Reely understanding It Follows

Photos courtesy RADiUS-TWC

With It Follows’ DVD release last week, it’s time to go into a little more depth on the film’s titular creature and what it might mean.

It Follows is an infuriating film to analyze because it’s all supposedly based on writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s nightmares, simply a cool movie idea that he thought up and not necessarily his treatise on the problem with journalism in the age of Twitter, or whatever. He’s not Kubrick. There’s not an endless pool of meaning hidden in every shot.

Or maybe there is and he’s been lying about there not being. That’d be a very Kubrick thing to do.

The point is, no matter how many patterns a viewer identifies, there’s not necessarily a deeper thing to be understood here. There is no silver bullet for this movie. There is no grand explanation. But because the creature is so easily spotted from a distance, so easy to outrun and so easy to pass on that it’s a hard thing to be scared of if viewers must take it at face value, the only way to be afraid of this movie — and it is a deeply terrifying movie — is if the creature represents something deeper, if there is a grand explanation.

So, in an effort to better understand the film, we’ll try to go through some common interpretations and their supporting details. Heavy, detailed spoilers below.

***

The creature represents a sexually transmitted infection

This is the simplest interpretation, and also the laziest and easiest to debunk. Simply, STIs don’t go away when they get passed on to someone else, and they don’t encourage the infected to pass them along. The movie’s premise just doesn’t work with this interpretation.

That said, when Jay Height (Maika Monroe) passes the creature on two or three times over the course of the movie, she retains the “symptoms” each time — she stays scared. After passing it to Greg Hannigan (Daniel Zovatto), she is more on the lookout than he is, and even ends up trying to warn him before he is killed. After passing it on to one of the boys in the middle of a lake toward the end of the film, she returns home and promptly barricades her door, saying, “It will come eventually.” This suggests that Height is never truly free of her curse, and that spreading it, like spreading an STI, doesn’t make it any better.

The creature represents fear of sex and/or fear of death

These are a little more plausible.

It Follows is pretty clearly going off of the slasher movies from the late ’70s and ’80s, and a big theme of those movies was this puritanical view on sex. Teens were frequently filleted after fornicating, and the Final Girl was almost always a virgin who’d stayed away from drugs. But the real classics of this set of films — A Nightmare on Elm Street springs to mind — weren’t made to convince teens that sex was bad, but rather to play on fears that are already inherent in growing up and discovering one’s sexuality. It’s what made the films initially so effective — the subtext wasn’t about an abstinence only sex-ed ministry, it was about the terrors of going through puberty and being intimate for the first time, largely without adult assistance.

The idea that the creature represents the fear of sex in much the same way Freddy Kruger does isn’t necessarily contradicted, though it also doesn’t get a lot of support.

There are also critics who say that the creature’s lumbering, unerring pursuit represents death, and the movie is about teenagers who suppose themselves immortal discovering that they aren’t, with the main character seeing death itself follow her. Like the interpretation that the creature represents a fear of sex, it’s not wrong, but there’s really nothing to point to saying that it’s right.

These are the most basic interpretations, and if they help you enjoy the movie more there’s nothing wrong with them, but it gets a lot more interesting than that.

The creature represents Height’s lost innocence

Height definitely has a fall from grace over the course of the film, in a puritanical sense. She has at least four sex partners, one of whom she seems to be intentionally murdering for a brief respite from the creature. While Hugh (Jake Weary) wasn’t her first lover, she clearly sees sex as a positive thing, and talks at length about her childhood fantasies about dating after being with Hugh. However, she begins to see it as a necessary evil as the movie wears on, and after her trauma, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine her never wanting to have sex again. Taking a person’s sexuality away, turning it into a bad memory or something they have no agency over, is one of the key psychological scars left by rape and molestation.

She also learns to shoot, and is forced to shoot the creature when it looks like Yara (Olivia Luccardi) during her fourth encounter with it.

On the creature’s part, with one distinct exception, it is always wearing white, traditionally the color of innocence. Not the most profound detail in the world, but it is consistent.

The creature represents the pain of a broken home

In the final fight against the creature at an abandoned pool in downtown Detroit, Kelly Height (Lili Sepe) asks Jay Height what she sees, and Height refuses to say, implying that the creature has taken another unspeakable visage, but in two blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots, one a closeup of the creature’s face at the pool and another of the Height family portrait, it is revealed that the creature is Height’s father in this scene. Absentee parents are a major theme in It Follows, but the three homes viewers enter — Height’s, Hannigan’s and Hugh’s — each have a mother that is at least cast. Height’s father is even more conspicuously absent than is normal for this movie.

The father never appears on screen, but he is still known to Jay and Kelly Height. Apparently, he is so horrible that his image alone is something one sister wouldn’t tell another about, but he is still in family portraits. He is not the only parent the creature takes the form of, either — when Hannigan is killed, the creature has taken the form of his half-naked mother. Additionally, during Height’s first encounter, when Hugh has chained her to a wheelchair, the creature appears as a non-descript naked woman. We later find out that this is Hugh’s mother. This means that, in the final encounter for all three people who bear the curse in the film, the creature has taken the form of their opposite-sex parent.

Clearly, there is something going on with parental relationships in this movie. One theory is that the creature represents the pain of a broken home. Both Hannigan and Hugh’s mothers seem to be single, as does Height’s. However, since her father still appears in family portraits, the idea that he and their mother are no longer on good terms seems unlikely, though that shot could be simply to inform the audience what he looks like.

A rather wild extension of this theory is that Height’s father had an affair with Paul’s (Keir Gilchrist) mother, and Yara is the child of that union. This would explain why they are always hanging around, if they are, in fact, siblings. This is reinforced by Yara and Paul’s apparent connection to the creature.

Yara is the creature

Yara’s defining characteristic is her e-reader, on which she reads Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot throughout the film. There are two major quotes she lifts from the book — one, while she, Paul and Kelly Height play Old Maid just before Jay Height is dropped off after being infected:

I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction — if a house is falling upon you, for instance — one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes and wait, come what may.

And then one from her hospital bed, after she’s been shot in the climactic sequence, in which the creature apparently died:

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 only by the wounds until the moment of death. But the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within 10 minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant, your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person. And that it is certain, the worst thing is that it is certain.

These quotes mark the entrance and exit of the creature from Height’s life, the first delivered just before Height is dumped onto her lawn and the second just after the climax. She seems the most concerned about and the most helpful toward the creature of the group.

During the third encounter, it is Yara that lets the creature into Height’s room in the form of a gigantic man with his eyes gouged out. After seeing the creature downstairs, Height rushes up to her room and quickly lets in Paul and Kelly Height, but soon, Yara yanks incessantly on the doorknob, the same way the creature will yank on Hannigan’s front doorknob later. When asked to identify herself, she waits for a long time, then simply says, “It’s me,” despite Height and the audience both thinking the creature is the one knocking. After they open the door to let her in, the creature immediately begins walking through the dark hall behind her, and her body is framed by its torso as if she is inside it.

Just before the fourth encounter, Yara is playing in the lake and instructs the group to get into the water just before the creature, disguised as her, attacks, as if she knew it were going to strike. This is also a reveal of sorts — the creature can be seen walking toward Height, and the rest of her friends are in the shot, but Yara isn’t seen or heard until she calls to them. Though it is obviously the creature, it is still possible that it is Yara until she is revealed to be in the water.

In the climactic scene, in which the plan is to draw the creature into the pool and electrocute it with appliances they brought from home, the creature outsmarts our heroes by throwing the appliances at Height. For a moment, it seems as though Height is herself doomed to electrocution, but the appliances aren’t strong enough to fry the entire pool. Kelly Height yells, “It didn’t work!” in exasperation, but Yara says quietly, “I didn’t work,” as if surprised and relieved by the knowledge.

Yara is the only character shot in the film. The creature is shot when it is posing as Yara in the fourth encounter, and Paul accidentally shoots Yara when he is trying to shoot the creature during the pool scene.

After the pool scene, when the creature is apparently stopped, Yara is hospitalized, also incapable of walking, which obviously is how the creature spends most of its time.

Paul is the creature, and it represents societal pressure on young women to put out

Paul is actually onscreen before Height. In Height’s introductory sequence, which takes place directly after It Follows’ heralded opening sequence that ends with a girl dead, Height enters her pool after a long panning shot across her house. It starts in the gutter, then pans across a figure later introduced as Paul, who is knocking incessantly at her door in the manner the creature will knock at Hannigan’s door later, and then to the backyard, where the music builds until she enters the pool. This shot indicates that Height was in danger well before she was ever cursed, and that danger is Paul.

Paul’s defining characteristic is his being lovestruck with Height, in a particularly whiny and pathetic manner. His long looks after her are a motif in the film, and the plot point comes to a head when he dejectedly asks Height why she passed the creature on to Hannigan instead of him — this question coming after Hannigan had been killed — and offering to help her pass it on again, if you know what I mean.

The creature puts immediate pressure on Height to have sex and pass it along — Hugh goes so far as to note that it should be easier for her to get laid, as a young woman — but that pressure is also applied by Paul. He doesn’t have the visual connection to the creature that Yara does, but they do have common ground here.

The creature isn’t real and Height was violently raped by Hugh, and the creature is her fantastic attempt to rationalize the attack

There is a lot about the sex scene between Height and Hugh that suggests it wasn’t really consensual. The shot in which they’re actually doing the deed, they’re both enjoying themselves, but the events around it seem to imply otherwise.

After having sex, Hugh chloroforms Height and chains her to a wheelchair. This is ostensibly to force her to realize that he isn’t making it up and there is, in fact, a creature following her. He then drives her home and unceremoniously dumps her on her front lawn, wearing only her underwear. The sexual assault motifs are strong and overt in these sequences — Hugh chains Height up to force her to experience something she won’t like and could otherwise deny. Even outside the context of this interpretation, he is raping her in this scene, forcing the presence of the creature on her instead of himself. There is also something to the idea that the sex could not be consensual as shown because Hugh was disingenuous about his sexual history.

Within this interpretation, he subjected Height to sexual tortures, and the creature following her is the inescapable memory of the event driving her to behavior that is consistent with someone recovering from this sort of attack. Height is constantly anxious and constantly on the run. She frequently becomes suddenly terrified of wherever she is and must get away because the creature is nearby. She alternately refuses to discuss the cause of her anxiety and forces others to accept it. Eventually, she begins to reclaim her sexuality, but even after sleeping with others and ostensibly passing the curse along, she continues to be afraid.

In Height’s third encounter with the creature, when it is in her home, the only time it wears a color other than white, it appears as a battered, partially undressed young woman with a bloodied, tear-stained face, a half-on bra, one sock and a blood red short skirt, through which she is either urinating or hemorrhaging vaginally — and even if it is urine, the skirt’s color graphically turns it into blood anyway. This encounter is shot in extreme slow motion, beginning with a seemingly eternal shot of Height, shot from the neck up, walking into the kitchen, turning and reacting to the creature. The reveal is a wide angle of the creature, but this shot is quite short. It then cuts to a close-up of the creature’s pelvis, then its feet and then, when the viewer is expecting a close-up of its face to finish the picture, the shot suddenly cuts back to Height’s face. This sequence seems to imply that it should be Height’s head on this brutalized body.

The creature isn’t real, Height was abused by her father, and Hannigan knows all about it

The obvious implication with the film’s parental relationships is that there’s some kind of sexual abuse going on, at least between Height and her father. Most viewers would consider this after the creature reveals its final form, but an important detail is that Hannigan seems to be aware of this.

On close inspection, Hannigan never really believes Height is being followed. His first scene with dialogue is right after Hugh dumps Height on her front lawn, sitting with his mother watching the commotion as the police and paramedics loudly go about their business. Her mother, whom the creature will later appear as while it literally rapes Hannigan to death, says, “That family has been through so much.” Later in a nearby park Height fled to after her third encounter with the creature, Hannigan asks, “What really happened to you?” He later takes on the curse himself and never flees from the creature, going so far as to hint that something else is going on with the line, “Something happened to her, but not what she thinks.”

The biggest thing indicating this theory is the shot-to-shot details of Hannigan’s and Height’s attacks. Their houses are across the street from one another. When the creature approaches Hannigan’s house, it pulls repeatedly on the knob of his front door. After breaking in, it knocks incessantly on his bedroom door. Then, after being let in, the creature, disguised as Hannigan’s mother, rapes him to death.

In several different shots spread across the film, a mirror image of this sequence seems to play out at Height’s house. In her introductory shot, as discussed, Paul is seen knocking incessantly at her front door the same way the creature will later knock at Hannigan’s bedroom door. During the third encounter, Yara pulls on her bedroom doorknob the way the creature pulled on Hannigan’s front doorknob. Paul hadn’t been introduced yet in his shot and Height had just run upstairs from the creature in Yara’s shot, so during both of these shots, the audience initially believes it is the creature begging entry. The logical progression of this pattern — the mirror image of Hannigan being raped by his fake mother — is that Height was raped by her real father.

Literature

This post focuses entirely on interpretations related to the creature and what it could represent, which only scratches the surface of the meanings this movie could have. There’s a further discussion to be had on symbolism relating to water, urban decay and absentee parents, all major themes of the film. A brief list of links that will aid in digesting and interpreting this elephant of a movie:

Themes of death in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot

T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The Atlantic’s musings on the meaning of the creature and its lack of definition

The Week’s interpretation of it as a coming-of-age movie

Slate’s discussion of the film’s seemingly regressive premise

Slate’s further discussion of how the film uses its background 

i09’s discussion of how the film uses its background

Shocktillyoudrop.com’s review, which further focuses on the film’s background

Vox’s article on how the concept of love interacts with the film’s premise

Huffington Post’s list of references in the film

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3 Responses to Reely understanding It Follows

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