If you really want to conjure up a ghost
Cultivate a space for the things that hurt you most
—The Mountain Goats, “Outer Scorpion Squadron”
Horror stories need their audience (readers or viewers) to believe in the unreal aspects of the story in order to function. They need “space” inside the narrative in which the unreal can exist without destroying the real. There are several tactics to create this space. The “received tale” is one of them, presenting the unreal as second-hand information so that the audience comes to it at a remove. There is the tried and true “it may not be real” method, in which the reality of the unreal elements is called into question inside the narrative itself, allowing the audience to disbelieve in while still be affected by the “ghost” (Poe and Lovecraft, among others, go to this well often). Contrary to what one might think, even the “found footage” gimmick is one that creates space: although the audience experiences the story “first-hand,” the camera and, by extension, the character holding the camera, are actually keeping them at a distance—notice how the “cameraman” will often speak at tense moments in order to break the first-person facade—which allows the story to have its cake and eat it, too.
It Follows does something very interesting in this regard, something I’ve not seen (at least not to the same degree). Horror stories are, usually, allegories. A lot of the press for It Follows has made a big deal out of the fact that, on paper, the premise of the film is paper-thin when it comes to hiding its allegorical meaning—it’s simply “STD as Monster.” The trick that It Follows pulls off, though, is embracing the allegory to the point that it is no longer allegory, it’s the text. That last shot, Jay and Paul walking toward the camera hand in hand, Jay squeezing Paul’s hand in a subtle demonstration that she means it, is the kind of ending that pisses people off. The couple behind me in the theater sure weren’t happy, they didn’t even make it until the screen went black before they got up and left, muttering quietly, which was a change, since they had been talking loudly through the entire movie. Anyway, that scene is the perfect ending to the film. It follows. It always follows. And the kids who have wound up dead end up that way because they didn’t love/trust/respect the people from whom they “got” the monster. Paul loves Jay. And, in the end, Jay at least trusts Paul. Even if that figure walking behind them is It, we think they might be fine, because they’re together. See, only those who’ve had the monster “passed on” to them can see It. Therefore, running away from the person that gave It to you is counter-productive, but that’s just what almost everyone in the film does. Even when they aren’t “running away,” they are willfully separating themselves–for example, that strangely long scene of Greg talking with the girls after he sleeps with Jay. If he had, instead, stayed with her (and she with him, because it is shown that she doesn’t have much interest in hanging out once the deed is done and she’s out of the hospital), they may have survived.
By surfacing the allegory in this way, It Follows pulls its audience in while keeping them at enough of a distance that the unreal (here, It, the monster) has room to operate. The audience is aware of the allegory and is also aware that the film is aware of the allegory. Yara reads The Idiot on what appears to be a birth-control-pill-case Kindle. Greg’s death scene is straight-up murder-sex, complete with pearlescent ooze. There are peeping pre-teen boys, porno mags (It is going to have to kill each one of the wadded up tissues scattered around Huhg/Jeff’s mattress in the abandoned house before It finally kills him), and lingering sexual tensions all over the place in It Follows, reminding the audience at every turn that “here be allegory,” which defuses the time-bomb that is the audience’s patience for the allegory. Instead, the audience becomes invested in the allegory in the same way they become invested in the plot, through the characters. Once the audience is “with” the characters, the space inside the narrative becomes almost limitless. This is true of the other tactics for creating space–they all result in audience identification with the characters (the narrator isn’t sure the story she is relating is real; the camera-crew shows the audience exactly what they saw without judgment; etc.). The identification allows for suspension of disbelief (I hate that term, since it implies conscious effort, which the best horror stories definitely don’t require). The audience, in effect, is inside the narrative the same way the characters are and therefore excepts or denies the reality along with the characters.
It Follows is admirably smart, unafraid to ask, “See what I did there?” It borrows heavily and obviously from the classics—most directly from Carpenter, aping the wide open shots of Halloween and the dreamy, terrifying scores Carpenter often wrote himself—in a way that demands to be addressed as a component of the narrative. Are we in the 70s? The 80s? The near-future? Is this charmingly retro or depressingly of-the-now? The answer, of course, is that it is timeless because, as pointed out earlier, It follows, It always follows, It always has and always will.
In the end, It Follows isn’t the scariest horror film I’ve ever seen (although try listening to the soundtrack while walking the dog at night…) but it is one of the most truly satisfying. The horror never really ends, all you can hope for is to find someone to weather it with. There are no easy answers, no gypsy curses or restless victims of sexual violence. There are, though, lessons to be learned about homage, reference, theme, and narrative that are applicable to all kinds of stories.