Sex equals death.
That's a bona fide rule in horror movies, etched into legend by franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street. And as more recent, self-aware films like Cabin in the Woods and Scream — movies bent on biting the genre hand that fed them — pointed out, it's usually a young woman (often the only character who goes topless or gets naked) feeling the wrath of this rule. On the other hand, an onscreen virgin is usually the one to make it out alive, or at least last longer than her sexually active foil.
We rarely get to really know much about these women outside of their sexual habits. Sex — or its lack — defines who they are. And though there have been subversions like Jennifer's Body and Teeth, both horror movies that attempt to put sex (and the resultant death) in women's hands, there hasn't been anything quite like David Robert Mitchell's It Follows.
The premise is simple: a monster is passed through sex. It will do anything to get to you, but it just walks endlessly toward you — giving you enough time (provided you're smart about it) to find someone to pass the monster on to. Give it to someone who doesn't pass it on, and the monster will kill them and come right back after you.
Our guide to this dangerous world is Jay (Maika Monroe), who was "given" the monster by her boyfriend Jeff (Jake Weary). The curse affects love interests Greg (Daniel Zovatto) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), as well. But Mitchell's thoughtful storytelling explores sex and its relationship to gender in a way few other horror films have ever attempted.
Playing the trading game
In an early scene, Jay asks Jeff to play an esoteric game called the "trading game." The player is supposed to pick a person in the room with whom they would trade places. Each player's partner in the game is supposed to guess that choice and the reasoning behind it.
Jeff picks a little kid. In Jeff's words, the kid "has his whole life ahead of him." It's a macabre sentiment that signals Jeff's preoccupation with the sex monster (which he is cursed with at this point in the film). But zoom far enough out, and the game extends to the entire movie. In the film's opening moments, viewers get the feeling Jay's sister Kelly (Lilli Sepe) and her friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) are jealous of her. Jay is, after all, slightly older than them and conventionally attractive — slim and blonde and typical horror movie monster chow.
But the monster plays by the rules of the trading game, too. Throughout the film, we're invited to find it in the background of the frame, figure out which body it's inhabiting. When we finally spot it, we're forced to question why it chose the person or form it did. We add our own narrative to the monster's story, just like the guesser in the trading game chooses a reason for the picker's choice.
The game also applies to the way we look at the movie's potential lovers. In the scenes where characters try to pass on the monster, we don't know much about the random people they size up. We come to our own conclusions about whether this person we're sizing up alongside the characters will pass the monster on to someone else in time, thus giving our protagonists some breathing room.
But perhaps most important, the trading game reflects the way the movie explores the idea of sex through the lens of gender.
Sex isn't "easier" for girls.
"It should be easy for you, because you're a girl," Jeff tells Jay when explaining why he cursed her.
Jeff's assertion might be the movie's scathing moment. It comes after we see the monster rip Jay's psyche into pieces, puncturing the humdrum quiet of her normal life. But it also represents a mentality — that finding sex is somehow "easier" for women than for straight men — that stretches beyond the movie. It Follows deconstructs Jeff's thesis mercilessly.
There's nothing easy about being Jay. Her conscience frays, and she questions whether she should pass the monster on to three men on a boat. (This comes after she's already passed it on once, only to find that lover killed by the monster.) She shrugs off her clothes and enters the water in a cloud of desperation, determined to buy herself some time. We don't know whether she went through with her plan, but we do know it's one of the darkest periods of her life.
Conversely, Greg and Paul all but fetishize Jay's curse, thinking they could help her by taking the burden of the monster from her. Jay understands their deep misunderstanding. They don't know the terror they would sign themselves up for. This places a heavy emotional toll on Jay. She doesn't want anyone else — even a stranger — to live through her hell, but she also wants to get back to a monster-free life.
There's equality here. This monster, which forced Jeff into renting a ramshackle home and obsessively creating trip-alarms out of aluminum cans, is just as brutal to Jay as it was to him. She has to make wrenching, perhaps even more difficult decisions about whether to put her friends and the people who love her in danger.
It Follows could have leaned into the spirit of Jennifer's Body or Teeth, where women are sexual aggressors, and the horny men in their lives become the victims. But those movies still send a message that a woman who's in charge of her sexuality is dangerous. It Follows is more thoughtful than that, tracing the consequences of sex and shattering preconceptions of either gender having an "easier" time either finding sex or dealing with its aftermath.
Sex, love, and everything in between
For a piece of cinema that's absolutely terrifying, It Follows is also emotionally devastating. The conceit of the monster is simple, but the second half of the curse proves the bombshell.
Not only do you have to have sex with a person and pass the curse on, but you also have to spell out how the curse works, so the person you pass it to is not immediately killed by the monster, which will once again come after you. Getting people to believe you about the sex monster haunting you (one that they cannot see unless they are or ever have been cursed) may be the most difficult part.
Even when there's actual evidence that the kids are dealing with something supernatural — like when Paul breaks a beach chair on the monster's back — Jay still encounters so much doubt. An inordinate amount of the movie is spent showing that no one believes Jay. She can barely believe herself. It's an elegant metaphor for how often women aren't believed when they say something awful has happened to them — even when they can provide proof.
The key to defeating this monster and preserving one's own life, then, isn't multiple partners. It's building a sense of trust and, well, love.
Mitchell subverts tradition by placing the burden of that love on someone other than Jay. Usually, we associate emotional stories of first loves and first times with women — the movie hints at this during a scene where Jay, in the afterglow of her first time with Jeff, strokes a flower in the parking lot, rambling on about the future. But that's the last time we see her get emotional or lovesick.
Jay isn't a virgin. She fooled around with Greg in her pre-curse life. In no way is sex sacred to her.
Thus, the film's emotional burden falls to Paul, who is mired in his unrequited love for Jay. Her curse affects his fondness for her. At first, he thinks of it as a way to win her love. But later on, it becomes a fundamental part of her. To love her, he'll also have to love her curse. Paul's emotional journey, then, is to accept that loving Jay will mean their love could kill them both.
In this way, Mitchell's movie becomes a powerful musing on mortality. For humans, sex becomes a way to postpone death and stop thinking about the inevitable — if only for a little while.
And if we're extremely lucky, somewhere in the process, we'll find someone who loves us.