What the decade’s scariest film can tell us about pandemics, poverty, and the web of financial risk that ensnares us all
* * *
It comes for you when you’re not expecting it. It can stalk you at the beach or find you in a college classroom. It can look like anyone – a person you know, or a random stranger in a crowd. You can’t necessarily tell who’s “infected” just by looking at them. And it’s lethal: if it gets close enough to touch you, it will kill you.
That’s the gist of David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 breakout horror film It Follows, which, six years after its release, still inspires admiration and scholarly fascination. The film’s premise is simple but elegant: it traces the plight of Jay Height (Maika Monroe), an unsuspecting college every-girl who contracts a deadly curse after sleeping with her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary). Hugh isn’t who he says he is, and after their tryst, he incapacitates Jay and reveals that he’s slept with her for the sole purpose of passing “it” to her – it being a slow-moving malevolent entity that stalks the latest link in a chain of sexual encounters. “It” is visible only to those who have been infected, and it can look like anyone, Hugh tells Jay – a friend or a stranger. Wherever you are, it’s walking toward you. The only way Jay can rid herself of the curse is to sleep with someone else as soon as possible. “All you can do is pass it along,” Hugh tells Jay, because if It kills her, It comes for him again, and goes “straight down the line to whoever started it.” “Maybe it’ll never come back,” he says, but by then we don’t believe him.
That It Follows is still with us after all these years testifies to its fascinating subtext. What exactly is “It” supposed to represent? Fear of impending adulthood? Of mortality? As if to preclude singular interpretations, Mitchell keeps It vague and anonymous. It has no biography, no name. Its rules change constantly: sometimes It walks slowly toward its target; other times It watches from rooftops and lingers in movie theaters. Sometimes It dispatches its victims quickly, while other times It wears them down, inflicting a slow death by psychological terrorism. And despite its “sexually transmitted death” motif, It Follows isn’t an anti-hookup PSA – the film rejects the well-worn “Death by Sex“ trope at every turn. Jay isn’t a virgin (and presumably hasn’t been one for a while) and neither is Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the neighborhood boy she initially chooses to pass “It” onto. Her friends seem equally unsentimental about sex. So what torments Jay isn’t sex-inspired guilt but the ethical implications of involving another person in this heinous risk-transfer scheme. To pass It to another person isn’t just to issue them a death sentence, but to saddle them with the ghastliest of choices: to either die – like Annie, the film’s first victim who lets It overtake her – or to survive at another person’s expense.
All this makes It Follows a harrowing watch in the time of COVID-19. As we’re unearthing and reevaluating the pandemic films of the past – like Contagion and Outbreak and 28 Days Later – I’d argue that It Follows deserves a second look. “Don’t let it touch you,” Hugh tells a disoriented Jay as he dumps her in front of her house – a warning that resonates in a time when we’ve been forced to rethink basic routines of social intimacy, and to regard our most benign forms of human contact – a touch, a handshake, a gathering on the beach – as potentially fatal. Everyone is a possible carrier, and anyone can become a walking transmitter of death. “Sometimes I think It looks like people you love just to hurt you,” Hugh says, referring to the various guises It can take. Likewise, the scariest thing about COVID-19 might not be getting the virus but becoming the unwitting It-like stalker of family and friends. As Washington governor Jay Inslee put it: “You might kill your grandparent.”
Others have resisted appeals to collective responsibility, engaging in crude cost-benefit analyses of whether life is more important than the economy. Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick suggested that senior citizens should sacrifice themselves for the good of the financial system – a galling sentiment, no doubt, but one that isn’t exactly rare either. Similarly, It Follows forces us to consider the lengths to which we’d go to preserve our way of life, and this grim calculus – that some people are just going to have to die for others to live – is deeply distressing to Jay. Hugh, on the other hand, seems unvexed about the human cost of his continued existence. “Look, she can do the same thing I did,” he explains to Jay’s friends. “It should be easy for her, she’s a girl.”
Still, It Follows isn’t just about humanity’s most pragmatic efforts to survive; it also touches upon the necessity of heeding others’ warnings – warnings from experts and survivors. “You don’t believe me,” Jay says plaintively to her friends as she hides in her bedroom. But eventually they come to. Tellingly, what predicts a character’s survival isn’t just his or her willingness to put others in harm’s way, but his or her inclination to trust others when they describe It as an existential threat, even when they can’t see It. Both Jay and Hugh believe wholeheartedly in It, and both practice forms of It-inspired social distancing. Hugh rents a dilapidated house in inner-city Detroit, presumably to shelter in place when he needs to put distance between himself and the creature. Jay, in a desperate bid to buy herself time, withdraws from the city to a distant lake house. Unfortunately, It tracks her there (bucolic settings aren’t safe either), and out of options, she passes It to Greg.
On the surface, the choice seems as good as any. Greg isn’t afraid, and unlike Jay, he isn’t blindsided by the fact that he’s just contracted a terrible curse. But there’s one problem: Greg doesn’t believe in It – not really. He sleeps with Jay not so much out of empathy as a sense of happy-go-lucky dudebro entitlement. Like the spring-breakers who packed Florida beaches despite being warned about the virus, Greg doesn’t believe that anything bad will happen to him. “We’ll know sooner or later, right?” he says breezily to Jay’s friends, who are dumbstruck by his lack of trepidation. “She didn’t make it up,” says Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who’s witnessed firsthand the savagery It inflicts. Greg remains dismissive: “Something happened. But it’s not what she thinks.” His indifference means that Jay must shoulder an additional burden, watching out for them both. While holding vigil from her house across the street, she looks on as It – disguised as Greg and then as his mother – stalks its way to Greg’s house, breaking in through a window and – despite Jay’s efforts to intervene – killing him in his bedroom.
Greg’s grisly death – rendered onscreen as a fatal rape – marks a turning point for Jay, but it also clarifies an important idea: the way to survive It is to involve others in your struggle. Like communal efforts to “flatten the curve,” Jay’s survival hinges on a support system built on empathy and understanding. Her friends concoct a plan to lure It to a swimming pool where they believe they can electrocute the creature, and though the plan fails, it forces Jay to come to terms with the decision she’s been putting off – to die or pass It on. This time she agrees to sleep with Paul – the brooding wallflower who’s all too eager to “help” Jay with the sex part of her survival. (His loss is also his gain, perhaps.) Though Jay doesn’t reciprocate his feelings and doesn’t want to imperil him, she reluctantly agrees to include him in the chain of lovers. And this might not be a bad decision – or, more accurately, it might be the least terrible decision she can make. Trustworthy and compassionate, Paul is as invested in Jay’s survival as he is his own. Perhaps that’s the secret to staving off It (and coronavirus too) – to believe others when they warn you that danger is real, and to build a chain of participants who work in solidarity to ensure everyone’s safety.
But the film’s ending doesn’t exactly leave us with this sanguine outlook. After Paul sleeps with Jay, he drives to a desolate part of Detroit, eyeing sex workers who linger on the street. Whether Paul employs one of them to buy himself and Jay more time is unclear, but his gaze reminds us that the most disadvantaged among us are viewed as disposable. In the time of COVID-19, the working poor – those “necessary employees” who don’t have the option of working remotely – act as a buffer for the rest of us.
As critics have observed, It Follows’ most provocative subtext may indeed be economic. Joni Hayward writes that Mitchell’s cinematography “takes advantage of the setting in Detroit and the surrounding area,” which “results in scenes of urban decay as well as anachronism, both of which add to the potential for a symptomatic reading of post-recession economic anxiety.” A movie made five years after the Great Recession ravaged the already-teetering Detroit, its most visually stunning moments show us in staggering detail the wasteland that is the post-industrial Midwest, abandoned and picked apart for scrap metal. Like True Detective’s insistence on showing us the deadly sublimity of Louisiana’s petrochemical corridor, It Follows doesn’t want us to forget the toll of so much economic and ecological degradation. Those long shots of battered and boarded-up houses? They remind us that for many victims of the subprime mortgage crisis, relief never came.
It Follows explores the collapsed and interconnected systems of public health and economics. While the monster represents disease or death, it also metaphorizes the contagion of modern finance and, more specifically, the complex financial instruments that led to the economic collapse of 2008. If we look at It’s “chain” as a financial one – one built on credit and debt – we get a much different understanding of the stakes of Mitchell’s film. At its purest, It represents the risk that goes with transactional exchange, and as any economist will tell you, the way to limit your exposure to risk is to pass it to someone else. But you don’t want to pass risk to just anyone – if you choose the wrong person, it rolls back to you. Hugh spends so much time wooing Jay not because he’s so conflicted about passing It on, but because he’s gauging her reliability as a credit risk. Does she have the fortitude to protect his interests by acting on behalf of her own? It seems so.
What Hugh understands intuitively is that risk and exchange – the lifeblood of modern capitalism – hinge on human behavior rather than faceless, impersonal forces. “It” might be an impersonal force (or a composite person, like a corporation), but its victims and survivors are very human. Jay isn’t the only person Hugh’s implicated in this scheme – Annie was likely an earlier link – and what Hugh has learned is that not everyone is a good “credit risk” because not everyone is as dogged as he is in their pursuit of survival. Moreover, not everyone has the support system to sustain their participation in this chain. Annie, seemingly isolated from friends and unwilling to involve family, eventually gives up and lets It overtake her.
It’s also probable that Hugh has used sex workers in the past (his crumbling bachelor pad holds clues to a seedy record of trial-and-error), and that these tactics have failed. Jay makes similar missteps – first by sleeping with the nonbelieving Greg, and then by perhaps passing It to strangers she meets on a boat. Obviously, these tactics don’t eliminate her problem, as these people fail to pass It on and risk rolls back to her again. Like Hugh, she learns that if you want to properly distance yourself from It, you must make careful bets that involve willing and informed participants who, for the sake of their own self-interest, will work quickly to move risk “off their books,” so to speak.
But even when the participants are willing and informed, the emotional and personal costs of wide-ranging risk-transfer are still potentially destructive. For as much solidarity as Jay’s friends share, they must eventually venture outside their tribe and involve other people – and that’s when things get complicated. If the Great Recession taught us anything (and I’m not sure it did), it’s that risk can never be eliminated – it can only be moved around. All those tranches and credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities that tanked the economy in 2008? They weren’t invented to compound risk but to minimize it, putting distance between borrowers and lenders and disbursing risk throughout the financial system. Despite their intended purpose, they spawned riskier maneuvers exacerbated by the market’s increasingly impersonal ties (Keys et al. 1) and lack of accountability (Pritchard), becoming what financial journalist Gillian Tett called a “Frankenstein monster“ that couldn’t be brought to heel. As business expert Satyajit Das explained in the definitive Frontline documentary about the causes of the economic collapse, finance became a “shell game where we were manipulating banking results by moving the risk out one door, but bringing it back into the banking system by another door. The risk was not leaving the banking system, and everybody in the world was connected to these chains of risk.”
The same concept applies to It Follows. Once you decide to minimize risk to yourself by putting as many people as possible between you and It, you can’t control Its trajectory. It’s also more difficult to care about others when they’re far removed from you. So, if you involve a vast network in your credit-default sex swap, It eventually turns up on your doorstep again. And if you’re poor, exposed, and have nowhere to go, you’re all the more “at risk” – a socioeconomic category that grows ever-larger as our country’s wealth gap grows wider. Jay and her friends, though white and suburban, cling to a shrinking patch of middle-class Americana. The houses in Jay’s neighborhood are a far cry from the condemned firetrap where Hugh squats, but they’re nevertheless fading fast, a dated mishmash of unkempt split-levels – “show[ing] subtle signs of disorganization, corrosion, and decay” (Kelly 9) – that remind us how equally “dated” the American dream is. And when Jay and her friends venture into Detroit for their showdown with It, Yara (Olivia Luccardi) muses about her parents’ warnings never to go south of Eight Mile because “that’s where the city started, and the suburbs ended.” As It Follows illustrates, those parents’ fears (undoubtedly tinged by racism) have been realized, because when It is chasing you, Detroit – or the other Detroits of the post-recession economy – is where you end up. Moreover, Jay is often pictured trying to keep her head above water, whether she’s treading water in her backyard or almost being drowned by It in the city pool. The motif emblematizes the Sisyphean struggle to remain economically afloat, which makes the film’s final scenes all the more chilling. That Paul perhaps minimizes the risk to himself by passing It to more vulnerable people demonstrates the real zero-sum game of the American twenty-first century: those who remain middle-class might do so at the expense of the poor. This dynamic has been especially rampant in Detroit. Even before the city was hit hard by COVID-19, as so many predominantly African American population centers have been, analyst Tina Patterson wrote that policy and rhetoric often collude in poverty-erasure by prioritizing the need to grow and sustain the middle class. When economic resources are scarce, personhood for the impoverished is hard to come by.
Pandemics destroy economies and disproportionately hurt the poor and marginalized – that much is obvious. But It Follows and COVID-19 reveal how impossible it might be to sustain any kind of solidarity in a system of winners and losers, of high-stakes credit swaps, of zero-sum gridlock. The way to combat It is with cooperation and empathy – things in short supply when threats to our well-being are imminent. What follows us relentlessly, constantly, is financial precarity – debt, unprotected “at-will” employment, and stagnant wages. It Follows is a product of the Great Recession, which, dishearteningly enough, has been impossible to shake, even as another financial disaster unravels our economy in real time. Before the pandemic hit, half of Americans were one missed paycheck away from ruin. And that is the it that trails behind us. As America goes “back” to work, many have no choice but to confront the twin specters of coronavirus and late-stage capitalism. Like Jay, we live in a system that provides no good choices and few avenues for compromise. The pandemic is risk coming home to roost, reminding us that the affliction at the heart of the economy is systemic in nature. Things are bad right now not because we can’t work, but because so many people have to. We’ve run out of options. Don’t let it touch you. It has. It will.
Hayward, Joni. “No Safe Space: Economic Anxiety and Post-Recession Spaces in Horror Films.” Frames Cinema Journal, 2017, framescinemajournal.com/article/no-safe-space-economic-anxiety-and-post-recession-spaces-in-horror-films/
Kelly, Casey. “It Follows: Precarity, Thanatopolitics, and the Ambient Horror Film.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 34, 2017, pp. 1-16.
Keys, Benjamin J., et al. “Securitization and Screening: Evidence from Subprime Mortgage Backed Securities.” Columbia Law School, 2008, web.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/microsites/contract-economic-organization/files/Vig%20paper.pdf
Patterson, Tina M. “Middle Class Attention at the Expense of Detroit’s Poor.” THE PuLSE INSTITUTE, 18 Feb. 2019, thepulseinstitute.org/2019/02/17/middle-class-attention-at-the-expense-of-detroits-poor/
Pritchard, Justin. “What Caused the Mortgage Crisis?” The Balance, 28 Feb. 2020, www.thebalance.com/mortgage-crisis-overview-315684
* * *
All images are screenshots from the film.