It Follows is rightly credited as being one of the scariest horror movies in recent years. It’s also frequently described as a film about an STD that turns supernatural. And I completely disagree with that description.
Warning: Spoilers for the entire movie.
Most people, including Cheryl Eddy, who did the fantastic review of It Follows on this site, think that it’s a movie about an STD. I don’t agree, but it’s easy to see why people think that.
Jay, the main character, is a young woman of 19, and when we meet her she’s whiling away the summer before she goes to college. She has someone special who can help occupy her time. His name is Hugh, and he’s a very slightly older guy who seems both cool and just a touch mysterious. One night, Jay drives out into the night with him in his classic car, climbs in the back seat, and has sex. She gets out one dreamy monologue before he chloroforms her.
When she comes to, Hugh informs her that a thing is going to come after her. It’s only visible to its victims, but it can do damage to anyone. It will slowly follow her until it reaches her and kills her. The only way to get rid of it temporarily is to pass it along to someone else through sex. Hugh isn’t being a nice guy by telling her all of this. If it gets her, it comes back after him, and then to it comes after the person who gave it to him. Jay may put herself out of immediate danger, but there’s never going to be another moment when she isn’t scanning the horizon for a figure walking towards her.
Throughout the film, Jay’s friend Yara is reading The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It provides some good quotes, but a better piece of literature to sum up It Follows is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies. Early on in the film, Jay and Hugh play a game in which one of them scans the crowd and decides which person they would trade places with, and the other one guesses which person they chose. Hugh chooses a little boy because, “He has his whole life ahead of him.” What Hugh wants most is to be a kid again. Later, in her monologue, Jay reveals who she’s always wanted to be. She says she “had this image of herself” herself driving with some “cute guy,” not going anywhere, just “having some sort of freedom.” She’s become her little-girl fantasy of a sophisticated adult. And, she finishes, “Now we’re old enough, where the hell do we go?” There’s only one place to go, Jay. You’ve achieved adulthood, and now you can die.
The movie’s symbolism underscores that impending mortality at every step. The single, relentlessly-advancing figure is deathly enough. But if we had any doubts about the fact that the entire movie is about realizing your own mortality, the first time Jay independently sees the monster should dispel them. Hugh showed her the monster briefly, in order to convince her that it was real, before driving her away from it. He warns her that it can and will take any form that allows it to get close to her. The first time she sees it on her own is her first day of college. Looking out the window, she sees someone coming towards her. What form did this fiendishly-clever monster take to put Jay at ease so it can get close to her? The figure of an old woman, hobbling towards Jay while wearing what looks like a hospital nightgown. Guess what you’re going to be when you grow up, college-girl! This exact lady.
Of course, sexual transmission is part of the plot of the story—but it’s a surprisingly small part of the story. We learn casually that Hugh wasn’t Jay’s first lover, so this isn’t a eye-rolling “loss of innocence” story. Sex is more of a tool than an act. Even when characters are having sex, it’s rarely actually about sex.
What it is about is growing up and facing up the situation. That’s how characters get along in this movie—even if they don’t always do it ethically. When Hugh was seducing Jay, he lived on his own (in a house loaded with jury-rigged alarms). When he gets rid of his monster problem, he moves out of that house . . . and back in with his mommy. The movie’s first scene, which gives us the traditional horror-movie “first kill,” shows us a victim of the monster who, when she can’t deal with the situation anymore, curls up in a fetal position, calls her parents, and tells them she loves them in a little-girl voice as she lets the monster take her. Even Jay, at first, flees by jumping on children’s bikes and pedaling to playgrounds. Finally, when she realizes there’s no shaking this thing, she starts strategizing. Eventually her friends hatch a plan to fight the monster, and follow through on that plan.
But that’s not the end. In the final scene, Jay and her friend Paul, who has been pining over her for the entire movie, are shown walking down the street holding hands. It’s implied that they’re in a steady relationship and out of danger. If the movie were about an STD, that would make sense. Jay got her problem taken care of, she’s now in a relationship with one boy who she can trust.
Then we see a figure following them down the street. The movie isn’t about an STD, because you don’t need an STD to die. You’re just going to, no matter what. As Yara reads in the penultimate scene:
“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 that you will no longer be person—and that this is certain. The worst thing is that it is certain.”