I’ve watched horror movies and read scary stories since I was a child. Although a few scared me, I didn’t start having nightmares about “movie monsters” until I saw the film It Follows. So what made this movie enter my dreams when others didn’t?
[Note: Spoilers for the film It Follows.]
It Follows has a fascinating central conceit. Once the “monster” has targeted you, it slowly but relentlessly follows you. It can look like anyone, so everyone is a threat. The only clue that you’re looking at your killer and not your relative is that only the “cursed” can see it. Even this has its drawbacks. You can surround yourself with friends, but they’re no help because they can’t see the threat sneaking up behind you until it’s attacking you.
Since I watched it, I have had repeated dreams in which I am looking around for this very monster, which I know is after me. So I went looking for a reason why this movie took over my unconscious brain.
I didn’t find very much. Encouragingly, people who are troubled by nightmares can rehearse imagery associated with bad dreams, consciously turning a nightmare into something neutral or even comforting. A dark, scary road can turn into a beautiful star-lit night. A looming figure can turn into a caring parent. This sort of therapy works well for people troubled by nightmares after traumatic events, but it doesn’t really apply to my situation. It Follows is scary, but it didn’t give me PTSD.
There isn’t much research that deals with movies causing nightmares. Although most popular work on nightmares does mention scary movies and books, medical sites use the softest language possible, only stating that scary media “can be associated” with nightmares.
One researcher, Professor Michael Schredl of the University of Heidelberg, will confirm that movies influence our nightmares. According to Dr. Schredl, some nightmare content, like falling or finding yourself naked in public, is timeless. Other nightmares figure timeless threats, but the content changes slightly as times change. Although children have always dreamed of scary figures coming after them, in the past the figures were witches and bogeymen, which the children heard about in stories. Today it’s villains they see in movies. The substance of the dream is the same, but the shape of the figure changes.
If I look at my nightmare in terms of updated content, dreaming about It Follows makes sense. My bad dreams have never been of the maniac-chasing-you-with-a-knife sort. They are more likely to be more anxiety dreams — dreams during which I am trying to close 50 doors, none of which will stay locked, or dreams during which I am trying to keep multiple vats of boiling water from tipping over, even though the floor is tilting under me. As Cheryl Eddy noted in her review of the movie, “In every scene, we anticipate the appearance of the next follower, our eyes darting into crowds, seeking any figure that might be moving, sharklike, in a straight line directly toward Jay. We’re nervously eyeballing that the open doorway, waiting for whatever is lumbering down the hallway to appear.”
It’s a movie that makes you anxious by giving you too much input and demanding you keep your eye on everything to avert the disaster you know is coming no matter what. In other words, it’s an anxiety dream. Which means, unlike a film about Freddy Krueger appearing as a snake and eating a teenager whole, or a film about how a bunch of creepy masked intruders try to murder a farm family, this film supplies content for the nightmares I’d already been having. It updated the content for my dreams, just like modern monster movies updated the content of children’s dreams. Neat!