Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Malignancy of Rape Culture in 'It Follows'

Note: This post has spoilers.

Every time I see a great new movie with my husband, we spend the ride home, and often much of the night, discussing it. We have fairly similar taste in horror movies, so it’s not uncommon for one of us to say something about a film and have the other enthusiastically agree and then expand upon the point. A lot of our conversations go like this, and so I thought it was interesting that I paused when my husband said It Follows was one of the scariest movies he’s seen in years. It’s not that I didn’t agree, exactly. I found It Follows very tense and very creepy – and make no mistake, I loved every minute of it – but it didn’t scare me. Somewhat to the contrary, the story and all its “scares” resonated with me. It felt almost too familiar to frighten.

In a nutshell: the movie follows Jay, a young woman who (I believe) is home from college for the summer. She goes on a date with Hugh, a guy she’s seen a few times before, and happily has sex with him. It’s not her first time, and in no way is it implied that she’s in any way “dirty” for doing so, as is the M.O. of so many horror movies. Unfortunately for Jay, this guy happens to carry a particularly nasty, supernatural sort of STD, and now it’s going to follow Jay until she passes it on to someone else, or lets it catch up to her and kill her.

The It in question literally takes on the form of a person following Jay, but the biggest hitch is that it can look like anyone, and change at any time. The movie never explains exactly why It chooses the forms it does, but they seem designed to alternately terrify and get closer to the “infected” Jay – revealing much about her character in the process.

One of the most potentially baffling scenes is when It appears in Jay’s kitchen as a young woman dressed in a cheerleader’s uniform, her eye blackened and her breast exposed, leaking urine onto the floor as she staggers toward Jay. It’s a horrifying scene, and obviously evocative of sexual assault. But why? At first glance, it’s somewhat of an anomaly amongst the other incarnations of It, which include Jay’s friend, an old woman in a hospital gown, a young boy, and various other seemingly random forms. These other forms are unnerving, but not so on the nose.

Look closely, though, and you’ll see that It Follows is teeming with allusions not only to the unsettling side of human sexuality (the old woman in her hospital gown, barely covered), but to the constant threat of sexual harm. Although nearly all of the sex in It Follows is consensual, Jay’s encounter with Hugh is saturated with elements of sexual assault. After having sex, Hugh sneaks up behind Jay and uses chloroform to knock her out, then ties her, wearing nothing but her underwear, to a wheelchair. He does this so he can adequately explain the dangers of It, which he’s just passed onto her without her knowledge, and it’s entirely self-serving. You see, if Jay doesn’t live long enough to pass It on, the supernatural being automatically returns to its previous target. Afterwards, Hugh unceremoniously dumps Jay out of his car onto her front lawn, still in only her underwear and bra. It’s all too reminiscent of innumerable scenes in both entertainment and real life where women are raped and then “dumped” onto roads or in the woods or in rivers like trash.

Given this violent context for the passing on of It, the assaulted cheerleader apparition makes a lot more sense, and it also throws other forms of It into question. Some forms, such as an ugly, imposing naked man standing on Jay’s roof and staring down at her menacingly, are transparent. Others are not so clear, such as when It appears as Jay’s deceased father. When Jay’s younger sister asks who she sees, Jay responds, “I don’t want to tell you.” Is this because she doesn’t want to sully the memory of a beloved father for her sister, or is it because there’s something more sinister lurking in that memory? It Follows never explains, but it does make you wonder.

What allows It Follows to transcend so many other horror movies, particularly rape revenge horror movies, is that it makes everyone in the audience, both man and woman, feel the violations its characters feel. The It in It Follows does not discriminate based on sex; it stalks and kills anyone it can, and brutally. When Jay passes It on to a friend who naively thinks he can handle it, It appears as his mother, comes into his room, and essentially sucks the life out of him by raping him.

There’s a sense of dread that never leaves the characters or the audience. It comes on subtly, encroaching on the viewer's sense of safety little by little. Hugh explains in one scene that even after he passed It on to Jay, he can still see It. It is still somehow attached to him, leaving him forever fearful. More to the point, Hugh, Jay, and the audience are constantly scanning crowds and horizons, always looking around them for signs of danger hiding in plain sight. Remember – It can be anyone, friend, family, or total stranger.

I don’t need to spell it out for you, right? That’s essentially what it’s like to live in the world as a woman.

It Follows makes everyone in the audience feel that (justified) paranoia that a woman may feel every time she’s walking home alone, or when she notices a car slow down next to her, or when a formerly kind friend makes an unwelcome pass at her. It’s the feeling that at any moment this could escalate into violence in a match where the cards are woefully stacked against us.

If any movie can make a man understand that feeling, it’s It Follows. And for that, It is important.

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