3)
The Gothic in It Follows
The titular "it" of It Follows is decidedly supernatural: it cannot be seen by anyone but its victims and it cannot be killed, only temporarily thwarted. The various forms the supernatural stalker takes in It Follows also play on the Gothic trope of the doppelgänger, a "ghostly counterpart" or "alter ego." It looks like a human, but an abject human, a transgressive entity that appears aged, diseased, wounded, or in a few particularly disturbing scenes, much like a rape victim. (This also plays on Freud's "uncanny.")
Another thing that differentiates It Follows from a slew of horror movies about young adults is the lack of explicit gore, and in this the film relies more on the Gothic psychology of terror - creating "a sense of uncertain apprehension that leads to a complex fear of obscure and dreadful elements" - and less so on "horror," or "a maze of alarmingly concrete imagery designed to induce fear, shock, revulsion, and disgust." (4) Although some of the imagery within the film induces horror, the origins of the curse are unknown and thus, obscure.
The poetics of the sublime are another characteristic of the Gothic found in It Follows. Although the exact definition of the term varies from writer to writer, the awe-inspiring aspects of nature are at play in the sublime. Jay spends time floating in her backyard pool, staring at the trees and the sky beyond; she and her friends flee to a beach house, traveling through the colorful fall foliage to enjoy the quietude of the sand and water.
Jay's escape into the sublime is more pronounced after her experiences with the mystery and dread of the Gothic "ancestral curse" that her ex-boyfriend Hugh has given to her. What could be more mysterious and dreadful than constantly looking over your shoulder for a fiend that looks like a human but which is definitely inhumane, a ghastly apparition that will kill you if it gets too close? As Jay's ex-boyfriend Hugh puts it, "It's slow, but it's not stupid."
In this way, Jay is both the appealing hero (we want her to escape her fate) and the distressed heroine, specifically the Gothic "pursued protagonist" which:
"refers to the idea of a pursuing force that relentlessly acts in a severely negative manner on a character. This persecution often implies the notion of some sort of a curse or other form of terminal and utterly unavoidable damnation, a notion that usually suggests a return or 'hangover' of traditional religious ideology to chastise the character for some real or imagined wrong against the moral order." (5)
After Jay has consensual sex with Hugh, he chloroforms her and ties her to an abandoned wheelchair, where he explains that she's now been cursed as he waits for "It" to show itself. He then quite literally drops her off at home: she's abandoned in the middle of the street in her underwear. The police are called and she undergoes a rape test in the emergency room.
Her shame and guilt are made manifest the next day when she examines herself in the mirror, like the way rape victims feel as if others will somehow be able to see or intuitively "know" that someone has been raped. Jay verbalizes these feelings to her family and friends when It breaks into her home, asking them why this is happening to her and begging them to believe that it actually has happened.
In order to rid herself of the curse, Jay must pass it on to another person. She is hesitant to do so, but finally relents, sleeping with neighbor Greg. Unfortunately, he is killed by It, and so Jay, according to the "rules," is next in line to be killed. Again, she is hesitant to pass the curse onto her friend Paul, who's had a crush on Jay for years, but eventually she agrees, and they sleep together. The film ends with Paul and Jay holding hands and walking down the street. This represents the Gothic ideal of a strong moral closure in which sexual relations are embarked upon with purpose and gravity, in opposition to the way that Hugh originally contracted the curse: a one night stand.
Regardless of its adherence to the conventions of Gothic literature, It Follows is a remarkable accomplishment in horror cinema: an engrossing, thoughtful narrative about the symbiotic social relationship between sex and shame that is also downright terrifying.