It Follows is among the most thematically-rich horror films released in the past decade, so it’s endlessly frustrating that the average viewer knows it as “the STD movie.” To be fair, this reputation is somewhat understandable; after all, the plot revolves around a malevolent entity that is passed on to others through sex. Yet David Robert Mitchell’s film has virtually nothing to say about life with an STD. Rather, it’s one giant metaphor for the horrifying aftermath of sexual assault and a denunciation of victim-blaming.
Consider one of the opening scenes, in which our protagonist, Jay, goes on a date with her new boyfriend, Hugh. While standing in line at the cinema, they play “the trade game,” which involves looking around and picking a random person with whom you would like to trade lives. The only reason this is even a game is that neither Jay nor Hugh typically pays attention to individual members of a crowd. Very few of us do, really. Implicit in our decision to ever leave the house at all is an extraordinary trust in those around us, so we rarely give any thought to the nameless faces passing by who might not have our best interests at heart. Very shortly, keeping a watchful eye on strangers will become a fundamental part of Jay’s existence. Her life of blissful ignorance is about to end.
That starts when Jay is betrayed by someone she opened herself up to. After having sex with Hugh, her innocence when it comes to romance is put on display when she reveals her childhood fantasy of simply holding hands with a cute guy in a car. As she presents this lovely story, Hugh is preparing a chloroform rag in the background. All this time, he was only using her to pass on the curse. The demon is forcibly thrust onto Jay and now, to remain alive, she must distrust everyone in her immediate vicinity. That assumed faith in her fellow man has been shattered. A time when it was not necessary for Jay to monitor the movements of every passerby, a time when studying members of a crowd was a fun game, seems like a distant memory.
So far, what’s happening to Jay is less an analogue to having an STD and more a metaphor for life as a rape survivor. Even though the sex was consensual, the image of Hugh knocking Jay out certainly calls rape to mind, and besides, could Jay really give consent without having any knowledge of the creature? The ensuing visuals of Jay being dropped home half-naked, getting questioned by police, staying at the hospital, and laying in bed depressed for days, hammer the point home. Upon arriving back at the house, Jay spends a lot of time staring at herself in the mirror, examining the body that has been violated by an intruder.
It’s important to note that it’s not as if the monster only exists in the reality of the person it has latched itself onto. It surrounds all of these characters, but it’s only now that Jay has been made aware. The dangers surrounding her – this idea that she is never safe and is always being studied with a lustful eye – are hardly new, but Hugh was simply the one to wake her up.
David Robert Mitchell repeats key scenes and shots in different contexts in order to contrast Jay’s life before and after the attack. There’s a sequence in the first act in which Jay is relaxing in her pool when she realizes she is being watched by her neighbors, who are clearly seeing her as a sex object. She isn’t particularly miffed, and in fact she seems to find it somewhat amusing. “I can see you,” Jay says with a smile, and the boys duck from sight upon being spotted. At this point, being gawked at by strangers is a mild inconvenience that she brushes aside with a laugh. Later, in the midst of Jay’s new circumstances, she tries to relax in the pool again but finds it impossible to do so anymore. Almost instantly after entering the water, she looks at the picket fence where her neighbors had been watching her from earlier, and it takes on an all new meaning. Before, it was the spot from which a few silly boys were being a bit annoying, but now, Jay sees this as yet another threat. She immediately exits the water and returns inside. So much for being able to enjoy a nice day.
Jay’s life might be easier if her friends could see the demon, but they are blind to its presence. They can try to understand what Jay is going through, and they can do their best to be as supportive as possible, but they have no concept of how terrifying her world has become. When the creature is in the area or is approaching Jay directly, most of her peers look at her like she’s out of her mind, blaming her for her fear instead of blaming the thing instilling that fear in her. “Is something wrong with me,” Jay asks with tears rolling down her face. Nobody tells her no.
This is another extension of the rape metaphor, with Jay’s acquaintances subconsciously looking down at her for getting in this situation when she did absolutely nothing wrong. When Jay’s neighbors see ambulances outside of her home, they comment that she is “such a mess.” Even when Jay is being questioned by a police officer following the initial encounter with Hugh, his questions take on an unintentionally condescending tone, as if he’s approaching the conversation with the knowledge that she should have known better.
The only people who can understand Jay are those who are also within the creature’s path of destruction or, in other words, those who have been the victims of sexual violence themselves. When the gang tracks down Hugh (whose real name is revealed to be Jeff) and he shares his experiences, they all sit around in a circle as if in a support group. We find out that even though it’s possible to transfer the curse to another person, you can never really escape its wrath. Assuming Jay dies, it will then kill Hugh, the person who gave it to him, and it will continue going down the line. Once you have been violated, there is no easy fix. It will be with you forever.
And so even after someone like Hugh passes it on, he must still live a highly-paranoid life, not knowing if Jay has since been killed and therefore if he is now the target. Like Jay, Hugh must still look with suspicion at every single person he comes in contact with for the rest of his life. His heart still must skip a beat whenever a stranger so much as glances at him. He will never be able to go for a walk without his entire body shaking with dread. His life is completely destroyed no matter what. As Hugh puts it, “Wherever you are, it’s somewhere walking straight towards you.” For rape survivors, too, even if society instructs them to “get over it,” the scars will always be a part of them, and it’s difficult to recapture the same sense of safety they had before.
It fits with the metaphor, then, that the villain of the piece may or not have been defeated in the closing moments. Jay and her friends come up with an elaborate plan to kill it that seems feasible, but it’s unclear whether they pulled it off. They shoot the creature, it bleeds, yet the final shot features a stranger ominously following Jay and Paul down the street. Is it the monster? Is it a normal person? We aren’t sure, and that’s the point: even if the thing is dead, it has not truly been vanquished because Jay will nonetheless spend the rest of her life in a state of paranoia, thinking it could return at any second. Whether it will return is irrelevant.
Jay opens herself up to Paul and they hold hands in the final scene, which is nice, but that doesn’t do much on a practical level. A lesser film might wrap on a cliche lesson like “one must only settle down with their true love to leave all the evils of the world behind,” but Jay getting with Paul does not have any effect whatsoever on whether the creature is alive.
It does, however, mean that Jay no longer has to go through this alone, and so the third act victory has little to do with an evil being banished. This isn’t a story about a monster that terrorizes teenagers and then is sent back to the depths of hell. It’s about a girl who is betrayed, must suffer through the aftermath with little help, but who ultimately finds someone willing to share the burden.
She tried this earlier with Greg, but that plan instantly backfired and resulted in Greg’s death. What’s different this time? Well, Greg very clearly did not believe Jay or sympathize with her struggle. While Paul passionately argues that Jay is not making this up, Greg shrugs and says that “something happened, but it’s not what she thinks.” He’s along for the ride, and if he’s presented with an opportunity to have sex with the hot blonde, that’s a nice bonus, but he has no real interest in helping Jay cope.
Paul, on the other hand, is fully on her side, and that’s why the ending is a happy one. It’s not particularly important that Paul and Jay are dating. This isn’t some lame conclusion about sleeping with the nice guy instead of the jock. The point is that Jay finally has someone that cares about her and can truly empathize with her pain without a hint of condescension or doubt. She no longer has to live in a world where nobody can fathom what she’s going through.
Given the horror genre’s historically terrible depiction of female sexuality, It Follows is nothing short of a gift. The subtext of almost every slasher is that promiscuous women should be punished for having premarital sex, and anyone who isn’t a naive virgin will be brutally slaughtered. Many have dismissed It Follows as another movie in that same line, in which our lead faces the consequences of daring to have sex purely for her own pleasure.
In fact, It Follows is an anti-victim blaming masterpiece that gives a huge middle finger to the genre’s antiquated approach to sex. It’s about a girl who, through absolutely no fault of her own, has her body violated. The world she’s subjected to in the aftermath is complete hell, and there are no easy solutions. Her life has been forever changed, and non-victims will never truly get what that’s like. Such is life as a survivor of rape, and the fact that we live in a judgemental society that is so quick to blame the victim doesn’t make it any easier.
But Jay finds some hope not through dispelling her monster, but in sharing the pain with someone who understands. David Robert Mitchell’s film uses the horror genre to extend a welcoming hand to sexual assault survivors everywhere and send a clear message: you are not alone.