It Follows and the Negative Space of Horror Films
Oh look, the post I would have shared on Halloween if I had finished it on time.
This essay contains mild plot spoilers for the 2016 film, It Follows
Freddy Krueger appears in only seven minutes of the original Nightmare on Elm Street’s eighty-seven minute runtime. Pinhead appears for eight minutes of Hellraiser’s ninety-four minutes. Bruce the Shark appears for four minutes of the hundred and twenty-four minutes of Jaws, the same amount of time taken up by the xenomorph in Alien’s one hundred and seventeen minutes.
The reason given for not showing much of the horror antagonist is sometimes due to production problems (Jaws) and other times it is intentional (Nightmare on Elm Street). Most horror fans accept that the shocks that provide the main attraction are often spread sparsely in order to maintain their effectiveness. In this sense, the shocks that are planted like foundational columns throughout a horror film make up its positive form. The moments in between, the setting and dramas that are meant to make you care for the protagonist (or make you thirst for their demise) make up the negative space. We often take these negative space segments in the spirit they were intended, as foreshadowing and setup for the scares. However, I recently watched It Follows for the first time and I’m convinced that things work the other way round, that the negative space is the meat of the film and the scares serve a function to enhance and intensify the moments in between.
If you have not heard of It Follows, its premise is simple and brilliant. A shapeshifting supernatural entity slowly hunts down and murders the linear inheritors of a curse that is passed on through sexual intercourse. We learn of this in traumatising fashion when, after doing what teenagers used to be known for doing in cars before adults decided to make it their own, the protagonist (Jay) is rendered unconscious by her new boyfriend (Hugh) with a chloroform-soaked rag. It turns out, after Jay wakes up tied to a wheelchair in a disused multi storey car park, that this has been done so that Hugh can show the creature to her and inform her about the curse that she has inherited. The monster moves slowly but it will always move directly towards her. It can only be seen by the cursed and can change its appearance, sometimes to that of people she knows. She can pass on the curse to others but the creature will always hunt the most recent inheritor, moving on to the next as soon as it has killed them. It’s such a compelling and horrifying premise that it’s no surprise that the subtext, the negative space, was not placed on an equal footing in the film’s promotion and word of mouth. When the film’s atmosphere and setting is discussed, it is often done so in the hope of explaining what the creature is and the particulars of the curse it is tied to.
The most noticeable thing about the subtext of It Follows is the use of anachronism to set up a sense of timelessness (the director says that this was intended to keep the film from being dated). The cars, phones, devices and decor that the teens use throughout the film reference various eras of the twentieth century. TVs, and the black and white movies that are watched on them, seem to date from the fifties to the eighties. All the phones that are used are landlines and the one touchscreen device that appears is a seashell e-reader that has never existed but every viewer of the film ends up wanting. We even see an element of the early twentieth century with a uniformed pipe organist playing away in a cinema before the movie starts.
Another aspect of the negative space is the seeming absence of parents and older figures who are often peripheral, out of focus or obscured within the film’s shots. Often, adults only appear in strange, fake looking photos or when the creature takes their form.
For me, these two factors make a point about the world that the young, white, middle class suburban Americans seem to occupy, one that is not their own. It is a mishmash of the cultures that came before them, reflecting a recursive, derivative and nostalgic culture. While teens from Grease to Stranger Things are defined by the sounds and accoutrements of their chosen tribal cultures, the teens of It Follows occupy several cultural epochs at once. They don’t live in their own time, they live in an amalgum of the times that their barely seen parents and grandparents lived in.
Many of these negative space scenes demonstrate a kind of malaise. Jay floats in a dirty swimming pool in the opening scene and idly lines up blades of grass on her leg later on when she is meant to be listening to important information about the thing that is hunting her down. When the creature attacks, it is often in moments when the quarry has let their guard down and has succumbed to the torpor of their surroundings.
In this sense, the creature represents a kind of urgency which is able to puncture the miasma of the world that the teens live in. The creature shares the quality that makes the slow zombies in George A Romero’s films so much more effective than Zack Snyder’s fast zombies. It is often the carelessness and false security of the victim that leads to their death rather than the guile and ferocity of the monster.
The majority of It Follows portrays a group of young people that have become unmoored from meaning and a generational sense of time and place. Death is meaningful in how it is able to infuse their world with urgency and sex is meaningful in the sense that it has actual consequences. Everything else seems to work in lulling them into treading water, an image that is used in a very literal sense in the film’s final confrontation.
I’ve seen some theories online about how the world of It Follows is not our world at all but a version of limbo. I found myself thinking that maybe the world of It Follows might actually be a representation of the internet, hence why, bar the sea-shell e-reader, we never see the bored teenagers staring at their own little screens and why the adults of the real world are slightly out of focus or out of frame. If this is true then maybe the creature represents the occasional brush with death that makes us look up from our phones as we step into the path of the bus. Or maybe the film is making a statement that, even if we did lose our devices, instead of embracing the moment we would simply find other ways of becoming listless and detached. Now that is a truly terrifying thought.