There is a lot of space in David Robert Mitchell’s brilliant horror film, It Follows—scenes of empty idleness set between heart-pounding action sequences, interludes of silence between the screams. On a formal level, this downtime heightens the anxiety we feel as viewers and enhances our terror when the payoffs finally come. The camera lingers on a suburban street, rustling tree branches, school hallways, attempting to lull us into a stupor, but in our gut we can never shake the nagging feeling that something very wrong is approaching.
In It Follows, this space reflects a suburban idleness that inheres in the film’s adolescent characters. It Follows pays its respects to the genre’s greats—particularly John Carpenter, whose influence can be detected in the film’s languorous cinematography and eerily beautiful synth score. And like the classic slasher flicks of the 1980s, the film is a microcosm of teenage life, especially the reigning concern of that life: the wonder and terror of being awakened to sexual desire, and the moral consequences of acting on that desire. The culturally dead space of suburbia acts as a pressure cooker. With no outlet of release, these desires sit and smolder, warping themselves into grotesque forms.
The kids in It Follows are not the sex-crazed youths of Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street, chomping at the bit to fornicate as soon as their parents are out of town. (Still, following a horror trope, parents are mostly absent, lending a surreal atmosphere to characters’ actions.) They appear mature for their age, their casual sexual decisions formed by free wills which have weighed potential outcomes. Still, they cannot escape the consequences of “it,” the film’s amorphous, zombie-like bogeyman. “It” becomes visible to you, and only you, after you have slept with someone who has been cursed; “it” hunts you down unless you sleep with someone else and pass the curse along. If it gets to you before that happens, it goes back down the line, terrorizing previous links in the chain.
This gimmick is perhaps typical for a horror movie, and yet it highlights horror’s obsession with promiscuity in a novel way. Horror is a child of the Id. Part of the horror of horror stories resides in the unveiling of the unknown, of fears, anxieties, and inclinations that normally lie submerged in the unconscious. Sexual desire is one such inclination—indeed, one of the most powerful and mysterious. Horror’s almost psychoanalytical interest in the dark side of sex is thus pertinent and fitting to one of its aims, which is to unearth the disturbing realities that hide in the darkness.
Often, horror offers a curiously puritanical (and perhaps sadistic) take on uncontrolled sexual desire, with the bogeyman exacting ruthless judgment on those who have trespassed the established moral code. Those who die first are usually the most shameless offenders. But It Follows, like all good horror, is more than a simple morality play. It is more than a tale of adolescent sexual anxiety, or a simple analogy for STDs. It points to something deeper, of which sexual desire is only a part and fitting representation. Good horror—as opposed to purely titillating, shock-value horror—is concerned with the metaphysical reality of good and evil, of right and wrong moral trajectories. As such, horror inevitably ends up touching on that article of faith known as sin, whose source is traced to the very core of human nature.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, that source is articulated in the doctrine of original sin. While there is usually agreement among theologians on the existence of such a spiritual reality—that Adam and Eve’s primordial fall caused humanity to be born into a state of sinful proclivity and estrangement from God—the specifics of its exact nature and transmission have always been disputed. In Augustine’s somewhat infamous account, for instance, original sin is passed down physically in the act of procreation; our malformed nature is not a psychological or spiritual cloud hovering over us, but an actual infection transmitted from the souls of our infected parents.
This view, stemming from Augustine’s Neoplatonism, regards the body and the sexual act as inherently compromised, closer to evil and nothingness on the chain of being because of their corporeal nature. Due in part to its philosophical and historical baggage, few today can follow Augustine all the way. (Although Freud himself posited a biological basis for the human neurosis, the psychoanalytic version of original sin.) It Follows, however, dares the attempt. The film’s bogeyman is not merely an arbitrator of divine punishment, but a symbol of the curse that stains us all. It is telling that “it” cannot truly be avoided. Characters can outrun it for a time, but it always catches up with the cursed, bearing the wages of sin. If the film imagines that curse, and its consequences, through a seemingly medieval view of sex, it is only because sex offers the best metaphor for the real essence of original sin—namely, desire.
Beneath the superficial particulars of Augustine’s account of original sin lies a robust understanding of human waywardness. What really matters for Augustine is not sin’s transmission through the sexual act, but the underlying inclination toward lust specifically and sin generally—an inclination known as concupiscence, or “hurtful desire.” An impulse which even after baptism remains as “a certain affection of an evil quality,” a residue like languor after sickness. At its most basic, concupiscence is non-sexual; it conveys a strong, fervent longing and sensual appetite for things and persons in place of God. It is love disordered, a privation of good, a kind of spiritual libido. As Aquinas, following Augustine puts it, concupiscence is not “actual lust,” but “habitual lust,” the natural diseased state of humanity after the Fall. Distorted sexual desire is only its most immediate physical realization. Our hearts are wounded and restless, searching for cures in all the wrong places.
If concupiscence exists at the root of the human condition, then It Follows offers a parable of its nature, in heightened form. We all have inherited the inclination to sin, the desire to fill our empty spaces with lesser goods in place of the highest good. We attempt to alleviate our longing through objects. Adam’s curse touches us all, and to our horror, we are not free from the inescapable dominion of death, the always-present companion of concupiscence.
In It Follows, the freedom the parentless, teenage characters exercise is a trap. This false freedom, a symbol of societal permissiveness, only mires them deeper within themselves, and within the destructive world of errant desires. Here, we are in a psychic realm similar to that outlined in Dante’s Inferno, where exaggerated desires become their own form of torment, leading to spiritual death. Concupiscence becomes bent inward and feeds on itself; the violence inherent in its definition—a “harmful desire”—refracts outward as well, adding the threat of sexual violence to the menace surrounding “it.”
At one point in the film—after Jay, the film’s central character, has had sex with her older boyfriend Hugh for the first time—she reminisces about her girlhood fantasies: “I had this image of myself, holding hands with a really cute guy, driving along some pretty road. It was never about going anywhere really. It’s having some sort of freedom I guess.” That aimless freedom and innocence are compromised in the film’s dark web of distorted desires. Minutes later, Hugh drugs her and ties her up in an abandoned building, where he forces her to witness the “it” that has been following him and that now follows her. Even though their sex was consensual, Hugh’s use of Jay to protect himself from “it” is in essence an act of violence against her, since he acts from the depths of concupiscence.
Similar echoes of sexual assault mark the film. At first, Jay’s friends have a hard time believing her story or that anything is wrong—“It’s not what she thinks, ok?” When Jay sleeps with an older guy named Greg to pass on the curse, “it” takes the form of Greg’s mother and rapes him. When Jay and her friends try to destroy “it” at the end of the film, “it” appears as Jay’s father. This is the hell where concupiscence reigns. Love, the outward-facing posture of desire deferred, is impossible; when sexual acts are entirely for oneself, desire is sharpened into a brutal weapon, a figure which stalks the cursed unto death. If there is a link, perhaps subconscious, between the teens’ actions and the terror of “it,” it is this: that the world of sexual permissiveness exists on the same plane as the world of sexual violence.
It Follows is a nightmare showing what happens to fallen human desire when it is given the space and opportunity to fester, growing into something truly monstrous. The film goes beyond black and white moralism (“teenagers shouldn’t have sex”) and offers a broader look at the essence of morality: errant desire is fundamental to the human condition, but what might it look like to live a life with desires that are properly ordered? Can we wake up to knowledge of ourselves, avoiding destruction? Or will we fall into darkness, fearing “it” around every corner?