Horror films are saturated with death. Their symbolism covers consumer capitalism, teenage sexuality, and pervading globalization. Death forms the endgame for these common genre fears, yet few films actually position death as the dominant fear. Audiences remain horrified by Freddy and Jason, but not by the potential death of these villains. Defying this tradition of overshadowing death helps David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows transcend its predecessors. It Follows naturalizes death by depicting it as the film’s central fear. Plot structure, thematic symbolism, and literary allusion amplify the pervasiveness of death within life itself. A combination of cinematography and acting performances bring an intimacy to death, forcing audiences to accept an inevitable truth in regards to their mortality. While horror films have brought these themes to the forefront of their genre, It Follows deconstructs these topics to their most natural source.
It Follows centers on young adult Jae (Maika Monroe), who becomes cursed with a mysterious presence after having sex with—and subsequently assaulted by—her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). Jae seeks help from her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and their friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) to avoid relentless pursuit from the shape-shifting manifestation. The described plot overview reveals sex and sexuality, particularly female sexuality, as the primary motifs for the film. However, sex arouses connotations of death. While sex results in the creation of life, it also symbolizes the destruction of innocence. Engaging in sexual intercourse signifies an entrance into adulthood, but the act itself is inherently violent. Mitchell establishes this juxtaposition in the first scene, where a future victim attempts to outrun the mysterious presence. She runs from her house wearing only a white nightgown and high heels, offering a contrast of both color and size. The whiteness of nightgown reflects her purity and youth, but the striking red shade of the high heels implies her sexual transition. Additionally, the large size of the shoes creates the image of a young girl trying on her mother’s clothes. The victim uncomfortably wears her sexuality as she sheds her childhood identity for her adult identity. This commonly awkward transition, the death to a former self, manifests itself in the clunking manner she runs around and the colors mentioned above stick out amongst the cooler coloring of the neighborhood.
Her escape takes her to a beach, where Mitchell showcases his minimalist style. The victim sits cross-legged in the middle of the frame amidst the water, its massive darkness nearly overpowering the headlights on her car. The camera zooms out to capture her feelings of helplessness. Absence of musical score highlights not only the natural world surrounding the victim, but also the cool acceptance of her fate to come. Here, death intersects with sexuality in this purgatorial space of the beach. The victim phones her dad to atone for her perceived childish behavior, further cementing the death of a previous self. Water rushing behind her contains significance of death and rebirth, drawing allusions to the River Styx, the entrance to the underworld in Greek mythology. This combined significance parallels a similar duality with sex; both are natural occurrences that do not arrive without sacrifice. As the victim awaits her physical death, she also experiences the emotional death of blissful ignorance, catalyzed by her burgeoning sexuality.
The plot for It Follows organizes along the trajectory for the five stages of grief. Jae denies the existence of the presence, bargains survival through attempted escape, becomes angry and falls into depression at the increasingly desperate situation, and finally accepts her fate and mortality by extension. Death maintains structural balance through employing literary allusion. The film borrows lines from T.S. Eliot and Fodor Dostoyevsky, intriguing choices when considering the historical and cultural contexts encompassing their work. Both authors wrote in times of great chaos, with Eliot writing during post-WWI and Dostoyevsky during Russian industrialization. These authors and their differing historical perspectives demonstrate the longstanding captivation death holds over people for generations. As humans, we strive to understand what we cannot control. Including these authors isolates death as the subject to fear within the film, largely unseen in a genre featuring gratuitous death and violence. Reading post-structurally, these references deconstruct language to convey about mortality what humans refuse to acknowledge.
One prominent scene juxtaposes Eliot with Jae’s first encounters with the presence. She listens to a recitation of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as the manifestation slowly approaches her from across the school courtyard. Audience hear the lines “And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker/And in short, I was afraid” echo throughout the classroom. Meanwhile, the camera creates isolation by purposely blurring classmates and angling the shot to highlight Jae’s position in the corner of the classroom. Manipulating the camera in this form allows the structure to mimic content; Eliot’s lines with Jae’s personal feeling of separation following her assault, coming with it the emotional baggage of seemingly ruined sexuality. These lines also signify her seamless transition into the underworld. As the camera cuts to the presence, the recitation continues: “‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead.” This powerful line announces the presence as the embodiment of death, quietly pursuing without remorse. Slow movements from the presence resonate the somber tone constructed by the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of the poem itself. Those who have read Eliot’s poem will recognize the connective water symbolism, particularly with the lines “‘Til human voices wake us and we drown.” Not only does this line sustain the connection between nature and death, but maintains the importance of water as a purgatorial substance. Jae begins her journey to understanding a terrible knowledge most have trouble expressing verbally.
Having explored the pervasiveness of death, Mitchell simultaneously isolates death as the primary fear within the film. Both cinematography and acting performances accomplish setting an uncomfortable intimacy audiences share with the subject of death. In terms of cinematography, that intimacy arrives with correlation between nature symbolism and the absence of gore. Breaking away from many contemporary horror films, Mitchell strives to remove gore from the film’s plot structure. The few times audiences witness gore occur during the deaths of the first victim and Greg, Jae’s neighbor. Even then, the camera never lingers long, with the actual death occurring largely off-screen.
For Mitchell, gratuitous death draws away from the real terror guiding his film. By removing gore, Mitchell reestablishes this realism behind death. Without the visual distraction, growing tension immerses audiences within the claustrophobic space of the unknowing. Mitchell replaces gore with an abundance of natural symbolism. His camera movements detail an expanse of the natural world, from the flowing waters of the ocean to the swooping trees in Jae’s backyard. Characters are often positioned in the middle of the natural element to accentuate powerlessness. Most of the scenes involving nature are shot overhead or as a landscape, demonstrating the power dynamic between man and nature. Nature creates and protects us, but it also keeps us forever straddling the line between life and death.
Additionally, Maika Monroe’s performance as Jae brilliantly conveys the painful realization of mortality. Many horror films cast their female heroes in stoic lighting; the Nancies, Lauries, and Ripleys may scream for the camera, but their ability to remain levelheaded in danger largely contributes for their survival.
With It Follows, Jae displays a startlingly human reaction toward the mysterious presence stalking her. Audiences witness this reaction most during a powerful scene when the presence attacks Jae at her house. Upon seeing the manifestation, Jae diverges from the standard horror heroine by screaming, convulsing, and sobbing uncontrollably. The camera shoots her reactions in the first-person perspective by manifesting her erratic movements. This forces audiences to assume the role of Jae and experience her psychological torture. Audiences rely on her sensory reaction to inform the coming moments, but the camera blurs and distorts their reactions, offering no protection to what lies on the other side of Jae’s door. Monroe instills terrifying realism with her performance. Her purely emotional response reveals her youth, with logic failing to offer solace. She struggles with sheer helplessness while trying to comprehend the presence hunting her. Her only defense, as Dostoyevsky points out, is also her greatest fear when it comes to death: knowledge.
It Follows has received deserved praise in the horror community. The synthesized musical score and atmospheric setting pays homage to the 1980s horror film. Refusing to label the manifestation reignites a sense of mystery that sequels of Insidious and Paranormal Activity seem to have abandoned. What truly sets the film apart from its contemporaries lies in its ability to reduce fear to its purest source. Death may form a common fear, but it is also one of the most powerful, unrestricted by cultural or linguistic barriers. It outlasts the most unassailable slashers and integrates itself in every component of culture and society.
It Follows reminds audiences that death will remain an inevitable fear that will continue to horrify and captivate for generations to come.