With his recent film It Follows (2015), writer–director David Robert Mitchell created a languid, pastel-colored, synth-drenched, suburban horror story that masterfully reimagines long-established genre tropes while offering a timely commentary on the contemporary Midwest. Superficially, It Follows appears to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of casual sex and [End Page 201] STDs, a millennial allegory that updates the moralizing subtext of its 1980s slasher progenitors by sublimating the sexual anxieties of the contemporary hook-up culture. The film may be fruitfully read from that perspective, and Mitchell certainly does much to misdirect viewers. For example, Paul’s (Keir Gilchrist) immediate response to Jay’s (Maika Monroe) assault is to ask, “did she catch anything?” and the director skillfully uses sound design and camera work to convey an unmistakable atmosphere of dread surrounding each sexual encounter—in the car, the hospital room, and on the lake. However, reading It Follows as a horror film that is only about sexual anxiety overlooks the many cues revealing the film’s more sophisticated existential and social content. Sex as the means of the curse’s passage is simply a narrative device, a mere vehicle for the film’s central substance. Mitchell offers the attentive viewer a key to understanding the film’s overriding metaphor through two Fyodor Dostoyevsky quotations that bookend the picture.
Early in the film, viewers learn that Yara (Olivia Luccardi) is reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and on two occasions she reads passages from the novel to her friends. The most important of these moments occurs in the film’s penultimate scene, set in Yara’s hospital room. She reads,
When there is torture, there is pain and wounds. Physical agony and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering so that one is tormented by the wounds until the moment of death. And the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, and now at this very instant, your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person. And that this is certain, the worst thing is that it is certain.
Scenes of violence and “physical agony” distract the viewer from the “mental suffering” that is the film’s ultimate concern. That is, the film’s monstrous being is the embodiment of human mortality, and the plight of its characters is a metaphor for the anxiety we feel when faced with the reality of our impending doom, the dreadful sense that the moment of one’s demise draws ever nearer, a sense that it—our death—follows, oppressing us with terror. Hence, It Follows is a fable of existential anxiety. The monster and curse are figurations of fate and mortal finitude, of the inexorability of that impending moment which bears down upon us, causing us to be consumed with horror, dread, and fear. The film is not about the dangers of casual sex, [End Page 202] but about the “mental suffering” caused by the knowledge “that within an hour, then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, and now at this very instant, your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person.” As Yara recounts, “the worst thing is that it is certain.” Our mortality evokes fear not because it is hurtling towards us with great rapidity; rather, it is the certainty of death that produces horror, the feeling that the end relentlessly draws ever closer. As Martin Heidegger put it, death is the most “certain possibility.” Such is the case with Mitchell’s entity; it terrifies not because it hastens towards its victims, but because, despite being “very slow,” it is unstoppable.
Moreover, Mitchell extends his commentary on the individual dread of impending death to encompass social mortality and the demise of a midwestern community. Mitchell uses two occasions in which characters are traveling—when driving around looking for Hugh (Jeff Weary) and when going to a public pool—to present montages of suburban decay. Like a long funerary procession of abandoned...