Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sexual Anxieties and Horror: It Follows

Last week, I started a series of three posts about horror films and sexuality. The first week discussed "Teeth" and the complications of sexual purity, education, and consent. This week addresses "It Follows," a 2015 film with a unique and exciting "monster." I will first discuss the film as an innovative step forward in the horror genre. Then, I will praise the film's subtle but profound incorporation of female sexual empowerment. All three of these posts will contain detailed plot information and reflection, so those who do not want to be "spoiled" should skip these posts.

Movie poster retrieved from this site.
It Follows was simultaneously praised as an instant classic and creative horror endeavor. The plot is simple, yet immediately and strikingly unnerving. The film's "monster" is a shape-shifting, unidentified creature that slowly but adamantly walks directly towards its prey. Once caught, the person is ripped to shreds. The creature has no shape of its own; the monster is truly hidden in plain sight, hiding with the appearance of strangers, friends, or family. This set-up has the unique ability to invoke fear in the audience with scenes of people walking towards the camera in the background. What is normally considered an average part of everyday life becomes a potential and immediate threat. Without seeing the film yourself, it is hard to convey the silliness one feels at being completely terrified at a young girl or old woman walking slowly towards you. That is part of the genius of the film; the banal, everyday activities become risky, dangerous, and potentially life-ending. What actions do we participate in everyday, how many people do we cross paths with, that could alter our lives indefinitely? The film also conveys intense paranoia, where anyone approaching the main characters are met with skepticism and aggression before they can be identified. Even when the characters flee the town briefly and relax on the beach, there is an ominous aura that the creature will catch up eventually; any safety is only temporary.

I will now discuss the sexual elements of the film. The "creature" follows individuals based on their sexual partners. The origins of the creature are left quite murky, but, in short, the creature follows whoever the person it was previously following has sex with. Jay, the lead female character, has sex on a date and catches "It." Her sexual partner was kind enough to explain the creature to her and warn her to pass "It" along quickly or else it will kill her. There are certainly undertones of sexual anxiety here. Any sexual partner could result in an STD or pregnancy, which is an obvious metaphor for "It" that silently follows but has the potential to kill. This metaphor breaks down, however, when one thinks of passing the creature to others so that one could be rid of it themselves. STDs are reciprocal and cannot be erased by sex with others. Indeed, this type of thinking is indicative of myths where sex with virgins can cure AIDS. Some have called It Follows as an exercise in sexual fear and anxiety, because of the potential consequences and risks one takes when engaging in sexual activity, especially casually so. Despite these potentially shaming interpretations, I see positive and productive scenes that sexually empower women. I will discuss three of them: when Jay is originally passed "It," the discussions the main characters have about destroying the creature, and the act of following and stalking.

Still from It Follows retrieved from this site.
There is a long-lasting myth that women use sex for power, money, and ulterior motives. The stereotype is that men require sex more and women less, so women can dangle sexual relief as a bargaining chip. I feel no need to explicate why these stereotypes are just that, stereotypes with little practical application. Given this assumption and other sexual myths that circulate in popular culture, I find the scene where Jay is passed the creature by Hugh a welcome inversion. Hugh, a male, is the one using Jay and sex for a non-sexual purpose - to pass the creature along. He dates Jay and acts with a motivation unrelated to the relationship and having sex. Instead, he has sex out of the need for self-preservation, out of fear, not unlike a victim of domestic assault. Instead of the female using sex maliciously or with ulterior motives, Jay enjoys her casual, sexual encounter and we feel no animosity towards her. Instead, our scorn is directed towards Hugh, however briefly, the man who has sex to save his own skin and endangers the main character's life. Sex becomes a betrayal of her consent; Jay got far more than she expected from the encounter. Unlike current arguments about abortion and birth control, we don't feel that Jay's consent to the sexual encounter makes her somehow "deserving" of this fate.

Image retrieved from this site.
After Jay convinces her friend of the danger she is in, they discuss how to kill it. Jay decides and consents to sex with a member of the group to pass the creature along to buy them more time. There is the implication that the male may be better able to protect himself, or simply that this is Jay's sexual preference. Either way, his brutal death confirms for the group that there is no safety based on one's gender. Everyone is equally susceptible to the actions of this creature. Perhaps it is time or death itself that marches towards all of us. Later in the film, Jay has sex with another male friend, who quickly has sex with a prostitute. Sex, in the film, is removed from its traditional, romantic settings. Instead, it becomes a normal part of life that may be engaged in for many reasons besides love. Although we might condemn Hugh at first for his actions, we become accustomed quickly to the idea that if sex is the way "It" operates, sex may also be the solution to defeating it. Jay and Paul have sex from a platonic, friendship type of love, concerned for Jay's safety. This sexual act blossoms into romantic love, but this was not its roots. It Follows presents an alternative view of sex. Unlike Teeth, sex is not dangerous or shameful. There are potential consequences to its engagement, but the danger of "It" is separated and distinct from the sex itself. Sex is a more normalized, everyday activity that holds no more or no less threat than other daily activities. Sex is not given the importance that is provided in Teeth and thus removes the common sex-shaming in horror films and  the "sluts die first" mentality.

Catcalling video mentioned below.

While watching It Follows, I couldn't help but be reminded of the video where a woman filmed herself walking along in New York City for a day. The simple act of walking, of being followed, is a fear that women every day fear. As someone who has been followed from a bus to a Metro being taunted by a man, and on a separate occasion been grabbed by someone approaching from behind (in addition to numerous verbal assaults), the fear and uncertainty of being followed is well communicated in the film. Everyone may not immediately recognize the potential danger in stalkers or people following, but the film illuminates this potential danger. Anyone walking behind the main characters is noticed and understood as a threat. I don't believe that everyone is a potential threat, but it is clear that everyone has the potential to be. Unexpectedly, strangers (and sometimes even friends) can become risks to one's self-hood and safety. And it may begin with a simple act of following.

Image retrieved from this site.
It Follows quickly became one of my favorite horror films. I applaud the interesting and exciting decisions made about the actions and appearance of the creature and greatly enjoyed the sexual themes throughout the film. No film is perfect, and indeed I may have changed a few elements of the film to further its cohesion and consistency, but It Follows communicated a positive, inclusive message that I hope will be furthered in future horror films. Films have the power to influence public opinion and insert educational messages in an entertaining way. The normalization of sex and the empowerment of female sexuality are productive trends in the journey towards equality and sexual freedom.

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