It Follows was the cult horror hit of recent years, and rightly so. A small-budget, indie film, it was popular with audiences and critics alike. Film critic Peter Bradshaw gave it a 5* review in The Guardian on its UK release in Feb 2015, calling it “a modern horror classic”. In response to a friend who reported the film gave him nightmares, Bradshaw simply states “I don’t think I have ever had a nightmare as scary as this film”. High praise indeed.
It Follows is about a teenage girl, Jay, who acquires a sexually transmitted demon after sleeping with a guy she is dating. The curse of the demon is simple but terrifying: it follows. It follows only at walking pace, but it always knows where you are, and it never stops. It can take on the appearance of anyone: a stranger in a crowd, or a loved one; whatever guise helps it get close to you. If it “gets you”, it kills you, then reverts back to stalking the person who passed the curse on to you. The only way to get rid of the demon is to pass it on by having sex with someone else, and then encouraging them to pass it on as quickly as possible. Yet, because the curse always reverts down the chain of transmission, no-one is ever truly safe, as you never know when the demon might come back to you.
As with all good horror films, there are many different metaphorical meanings of It Follows, the most obvious being the curse as a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease, especially a potentially fatal one such as HIV/AIDS. However, what I would like to explore in this post is how the film depicts taboo, and specifically in relation to taboos around sexuality, and societal constructions of female teenage sexuality. I will argue that the curse in It Follows operates as a taboo in two main ways: how it is transmitted, and how those who transgress, or break the taboo, are punished.
Any discussion of taboo must begin with a definition of the concept. The word ‘taboo’ was only introduced into the English language in the late 18th century. This is widely accredited to Captain Cook, who brought the word back from his explorations of Polynesia, where he encountered the word tabu which designated sacred or prohibited places, people or practices within Polynesian culture (Steiner, 1956). Although what is considered taboo clearly varies across cultures and across time, the main categories of taboo are in fact remarkably stable. The German anthropologist Rudolf Friedrich Lehmann classified Polynesian taboo customs into three main categories. The first related to socially constructed taboos, which included those relating to persons holding high office, who might themselves be taboo due to the sanctity of their position in society, or who could also declare or lift taboos on other people. The second category related to bodily functions, including taboos around menstruation, childbirth, illness and death. The third and final category included religious taboos (Lehmann, 1930).
Sex, illness and death are usually considered to be the core taboo subjects. This is unsurprising given the function of taboo, which is protection from danger; observance of taboo, therefore, usually confers an evolutionary advantage. For example, cannibalism can lead to the spread of disease, and incest leads to a harmful narrowing of the gene pool, so avoidance of these practices is advantageous over the longer-term. However, in addition to conferring evolutionary advantages, taboo customs also fulfil a wider variety of societal functions, such as control of people’s behaviour in order to maintain systems of power and hierarchy. For example, a girl who is declared taboo every month when she menstruates and is consequently prohibited from attending school clearly suffers an educational disadvantage compared to her male classmates. A menstruating girl poses no physical danger to her non-menstruating classmates; the danger is of a social kind. By breaking the taboo, by having contact with one who is taboo, one becomes taboo oneself, because taboo is contagious. This leads us to a discussion of the rules of transmission of a taboo. Touch and physical contact are considered key modes of transmission, which is why practices designed to preserve taboos usually involve physical separation of the taboo object from the rest of the community. For example, the Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer wrote the following from his observations of Maori society in New Zealand at the beginning of the 20th century:
The demon in It Follows operates as a taboo in that it adheres to transmission rules, which involves physical sexual contact. There is also a clear chain of transmission, as in the above example of the Maori chief, so that the curse can be traced from the current person, all the way back in a sequential fashion. (This of course begs the question – how did the first person acquire the demon? One for the sequel perhaps…)
Taboos can also only be effectively maintained in societies if transgressions are punished. The nature and the degree of the punishment vary with the sanctity of the taboo and the severity of the transgression. Punishments may include being socially ostracized, or needing to perform some cleansing ritual in order to lift the taboo. If the taboo cannot be lifted, then the transgressor is often killed (Steiner, 1956).
I will argue that the taboo depicted in It Follows falls under Lehmann’s category of a socially constructed taboo: one that operates to maintain and protect systems of power and hierarchy, specifically the control of female sexual desire under Western patriarchal societies. Jay transgresses this taboo by acting on feelings of sexual desire, for which she is duly punished by catching “the demon”.
In order to explore the taboo of female sexual desire, particularly in teenagers, I will refer to the work of Deborah Tolman, a Developmental Psychologist, who carried out a ground-breaking study of sexual desire in 2002 by interviewing teenage girls in high-school. Overall, 31 girls took part in her study, aged from 16-18 years old, of mixed ethnic backgrounds and who reported being predominantly heterosexual. Tolman conducted semi-structured interviews on an individual basis with all the girls, and the primary topic for the interview were the girls’ own stories about specific experiences they had had with their own sexuality, including their own sexual desire, pleasure and fantasies. Tolman published her research in an award-winning book, which she named “Dilemmas of Desire” (Tolman, 2002).
Tolman describes three distinct ways in which the teenage girls in her study talked about dilemmas of desire.
- Dangers of Desire – girls reporting feeling desire, but also describing an ambivalent or highly conflicted relationship with their own desire.
- Parameters of Pleasure – girls expressing a sense of entitlement towards their own sexual desire, but being constantly aware of the need to confine it within safe, or socially acceptable, parameters.
- Sounds of Silence – girls talking about not feeling sexual desire, or being unsure whether or not they felt desire. Tolman describes these girls as having “silent bodies” as they do not link their sexual encounters at all with feelings or desires arising from their own bodies.
Most female teenage protagonists begin with a silent body, and then progress through a sexual awakening. This is usually depicted as occurring under the tutelage of an older, more experienced guy as in the Fifty Shades of Grey series. This is a problematic narrative, as it suggests that men are capable of switching on their own desire, but women need a man to do it for them. In a recent Guardian column, Zoe Williams identified the source of increasing risk to the health of teenage girls world-wide from unsafe sex practices to the underlying misogyny of patriarchal societies. For example, the basis of highly ineffective abstinence-only programmes of sex education which remain inexplicably popular in the US appears to be that “Girls have no sexual identity, no agency, no desires of their own, they are merely effective or ineffective gatekeepers to the sexual experiences of boys.” (Williams, 2016). It Follows is in fact a much more feminist depiction of a teenage protagonist in that Jay begins the film with a clear sense of entitlement to her own sexual desire, as is shown during her first sexual encounter of the film.
During the course of the film, Jay has sexual encounters with three different types of guy; who I’ll term Date Guy, Stud Guy and Sweet Guy. Each successive sexual partner represents a regressive, rather than a progressive, step in her sexual functioning. The effect of the curse of the demon is to curtail her sexuality, so that by the end of the film she is relegated to the role of gatekeeper to the other guys who want to sleep with her, and any sense of her deriving pleasure from her sexual life is gradually eroded.
Encounter 1 – Date Guy; Parameters of Pleasure (“Let’s go back to the car”)
Some of the girls in the Tolman study did lay claim to their own right to have sexual desires, and sexual agency. They were also acutely aware of the social barriers to fully exercising these rights. One girl described a sense of control and ownership of her sexual choices, but was also aware this did not fit with the socially accepted of her gender role.
In It Follows, Jay’s first sexual encounter clearly depicts her as an active partner in the process. She is shown initiating the first kiss as the couple sit by the lake-side, and she is the one to suggest “let’s go back to the car”. This scene is also the only one in the film that it is all erotic or sensual. Both Jay and Date Guy are partially unclothed and uncovered for the duration of the scene, and they are shown making eye contact and vocalising their pleasure to each other. It’s also significant that although Jay is clearly sexually attracted to Date Guy, there’s no indication they are “in love” or that he is a steady boyfriend. Having sex for pleasure, outside of the culturally sanctioned boundaries of a romantic relationship, is the taboo Jay breaks, and she is duly punished by acquiring the demon.
Encounter 2 – Stud Guy; Dangers of Desire (“I guess I should have been nicer to you”)
Jay initially resists passing on the curse, despite the urgings of Date Guy. She only gives in after several terrifying encounters with the demon, from which she barely escapes alive. Her second sexual encounter of the film occurs in her hospital bed, after she is injured in a car crash after fleeing the demon. Her willing partner is Stud Guy, who is portrayed as basically a nice guy who is concerned for Jay’s welfare, but also a lothario character who uses his charisma as a way of achieving sexual conquests. The exact nature of Jay and Stud Guy’s previous relationship is never explained in detail, but it becomes apparent that they slept together sometime in the past, but Stud Guy hurt her feelings in some way (“I guess I should have been nicer to you”). What’s interesting about this sex scene is that this is a person Jay has felt sexual desire for in the past, and there is a certain sexual tension between them in the earlier scenes of the film. However, her desire and sexual agency is notably lacking when they finally do have sex. The hospital setting itself is sterile and stark, and Jay is fully covered in an unattractive hospital gown throughout the scene. Jay’s face remains impassive throughout the scene, staring first up at the ceiling, and then deliberately turning her face away from Stud Guy to stare towards the wall. There is no eye contact, and little tenderness between them.
Several of the girls in the Tolman study described their relationship to their own sexual desires as highly conflicted; they admitted on some level that they did feel desire, but these were seen as dangerous feelings which needed to be kept under control. For example, even for girls who were sexually experienced, they never spoke about having orgasms with their partners, although they sometimes expressed curiosity to know what having an orgasm might feel like. Despite this curiosity about sexual pleasure, masturbation was almost universally seen as an unacceptable practice for girls (whilst being completely expected for boys). For these girls, the standard template for heterosexual romantic relationships provided one way to solve their dilemma: having sex with a steady boyfriend, within a socially sanctified relationship, was seen as acceptable. This is summed up in the cliché that women use sex to get love and men use love to get sex. Jay does like Stud Guy, and perhaps hoped she would have been his girlfriend some point in the past, and therefore it is socially sanctioned for her to sleep with him to get him to “like” her, as long as she doesn’t enjoy it.
Encounter 3 – Sweet Guy; Sounds of Silence (“I liked you too, you know”)
Tolman begins her book with the group of girls she categorises as denying feeling sexual desire, or being unsure whether or not they feel desire. For example, one respondent described the first time she had sexual intercourse, which was with a boy she said she was in love with.
This account, although purportedly of a consensual sexual encounter, reads very much like an account of dissociation which would be more expected to occur during a traumatic sexual event such as a rape, e.g. “I felt like I wasn’t there.” Tolman suggests that this description of dissociation during sex, which is occurring during what should be a non-traumatic sexual encounter, can be accounted for by the girl’s employing a defence mechanism against the dangers of her own desire. Female sexual desire is taboo; therefore, to protect against it, girls must zone out of their own bodies and disconnect from any embodied sense of arousal or pleasure.
This is aptly portrayed in Jay’s third and final sexual encounter of the film, with Sweet Guy. Sweet Guy is an interesting character in that he is almost feminised by his role in the plot, which is to pine after Jay without ever acting effectively on his feelings. He is not a predator in any way, and Jay in fact holds all the power in their relationship because she isn’t really interested in him in a sexual or romantic way. Sweet Guy is stuck in what’s known as the “friend zone”. Sweet Guy offers to sleep with Jay several times throughout the film to take the curse from her, and is clearly dejected when she decides to sleep with Stud Guy instead (“I liked you too, you know.”). When he finally does try and initiate a kiss with Jay, she turns away, clearly uninterested, and moves away from him to re-take her vigil at the window where she is looking for signs of the demon going to attack Stud Guy. When Stud Guy is later caught and killed by the demon, in one of the most terrifying sequences of the film, Jay is not only racked with guilt for passing the curse on to him, but also in mortal terror of her own life. Jay and her friends do try their best to kill the demon by hatching an elaborate plot involving electrocuting it in a swimming pool, but this also fails. By the point in the film when she finally gives in and sleeps with Sweet Guy, there is a sense of resignation and defeat about the whole endeavour. It’s a scene imbued with sadness; the room is grotty and dimly-lit and it is raining heavily outside the window. There’s no sense that desire is driving the encounter, and no depiction of either party deriving pleasure from the act. Jay’s body, once so alive and receptive, has fallen silent. Her punishment is complete, and the taboo of female sexual desire remains intact.
Taken at face value, It Follows could be said to have rather a bleak ending which reinforces a patriarchal view of female sexuality. However, on the whole, I found it to be a very progressive and provocative film in raising and exploring such issues. I also found it rather satisfying that the film shied away from easy solutions, and despite the best efforts of Jay and her friends, they alone could not lift the curse. One way to interpret this ending is as an acknowledgement that the taboo driving the curse is deeply culturally embedded, and cannot be vanquished by any one individual. This is indeed the conclusion that Tolman came to from her own study, and she calls for wider societal change, rather than an ineffective emphasis on individual behaviour alone.
Bradshaw, P. (2015) It Follows review – sexual dread fuels a modern horror classic. The Guardian [online] 26 Feb. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/feb/26/it-follows-review-horror-sex-death
Frazer, J. (1911). The Golden Bough, Part II: Taboo and the Perils of the Soul. London: Macmillan.
Lehmann, R.F. (1930). Die Polynesischen Tabusitten. Leipzig: R. Voigtländer
Steiner, F. (1956). Taboo. London: Cohen & West Ltd.
Tolman, D. (2002). Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Williams, Z. (2016) Unsafe sex threatens girls’ health worldwide. The prescription? Feminism. The Guardian [online] 16 May. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/16/unsafe-sex-girls-health-feminism-sexual-trend-young-people [accessed 16 May 2016].