It Follows: Sexuality in modern horror films

by Hong Vo

In the last few years, the horror genre sparked a new wave of interest with original contributions to the genre, such as Ari Aster’s Hereditaryand Midsommar, Zach Cregger’s Barbarian, and Robert Eggers’ VVitch. The genre allows for a disturbing confrontation with our deepest fears, namely abandonment, loneliness, and motherhood. For my term paper, I had to find a work of fiction concerning “plagues, pandemics, and other catastrophes”. I remembered hearing from It Follows, which is supposedly an analogy of STDs, where a mysterious entity is transmitted via sex and shapeshifts into various people. At first, the plot sounds like virginity propaganda, which is reminiscent of slasher movies from the ’70s and ’80s. After watching the movie and doing a little research, however, I realized David Robert Mitchell diverted from his horror predecessors by subverting slasher tropes such as the “final girl”.

The movie provides criticism of societal pressures toward sexuality by yielding its horror in the ways in which sexuality is socialized. Thereby, It Follows actually pleas for a sexual culture of communal care and communication instead of shame. Specifically, female sexuality can be accompanied by shame as there are many restrictions to what qualifies as a respectable form of femininity. When are women allowed to have sex? After the first date, after three months of dating, after marriage? With whom is she allowed to have sex? With how many people is she allowed to have sex? Don’t be a prude! Don’t be too easy! Don’t play hard to get! Trying to navigate through this primitively complex set of rules is especially hard for young adult women when even their role model and caregiver refuses to talk to her daughter about sex and the grim reality of being a sexually active woman.

The movie follows Jay, who is portrayed as a traditionally feminine and sexually active character, which is typically idealized as the primary victim of slasher movies. She looks like the “girl next door” in pink underwear and is the only girl in the main cast with a known sexual history. She is accompanied by her friends and sister who support her every step. Jay’s resilience and the sympathy for her created by the movie, on the other hand, remind of the slasher “final girl”, who in contrast to the primary victim, is traditionally depicted as virginal and with masculine traits. Her neighbour Greg personifies masculine sexuality within a heteronormative culture by being depicted as ignorant and indifferent toward his sexual relations. His attempt to get intimate with Jay during a vulnerable situation is thinly veiled by him “wanting to help” her. His masculinity is emphasised by his muscular body, his introduction next to his car, and his hobby of hunting. However, he was not punished for his masculine image but his exploitation of, ignorance and indifference toward Jay.

The horror of the ways in which sexuality is socialized is also prevalent in the motif of the neighbourhood boys. The young boys secretly watch Jay in the pool, which is first dismissed as maybe uncomfortable but innocent, adolescent voyeurism. But the slight discomfort grows continuously during the film until the climax, in which the entity turns into one of the boys in a jump scare. The boys thereby not only represent the growth from sexual innocence to sexualized terror but are also symbolic of men/boys being socialized to objectify women as part of their masculinity.

By locating the movie in Detroit, which is of economic significance, the movie connects issues concerning the restrictive and shameful heteronormative culture to class issues as they are more prevalent in lower-class communities. Not only is sexual health care higher in quality in middle- and upper-class areas but women of a high-status are also exempt from public shaming and enjoy sexual privilege enabling them in sexual experimentation and the usage of shaming sexual labels to distance themselves from a lower class status. This self-sustaining system of class division by drawing sexual boundaries is mirrored in the movie, when the characters try to lure the entity to more impoverished areas.

It Follows provides criticism of societal pressures towards sexuality by turning the seemingly primary victim into the final girl, punishing male ignorance in sexual relations, and depicting the ways in which sexuality is socialized as horrific.

Further readings:

Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself.” Men, Women And Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press, 1992.

Fjær, Eivind Grip et al. “”I’M NOT ONE OF THOSE GIRLS”: Boundary-Work and the Sexual Double Standard in a Liberal Hookup Context” Gender and Society, vol. 29, no. 6, 2015: 960-981. JSTOR, Accessed 14 March 2023.

Church, David. “Queer Ethics, Urban Spaces, and the Horrors of Monogamy in “It Follows”” Cinema Journal, vol. 57, no. 3, 2018: 3-28. JSTOR, Accessed 25th February 2023.

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