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It Follows: an allegory for the pandemic, and more

It Follows: an allegory for the pandemic, and more

Phil Hobbins-White   |   December 2020

“Somebody gave it to me and I passed it to you… It could look like someone you know, or it could be a stranger in a crowd”, Hugh says to Jay, after he has infected her with a deadly and mysterious virus in It Follows. But what is “It”? Is “It” a metaphor? This horror film has something in common with some of the greats of the genre – an incredibly wide-range of ways it can be understood. It Follows’ director David Robert Mitchell said that the film is set in “a mixture of universes, a world we don’t live in”[1], adding further weight to its fluidity and the possibility of multiple readings.

The film’s story features the teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) who is being followed by a deadly entity as a result of her sexual intercourse with new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), who later gets exposed as a fraud called Jeff. The mysterious entity – for ease, shall be referred to as “It” – uses a range of appearances, some of which are known to the victims, some are not. In order for Jay to survive she must pass the curse on to someone else through sexual intercourse, and hope that they also manage to survive or pass the curse on to someone else. Upon its initial release in March 2015, It Follows gathered both critical praise, as well as commercial success. The film functions successfully as entertainment – its quirky production and design, and retro-synth soundtrack help this – and it no doubt enjoyed positive word-of-mouth recommendations amongst fans. However, it is the film’s meanings which are long-lasting, ensuring that revisiting It Follows – particularly in the current climate of the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown and fear – is an interesting and fruitful exercise.

It Follows is set-up as a somewhat typical genre piece, with its settings (middle class suburbia), characters (white teenagers) and narrative structure (‘final girl’ must find a way to defeat the threat) lifted straight from a typical slasher film. It nostalgically makes reference to classics of the genre, most notably John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) through the suburban setting, retro synth score and Jay, as the resilient, final girl-style protagonist. The film also seems aware of the horror genre’s reputation for allegory, and duly obliges by allowing It to be read as a variety of contemporary societal fears, depending on the identity of the reader. The horror film’s tendency to tap into current issues is nothing new of course. This statement could apply to a variety of eras of horror, whether an early example such as the German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) which featured brainwashing and paranoia, or the early monster films released during the Great Depression. Horror films also served as allegories for atrocities committed during the war in Vietnam, as well as through the zombie films which thrived in the aftermath of 9/11. It Follows references a variety of contemporary fears, dependent on who the reader is: amongst them are sexual assault culture, sexually transmitted diseases, the mistrust of authority, and the anxieties of growing-up and losing the freedoms of youth. In 2020, we can also add the pandemic to the list of possible allegorical readings.

One of the immediate readings the reader could make is in relation to comments the film is making on sexual intercourse. On one level, sexual activity is something to be feared in the film as the threat of It is transferred sexually. However, an opposite reading suggests that sexual activity is encouraged, as that is how you stay alive. It Follows can also be read as a comment on how figures of authority cannot be trusted. It assumes the guise of Greg’s mother (who is shown inappropriately semi-naked before killing her son whilst engaging in incestuous intercourse with him), and then as Jay’s deceased father, who is the most unrelenting and threatening version. In the film’s entirety, Jay’s mother is only shown present in one scene – sprawled out on her bed, a wine glass and empty bottle pointing towards her lifestyle. “You can’t tell mom”, Jay says to her sister, “she won’t believe me”, displaying the untrusting opinion her mother usually has of her. Of all the parents shown throughout It Follows, they are predominantly positioned on the edge of the frame, and on the periphery of their children’s lives.

Is sexual intercourse feared or encouraged in It Follows?

Another reading of It Follows is that It is a metaphor for modern teenagers’ gerascophobia – a fear of growing old. Jay and her friends appear to have difficulty embracing modernity – their technology consisting of old television sets, landline telephones and black and white photographs. There is a noticeable absence of cell phones and computers, so commonly associated with young people today. Jay and her friends are shown embracing either the past or their childhoods at any opportunity – eating ice cream, sitting on the swings in the park, reminiscing about finding pornographic magazines as children, going to the state fair and having their first kisses. A gerascophobic reading of It Follows is further suggested when the group visit other Detroit neighbourhoods where they find decaying houses and deserted streets which signal the inevitable arrival of old age, and then death. The only option is to postpone old age and death, and this is achieved through sexual intercourse. Paradoxically however, the act of sexual intercourse provides yet more confirmation of the end of childhood, which Jay and her friends cherish dearly.

The decay of Detroit’s buildings could be read as the characters’ fears of growing old

These possible readings were able to be made prior to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown and social distancing. However, a pandemic-era reading offers new angles from which to view and understand It Follows. Whilst these new allegories do not claim that this horror film predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, they do suggest that the threat is an undiscriminating and incurable virus which is passed from one person to another – not unlike COVID-19. Pandemic-era readings are possible during the film’s opening sequence in which Annie Marshall runs out of her house and down the street, then returns to the house, before driving away to the beach. Throughout this entire sequence Annie is framed singularly and in long shot, the space around her serving to highlight her isolation and fear of social interaction. In a pandemic-era reading, the fear of interaction with others can be understood as both a fear of contaminating others, as well as being contaminated by others. Just like Annie’s course of action, human instinct is to distance yourself and trust no one. The themes of social distancing and isolation are reinforced even further soon after, when Jay is shown at school: the corridors and classrooms contain only a few students and are not the typical images of schools with overfilled classrooms and vibrant corridors from many films of the past. Jay sits in her classroom and has an unusual amount of space between her and the closest student, as if a widespread illness has swept that particular Detroit suburb. Yet, the distancing seemingly practiced in many scenes is not always observed by Jay, who gets close to Jeff, close enough for him to pass It to her when they have sex in his car. Jay also has her close-knit group of friends – her “support bubble” – a phrase commonly used during the months of lockdown, referring to the ability to interact with people from other specified households. However, the lack of interaction and distances between characters so commonly witnessed in It Follows seems to have some effect on Jay’s support bubble, who practice social distancing – strictly at least one metre apart, of course – when they have a gathering at the beach.

Jay and her friends practicing social distancing

It is also possible to view It Follows within the context of the pandemic through Jay’s lack of strategy about how to best combat the threat. When characters feel (or actually are) under threat, they go outside. This is true for Annie who flees her house and runs out into the street, and proceeds to run aimlessly in circles, before driving to the beach. Annie clearly has no strategy, given that she runs outside (in stilettos) only to go back into the house to retrieve her car keys and handbag. The film has many other examples of characters feeling threatened indoors, in places usually associated with safety, causing them to flee outside to escape. Jeff, for example, sees It in the cinema auditorium, causing him to abruptly ask Jay if they can leave. Jay also sees It through the classroom window, resulting in her running out of the school building. Afterwards, having sought safety at home, Jay suddenly has to escape again when It takes the appearance of a semi-naked and urinating woman in their home. The lack of safety offered by her home is suggested again moments later when Jay is attacked once more, this time in a different room when It has assumed the guise of a tall man. Following these attacks, the group favour the increased safety offered by outdoor locations such as the swings in the park, on the grass outside Jeff’s house, firing a gun at a makeshift target practice, before heading to the beach. However, it is here when the theory that outside offers safety is disproven, as It has followed the group to the beach, beginning to attack Jay and then firing Paul into the bushes. In a pandemic-era reading, parallels can be drawn between Jay’s lack of consistent strategy and those of some national governments during the pandemic crisis. One example of a lack of consistent strategy when (mis)handling the pandemic is that of the UK’s government, whose Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been regularly criticized for being confusing, contradictory and – like Jay trying to survive the threat of It – lacking a consistent strategy.[2]

Jay’s lack of a plan draws her to the playground at night

As well as the lack of strategy in Jay’s escape plan, and the noticeable distancing between characters which cause a decline in social interaction, a pandemic-era reading of It Follows also reminds the viewer of COVID-19’s omnipresence in our everyday lives for much of 2020 so far. The threat of both COVID-19 and It causes mass paranoia, with some reactions being quite irrational. Whether one is fearful of catching or spreading the virus, comments such “You might kill your Grandparent“ by Washington governor Jay Inslee[3], can only induce further anxiety and paranoia. It Follows similarly features fear and paranoia, as having sexual intercourse becomes riskier than ever, as Jay discovered after sleeping with Jeff. Occasionally the anxieties caused by It can result in irrationality, as is shown by Jeff’s sudden questioning of whether an innocent passer-by is real or not. As a result of the threat posed by It, Jay cannot attend school, go to friends’ houses or go to the beach without It also being there. It, just like COVID-19, is omnipresent. As a result – and rather morbidly – the inevitability of death is closer than ever.

[1] Charlie Lyne, “It Follows: ‘Love and sex are ways we can push death away’”, The Guardian, 21 February 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/feb/21/it-follows-teen-horror-movie (accessed 4 September 2020)


[2] Rowena Mason, “Boris Johnson’s lockdown release condemned as divisive, confusing and vague”, The Guardian, 10 May 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/may/10/boris-johnson-coronavirus-lockdown-shops-schools-june-reopening (accessed 4 September 2020)


[3] Emily Oliver, “‘You might kill your grandparent’: Gov. Inslee urges Washingtonians to practice social distancing”, KXLY.com, 20 March 2020. https://www.kxly.com/you-might-kill-your-grandparent-gov-inslee-urges-washingtonians-to-practice-social-distancing/ (accessed 4 September 2020)

Phil Hobbins-White

Contributing Writer

Phil Hobbins-White is a Film and Media teacher in the UK. He has a Masters in Film, and another in Media, and has written for various film journals, magazines and websites.

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