It Follows (2014)

It Follows: Sexuality In The Horror Genre

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

Anyone that has seen a film in the modern-day Horror genre has encountered its distinguishable conventions separating it from other genres. Some being the explicit violence, sex, dead teenagers, and the prevalence of nudity, but most importantly, the rule of the virgin character that always lives. The rule has become knowledge for audiences of horror films as it provides some certainty within the uncertain. Meaning, we may not know who will die or survive just yet, but when the rule presents itself, we are comforted with our previous insights into the horror film’s emblematic conventions.

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In this way, the film It Follows, directed by David Robert Mitchell, presents a unique rendition of a distinct convention found in most modern-day horror films: sex equals death. The protagonist is plagued by her sexual exploits, as are the secondary characters. However, what is different about Mitchell’s film is how he plays with the convention to create an eccentric perspective on sexuality within the horror genre. With knowing that, by analyzing the characteristics of the classic and postmodern horror paradigms from the scholarly articles: “Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film” by Isabel Pinedo and “Debating Black Swan: Gender and Horror” by Mark Fisher. Along with an analysis of two scenes from It Follows, we can understand how sexuality functions within it that subconsciously borrows elements from previous horror films and how it does so in its own way to create a new take on sexuality.

A New Kind of Horror Villain

BBC Three - It Follows

As follows, what the film does instead of using the theme of sexuality as a standard element within the horror genre, It follows allows it a more significant role by making sexuality the predominate plot device. Everything in the film revolves around sexuality, the effects, and the causes—they move the story forward. The characters engage in sex that, in effect, cause the unknown supernatural force to follow and attempt to kill them. Instead of the danger being a sadistic person or an abstract creature of some sort, the monsters treated as the equivalent of a sexually transmitted disease. Mitchell has devised a monster that operates at the core of sexuality, that being the act of sex, and making it an essential element of the film and not just a familiar trope of the genre.

Accordingly, the scene that will be discussed first in conjunction with the scholarly sources is when the protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe) is on a date with a boy and the events that follow right after. It is an important scene that will help convey an understanding of how sexuality will function in the rest of the film. Just like that, we are pulled into a mysterious and sensual atmosphere that seems to overtake the innocence we should feel as we watch them nervously interact with one another.

We know there is danger, but it is uncanny and unforeseen. As the scene proceeds, we learn the truth of the danger that is to come to Jay and her life. Nevertheless, the way Mitchell presents us with what the danger is and what it now means for Jay demonstrates the difference in approach from the classic horror films that distinguish its novel take on sexuality within the genre. 

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Therefore, Mitchell creates a nontraditional image of the villain. It is the most recognizable of differences and what allows the film to convey sexuality in a surprising way, but how Mitchell handles the scene is where the distinction truly lies. Jay is seen tied up and almost entirely exposed as she is in a chair with only her bra and underwear on in an unknown space. It is a carnal and vulnerable scene that can only make the audience wonder if she is, sadly, going to be taken advantage of in a sexual way.

The image also makes the viewer anxious about what is to become of the scene. If not that, will she be tortured—killed by the boy? Will she become a prisoner? Are there others who did this to her? We do not know. So, presented is a familiar scenario found in many horror films, classic and postmodern, yet instead creates a twist to the genre and the narrative. 

Power In The Ambiguous Narrative

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The scene ends up being a twist within a twist. In a sense, Jay is saved in the viewer’s eyes: no harm is done to her, and as we thought, and she was informed of what was to come. On the contrary, when we learn the whole truth, we see that she was still deceived and will potentially be killed as the boy knew what could ensue if they had sex. However, while the scene and how Mitchell approached it was refreshingly new in the modern horror genre, it still had paradigms of the classic horror films. These being, how the scene relied on an idea of the “act of telling” as presented in the scholarly article by Pinedo, explained as: 

“The postmodern paradigm is characterized by the forceful importance of what Philip Brophy calls the “act of showing” the spectacle of the ruined body (8). In contrast, the classical paradigm focuses on the more circumspect “act of telling.”This difference in the approach to violence is one of the mutilated body, the creative death, necessitates its high level of explicit violence and privileging of the act of showing.” (Pinedo, 6) 

Consequently, the scene is an example of what we classify as a classical approach in that it does not play on the spectacle aspect found in many horror films to convey a message. Contrastingly, the scene focuses on informing the viewer through the communication of body language and the dialogue used. In turn, this approach adds to the creativity of how sexuality is handled within the scene by resisting the standard conventions of the postmodern. 

It Follows & The Constructs of Female & Male Sexuality

It Follows | screengrabsaz

Pinedo’s quote also brings the discussion to how the scene still takes elements from the postmodern films that it usually would be categorized under, though it approaches them in a slightly different way. The most apparent after the scene closes is how it blurred the boundaries between good and evil, the normal and the abnormal constructing an ambiguous narrative. Nothing is what it seems to be; what we thought would happen to Jay in the traditional sense of horror films has become skewed to tell the story but in an unusual way.

The scene also violates conventional cinematic devices and codes. These include how the focus and lighting were used to create an ominous scene where there was not any danger in the usual sense, this being violence and, ultimately, death. Still, when analyzing this scene on the bases of sexuality and how past horror films have dealt with the theme, what is almost always a part of the horror genre past and present is the position of the woman and her association with sensuality more so than with the male characters. It has an interesting contrast with the construction Pinedo sites in her argument: 

“Postmodern horror compels its heroes, many of whom are women, both to exercise instrumental rationality and to rely on intuition. As such, postmodern horror defies the Cartesian construction of reason that reduces it to instrumental rationality and pits it against emotion and intuition. According to the Cartesian construction of reason, rationality is masculine, associated with mastery, and requires the domestication of irrationality, which is feminine and associated with the bodily disorder (Di Stefano 68). This limited conception of reason disparages the feminine.” (Pinedo, 8) 

it-follows-jay-and-paul-672×372 | Virtual Borderland

As a result, this brings an interesting perspective of how It Follows operates in the constructs of sexuality between the male and female characters. With the protagonist being a female, the film subconsciously develops and matures the female point of view and a more tangible idea of how they function within the themes. Yet, the male perspective between the few male characters in the film is somewhat stunted and simplified.

Despite the male characters not being as developed in some aspects, both seem to operate at equal levels of interchangeable attitudes to their situation, which is not often seen in classic or postmodern films. Where the protagonist and the supporting characters are clearly divided and distinguishable, It Follows gives its audience equally accountable characters that aid in bringing a more relatable and engaging story. 

The Female Point of View In Modern Horror

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Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010)

Going back to the scene with Jay and the boy, the female and male dynamic conveyed through sensuality brings new perspectives when correlated to the article by Fisher that discusses horror in the film Black Swan. It specifically speaks of the relationship between the protagonist, a dancer, and her relationship with her instructor. In both films, the female’s point of view is explored and in Black Swan, quite vividly, to express what might seem to be a different sensuality depicted.

But, when explored, many similarities and fundamental variations are found. Both female leads are pressured and encouraged by a male character to engage in or become more sexual, with the males ultimately becoming their tragedies. The message of sexuality found in most horror genres ends in a negative consequence, commonly suffered by the female character. 

Though Jay does not die, she has death follow her for the rest of her life until she one day is not so lucky. All this has happened because she has indulged and acted upon her sexuality. Hence, Fisher’s article addresses the trope of sexuality in the horror genre as a construct that narratively functions through the motivation of the male desire. 

“One looks in vain for any hint in Black Swan of what would make it truly Irigarayan—an alternative construction, or even a resistance to, the version of femininity in which Nina is trapped. Instead she first becomes psychotic and then becomes dead. All she achieves, if this is anything, is the perfection of an object produced by the necrophiliac desire at the heart of the male imaginary—the desire expressed so lucidly by Edgar Allan Poe when he said that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetic topic in the world.” “let go and unleash her passion.”

But rather than representing the specificity of Nina’s desire, these scenes function completely within the terms of male fantasy. Even in her own fantasies, Nina reproduces the standard iconography of soft porn; the lesbian scene in particular is replete with porn clichés. It functions entirely for the pleasure of the heterosexual male spectator. It absolutely precludes any other kind of desire.” (Fisher, 3-4) 

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Lily (Mila Kunis) in Black Swan’s lesbian scene.

Here we are presented within this quote how the male desire and fantasy primarily influence sexuality in a postmodern horror film, which is easily seen with other movies in the genre. After all, unconventionally, It Follows does not depict sexuality entirely in the same way as Black Swan but that when compared to the quote forces new perspectives and interpretation of sexuality in horror.

A perfect example is most notably in the scene where Jay’s classmate has sex with her to rid her of the curse and is eventually attacked by his mother in one of the most thought-provoking and peculiar scenes of the entire film. We notice that the attacks displayed in the film are explicitly violent, as we saw in the very beginning where the girl’s body is contorted disturbingly. 

Contrastingly, when the mother attacks her son, the scene is extremely sexualized and incestuous. She walks up to the door, visibly under the curse, but has her breast exposed as she is naked under her robe. Mitchell, deciding to depict the attack in this manner, creates a strange portrayal of sexuality. In relation to how the attack is compared to the other shown and the nature of the people who have the curse inside them. Their body language is revealed as very stiff and determined to kill.

Though, this assault between the mother and son chose to sexualize the attack and, surprisingly, the only one that involved family. As a result, this brings up the question of why Mitchell decided to render the one other major confrontation in the film to be a controversial and much more disturbing one. Pinedo makes a relatable point of the horror genre that is visible within this particular scene:  

“Much as the horror film is an exercise in terror, it is simultaneously an exercise in mastery, in which controlled loss substitutes for loss of control. It allows us to give free rein to culturally repressed feelings, such as terror and rage.” (Pinedo, 11) 

Since this scene and what Pinedo wrote of the horror film describes an intriguing insight into how horror and films, in general, have created a platform for artist to depict themes of life, and in this case sexuality that may be representative of our repressed feelings and thoughts about our own individual experiences. 

Blurring The Boundaries of Good, Evil & Cinematic Codes Within Horror

Mongrel Media

To conclude, the two scenes served to create a unique perspective on sexuality within the horror genre by defying the conventions and portraying the theme boldly from a new light. Sexuality in horror is customarily thought of as only sexualizing the woman and abiding by the male gaze and desires. Instead, It Follows proves to reconstruct the story and transform the trope into something more menacing and unusual that distinguishes it from the others.

As was discussed, the film was able to use the paradigms of the classics and its contemporary counterparts, the postmodern, to add to the conventions and familiar ideas found within the horror genre. It used techniques such as blurring the boundaries of good and evil as the curse can take the form of anyone—not discriminatory of the kind of person it takes over and creating the atmosphere of nothing is what it seems.

Lastly, blurring the boundaries of cinematic codes to distort the viewer’s perception and, therefore, the mood the image presents itself. Additionally, and conclusively, the article addressing sexuality in Black Swan helped to further the analysis of how It Follows has developed new insights of sexuality when looking at how the male and female characters influence and interact with one another in the narrative, providing further understanding of how the conventions can be amplified in complexity. 

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