Youth has always been Life’s strangest arena. A carnival of desires met and dreams dashed; it commingles lives of opposing vectors, heroes of different potencies, and competing primal urges…leaving victors and victims in their wake. The young players’ fight is partly internal: their drives for life, success, and procreation fed and imperiled by Dionysian Ids, chaotic energies heedful of wants but heedless of impacts. Without opposition, they can burn out on their own fires. With it, they can wither in dread or flourish enflamed, ruined by their rivals or raised by their foes’ defeat. In schoolrooms, chat rooms, and dark rooms, they mingle and battle, the survivors left marked for success, scarred and damaged, or dead and broken…literally lifeless or spiritually gone.
David Robert Mitchell, in his film It Follows, fashions such a baroque brutal arena. In the decaying, greatly white suburbs of Detroit, at the 8 Mile border of its black neighborhoods, teens and young adults pursue fleeting erotic chances or loll about in sexual anxiety or detached ennui. Dulled by middle class comfort and restricting boundaries, It Follows’ main characters lean towards the latter. Sisters take first kisses from the same nerdy neighbor boy while one, unsatisfyingly, loses her virginity to a rakish one. A boy hangs out with girls in Platonic impotence while they bemoan the beauty and romantic fortune of their prettiest member. Others in their village are more…and less…fortunate. The prettier, and more daring, engage in more exciting sexual activity, finding and joining with strange young partners…some hounded by strange apparitions and broken into pieces. To some players, and some viewers, the source of these apparitions is a dark, stranger player–an insidious menace haunting sexual exchanges, marking some participants for death. To others, it is an elaborate venereal disease, a human-shaped pathogen pursuing its victims and expanding its reach. The reality is less sinister, more demonic; less primitive, more primal. The Follower is as much product of youthful Eros as it is its haunting entity. It is a brutal nexus between life’s phases, a consuming force altering being and perception, and a violent manifestation of youthful desire and its competing predatory energies
In the film’s pastoral landscape, these energies are typically muted, lacking both direction and drive. Although two of the characters take classes at nearby Oakland University, and two others work at an ice cream shop, none thirst for independence or the adulthood it brings. Part of this is apprehension; the adults in their lives are barely visible…even in their presence; they are banal providers and progenitors well removed from youthful “play.” Another is fetishization, idealized nostalgia for the innocence past and ardent cradling of its hormonal remnants. This tension first appears when Jay–the film’s hero and character most open to adulthood–goes on a date with her handsome but somehow troubled swain, Hugh. Waiting in line for a film, they play a game called “Trade” where each has to guess which member of the crowd with whom the other would trade places. Jay is surprised to find Hugh chooses a young boy and not his young father helping him at a drinking fountain:
“I mean, how cool would THAT be to have your whole life ahead of you”
“Come on, it’s not like you’re old. You’re 21.”
“I know, but look how happy that kid is. Plus, at that age you can go to the bathroom whenever you want…total freedom.”
To the comfortably maturing Jay, Hugh’s choice is strange, as being young, married, and with children is–for her–an appealing next stage. But for Hugh, all signs of the future terrify; playing out the activities of his waning youth, he longs for life before puberty, before the anal stage, free from adolescent angst and urge.
Hugh’s fear of future adulthood–and longing for painless infancy–is not uncommon for youths in transition, as its greater responsibilities bring promise of possible pain, failure, and even death. However, his terror goes beyond this developmental nexus; it extends to its nightmarish manifestation–the cast of apparitions haunting and hunting him until they/it kills him or he passes its gaze unto another. To do that, he must have sex with that person. He had already done so with his high school sweetheart, Annie, whom the Follower chases and brutally kills at the film’s beginning, making Hugh (once again) its quarry. So, he has sex with Jay, deflecting the Follower towards her…until she–and/or her future offerings–are slain. Vastly removed from that envied child’s tranquility, Hugh is now caught in that cruel sphere adulthood subsuming all its members–those racing from impending death, throwing opponents in its path, while repeating and relishing Youth’s carnalities as their bodies and energies wane. The Follower may be a ghastly strain of this sphere, but it is still a part of it, not its extraneous competitor. He is also its most artistic and relentless. Once it rivets on its prey, it taunts it with glimmers of their youth fetish, as with the teen girl in the yellow dress it embodies for Hugh. For the more mature Jay, It terrorizes her with visions of joyless, ugly senescense. While she is in her college English class, unnerved by “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” TS Eliot’s poem of aging’s horrors, the Follower appears to her as a decrepit old woman, tormenting her with her possible nightmarish future. It does this later in the film, appearing as her naked grandfather standing on top of her house. Like the adulthood it personifies, it taunts her–and others–with its inevitable victory: it will cut short her youthful pleasures or leave her to a “life” haunted by their absence.
It does so by nastily playing with its prey, making it aware of its presence and threat–and frighteningly so–before dispatching it. A strange predator with unmeasured appetite, its sadistic manipulations of its victim’s perception are as artistic in flourish as they are engrossed in purpose. Its artistry greatly draws from the victims body–its shifting aging form: its carnal sexual “history” and its mind’s library of memories, traumas, and fears. Attuned to all of this, it becomes what torments its victim most and best aids its chase. To Greg, Jay’s neighbor who sleeps with her to save her, it becomes his mother in a nightgown with her breast exposed, a final nightmarish vision to shock him before killing him in cold violence and Oedipal horror. The Follower’s choice was partly strategic: Greg’s mother being his housemate, her appearance gained it access to him. It was also somatic…and personal. The neighborhood lothario, Greg’s mind grew rich with conquests, as his body gained swagger to match his beauty. Drawing on this, The Follower chose his mother to crush that spirit, to soil his bodily source of pride while psychically reducing him to his infant stage…a humiliating punishment for thwarting its purpose. This dark stratagem only worked, however, because Greg–unlike those around him–could actually see the Follower’s cinema. His body not only carried years’ residue of erotic conquests; it held perception altered by his tryst with Jay. As his body and mind gave “data” to the Follower to employ, they in turn were altered to receive its tableau…his most cherished “possession” became his most traitorous one, an open window for his enemy’s menace.
The Existentialist Maurice Merlau-Ponty reflected on such somatic synergy: “The thickness of flesh between the seer and the thing is as constitutive for the thing of its visibility as for the seer of its corporeity; it is not an obstacle between them, it is their means of communication.” As with Greg, the Follower uses all its victim’s thickness–and the experience it carries–to haunt and destroy them. Some–like Greg wore facile thickness easily penetrated; others, like the contemplative Jay, presented a more complex challenge, a byzantine thickness demanding a more complex scheme. A suburban Diana, Jay first appears in the film bodily attuned to her surroundings. Floating in her above-ground pool, she spots squirrels and birds on the power lines above her, feels and watches the ants on her skin, and catches the neighborhood boys (forebodingly) gazing at her. This heightened sensuousness extends to the sensual. She keeps vivid memory of her first kiss with a boy who kissed her sister, keenly conscious of the saliva shared and the transgression involved. When she and Hugh have sex, she insists on its place and confidently takes its dominant position. The Follower both uses and seeks to destroy this carnal assuredness, playing and preying on her enhanced sympathy and somatic sensitivity. After the old woman, it appears to her as a beaten, disheveled teen girl urinating in her presence…then a giant young man with gouged out eyes…then her dear friend Yara…then one of her boy spies…then her naked grandfather on her roof…then her dead father returned to kill her. From a “familiar” victim of sexual battery, to a frightening man, to a friend, to her still-mourned dead parent, The Follower masterfully morphs through all Jay’s sensual strengths and “weaknesses”—visceral compassion, self-awareness, carnal memory–until its final play on her filial love, longing, and mourning….all to a penultimate standoff.
Jay greatly “wins” because of success within her “carnival,” because of her strong connections within its members. As opposed to the mercenary Hugh hiding, terrified in his mother’s house; or Greg ruined in his Byronic solitude; Jay cultivated care in her competitors instead of using or repelling them. She also won, however, because she–and her sister and friends–moved beyond their intimate cabal and its restricted members, space, and economic class. Teens and young adults in wealthier areas have cars, access to plane travel, and a matrix of social and erotic connections to spread their mark. Bound to her own space and matrix, Jay was the Follower’s easier, if challenging, prey. Bound by her own ethics and economic class, she could neither shed her “curse” nor expand her spaces. So, with no entre into the richer sections, she and her co-players move to the barren poorer ones, using its dearth of possible predators instead of the plethora of the privileged. Their erotic energies focused, and Jay’s keen perception enthralled, they seemingly kill the Follower, ensuring Jay’s survival while galvanizing her growth.
So, the film ends with Jay’s “carnival” returned to its more joyous state; Hades, apparently, has returned to its underworld. She and Paul, her first kiss, have joined and walk hand-in-hand, either confident in the Follower’s death or oblivious to its possibility. Moving into adulthood, they have accepted its risks as they have embraced its pleasures. But the carnival of energies, like Death, never stops….nor do its players. So the figure walking behind them could be an old friend or a future foe…or a more devoted co-player with more gripping intent.