When I was a teenager, I read Stephen King’s hugely enjoyable non-fiction work Danse Macabre. To my young mind, it was a great manifesto for the horror genre, and it taught me how the genre really works. Horror, says King, is very conservative. The naughty guys (and gals) die, and the good, obedient ones live. Deviate, even slightly, from a traditional way of life, and you’re bound to be hacked to death by a deranged killer (or his equally nutty mother).
King wrote: “… the horror story … is really as conservative as an Illinois Republican in a three-piece pinstriped suit.” He believed that underneath all the horrific elements lies “a moral code so strong, it would make a Puritan smile.”
I grew up in the 80s, and saw my fair share of those horror films where young people have sex and then are dead in the next instant. The effect is to titillate you, and then whack you over the head with a huge dollop of terror. This hormonally potent stew stirred with a spatula-ful of fear was a strange, powerful mix for a young mind. It was also potent enough for the Right Wing to take offence at the perceived immorality and decadent amount of sex and violence in horror films, while people like King argue that the horror genre is really more prudish than we think.
The combination of sex and death is such an inspiring formula in horror that its overuse has inevitably turned into self-parody, most notably deliberately self-deprecating in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). Sex and death in horror may seem like an American thing – if you compare European horror of the 70s and 80s with its American counterpart, the former was conservatism more angled towards religious guilt. But think about it. While we remember mostly John Carpenter’s seminal “virgin vs killer” movie, Halloween (1978), and the ultimate fuck-and-then-die midnight flick Friday the 13th (1980), remember also that the psychosexual horror of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla was first published in 1871, a good 26 years before Bram Stoker’s seductive Dracula made an appearance.
Generational fears and anxieties have always provided the undercurrents for horror stories. The fear of blood diseases is largely the subtext of many horror stories, especially vampire lore. Sex and death relate mainly to body horror that really provides the top layer which, when skimmed off, reveals a more nebulous terror driven by the subconscious – the guilt or anxiety that follows pre-marital or unprotected sex.
I may ruffle some feathers and inspire some groans by bringing up Catholic intellectual E. Michael Jones’s Christian-tinged views on the horror genre in his book Monsters from the Id. But it’s worthwhile to note how Jones points to the fact that it is our guilty conscience at work when we react to horror stories. Even putting aside Jones’s conservatively religious angle to the philosophy, “guilty conscience” can still have other sources.
In the case of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014), it is very clearly, and more than ever in the history of the genre, the subconscious at work. In terms of style and mechanics, It Follows takes its cue from the aforementioned horror films of the 80s, and is mostly inspired by Carpenter. But that’s as far as it goes with its 80s homage. From thereon, it deviates from, and reworks, the sex-and-death element to turn it into quite something else, removing it far away from the dangers of self-parody.
In the era in which I grew up, the idea that when you sexually desecrate your body, you open it up to all kinds of bodily harm, worked metaphorically or subtextually beneath the surface of the psyche. But what Mitchell has done is take it all out of just a metaphorical context to turn it into the very device that drives the story. Now, it’s not just about having sex in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting caught by a masked killer.
In It Follows, it’s a sexually-transmitted entity that is passed from one person to another, and follows the person to whom it is passed. It can take the form of a complete stranger or someone the infected person knows, and its ultimate goal is to kill the infected. Unless she or he has sex with another person and passes it on. It’s horror for the digital age where things go viral. Its grandmother is Sadako, the viral ghost from Ringu.
Mitchell wears his Carpenter influences clearly and shamelessly on his sleeves. From its suburbia setting to its unsettling, dusky atmosphere and the oft-overbearing synth score, It Follows itself follows a known template, but cleverly updates it to suit the fears and anxieties of its generation. And for a generation that is often described as social-minded but overly self-assured and self-absorbed, and overindulged, the idea of being tailed by a horror that no one else can see and which you cannot capture on your phone camera and show to others on Instagram or Facebook, must be truly terrifying.
In setting the story in a world that is almost devoid of grownups, it almost seems like the film is saying something about the lack of parental supervision, which actually goes against the very perception that this generation live too regimented and scheduled lives. Therefore, it could be a teen fantasy of independence, or a yearning to take matters into their own hands, a sort of dream rebellion.
But closer to the film’s theme perhaps, is that when indulging in something as dangerous as sex without real emotional ties, the consequences are to be suffered alone. In my time as a teen decades ago, parents still worried about how to shield their children from sex. In this millennium, it would seem that parents have all but given up on that fruitless pursuit that is a fallacy in this digital, borderless world where there really is no way to shelter your children from anything. You equip them and let them out to roam.
And consequences are everything in the world of the film. When Jay is infected by her boyfriend, and the curse begins to follow her, her world literally disintegrates, from an idealistic suburban dreamworld of innocence and romance into a dark, dank, almost industrial world of dilapidated homes and abandoned buildings. It is, again, the prospect of suffering alone that is the strongest element of fear in this film, more than the frightening apparitions that follow the protagonist, even as Jay is helped by her friends and a boy from her childhood, obviously smitten with her, offers to take the curse off her. And the fact that the entity almost always takes the form of an adult in this almost adult-less setting, I feel, underscores succinctly this generation’s trepidations of always being watched over by helicopter parents.
And this brings us back to horror as the result of our guilty conscience. More than a metaphor for sexually-transmitted diseases, for AIDS, or anything else physical with which most other critics and reviewers have equated this film’s viral curse, the central conceit here has more to do with guilt than anything else, with always being watched and followed.
What makes the film even more of a signpost for this generation’s idea of horror, is the wonderfully conceived ending. No spoilers here, but Mitchell’s open-ended (and much debated) denouement asks the question: who really sacrificed for whom? You can choose to look at the ending as a super-conservative throwback to old values, or as the perfect statement on what today’s youth need.
Gen Y researcher Jean Twenge found that millennials are “more interested in extrinsic life goals and less concerned for others and civic engagement.” With this in mind, It Follows comes across as a sort of cautionary tale for millennials to reach out and look beyond themselves.
And that is why I think Mitchell has successfully tapped into the fears of this generation, and made the perfect horror movie for the new millennium.