I was an anxious kid. I hated the dark. Sometimes, when I was playing in my parents’ basement, my mom or dad would turn the lights out, not realizing that I was down there (I was a quiet kid, too). The panic would set in and I’d sprint to the top of the stairs, convinced that some malevolent force was following half a step behind me.
So sleepovers were a fraught proposition. The dark of my parents’ house was bad enough; the dark of another family’s was even worse. A friend would invite me to stay over. We’d eat pizza, play Sonic for hours on end, watch a movie. It’d come time to go to bed and I’d make a valiant effort, lying awake for an hour or two, steeling myself. Then, when things got truly quiet, too quiet, when not only my friend was asleep but also his parents, I’d find a phone on some faraway wall, call my mom and dad, and whisper for them to pick me up. Every sleepover involved the same dilemma: Whose parents should I disturb first, my friend’s or my own? Sooner or later (sometimes as late as two a.m.), I ended up disturbing everyone.
Once I was older, though, my fear of the dark not only faded, it reversed. In high school, I flinched if the basement lights flickered on, since it meant that my mom or dad might happen upon my girlfriend and me in flagrante delicto. I actively sought out darkness—not only in my parents’ basement, but in the movie theaters where I spent many of my waking hours and in the kinds of movies I’d see in those theaters: horror, more often than not. After seeing Scream while I was in middle school, I realized that if I experienced my anxiety in concentrated, ninety-minute bursts, it tended to level out in between. Disturbing or being disturbed wasn’t a dilemma but a decision. I chose to be disturbed.
Of course, the more horror movies you see, the more their horrors tend to level out, too. An adolescence spent in the thrall of specters and serial killers left me somewhat numbed to the effects of the genre later on. Just as those scenes of me nodding off in the backseat of my dad’s Ford Festiva as he drove me home from a friend’s house in the small hours of the morning have taken on the soft focus of nostalgia, so too have the nights when I couldn’t fall asleep after watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (in my childhood bedroom) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (in a dorm room while I was studying abroad) or Session 9 (at my first apartment in Delaware). There’s a certain heart to all that darkness.
So if and when a film like David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is cited as “the scariest and best-engineered American horror movie of recent years” (Andrew O’Hehir, Salon)—I listen. I listen carefully. I’d still rather feel anxious in a drafty, darkened movie theater than anywhere else. I still want to be disturbed. I still want another sleepless night.
I saw It Follows. And then, a week later, I saw it again.
The film’s premise is indelible. After college kid Jay sleeps with her boyfriend Hugh for the first time, he explains that something’s been following him. “This thing,” he says, “it’s gonna follow you. Somebody gave it to me, and I passed it to you.” What makes the thing so insidious is that it “could look like someone you know, or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you. It can look like anyone, but there’s only one of it.” Through the course of the film, “it” assumes the form of a naked woman, a naked man, an old woman, a young woman, a young boy, a friend, a parent. “Wherever you are,” Hugh explains, “it’s somewhere, walking straight for you.” And once the thing finds you and kills you, “[i]t goes straight down the line” to the last person. If the thing kills Jay, it’ll come for Hugh. Therein lies the film’s central dilemma: “All you can do is pass it along to someone else.” Jay can only outrun the thing by sleeping with someone else. She can only outrun the thing.
Critics have been quick to read It Follows as an urban legend about sexually transmitted terror—somewhat unsurprisingly so, since most monsters in horror movies come from under the bed. As Randy, the voice of reason, says in Scream, the number one rule of surviving a horror movie is that “you can never have sex … Sex equals death.” This is and isn’t the case in It Follows. As Leslie Jamison points out in Slate, “Getting followed comes from sex, sure; but the only solution is more of it.” Jamison (who also saw the movie twice) instead gestures to “the most obvious metaphoric read of It Follows: Death itself is the slow thing always walking toward us, always advancing toward us from some angle—from some distance—even if we can’t see where it’s coming from, or how far off it might be. The specter of mortality is haunting all the sex we have.” Sex is merely le petit mort en route to la grande mort.
The film that It Follows followed, Mitchell’s feature debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010), is full of little deaths that prefigure the bigger deaths of the auteur’s sophomore effort. Viewed alongside The Myth of the American Sleepover, It Follows plays like a return of the repressed.
Like It Follows, The Myth of the American Sleepover follows a group of young adults who pass their time in the backyards, bedrooms, pools and dens of an unnamed Detroit suburb. Both films possess a dreaminess, a timelessness—as if we’re always watching them half-asleep. But The Myth of the American Sleepover softens the harder edges of It Follows. The film takes place on the last night of summer vacation, as four teenagers follow their crushes: the pierced, affable Maggie trails the cute, curly-haired lifeguard Steven to a lakeside party; clean-cut, awkward Rob treks from sleepover to sleepover in search of a blonde girl whom he spotted at the local Food Mart; new kid Janelle attends one of the sleepovers, but ends up staying the night at her boyfriend’s after she gets in a fight there; and would-be college dropout Scott stalks a pair of twins down at a freshman orientation sleepover after his sister tells him that one of them had a crush on him in high school. In The Myth of the American Sleepover, the central dilemma of It Follows disperses into a series of smaller dilemmas; its sole following forks into a few; its shared anxiety becomes individual and idiosyncratic. One sort of sleepover gives way to another.
Early on in It Follows, Jay recalls, “We used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates.” The teenagers in The Myth of the American Sleepover daydream at night; they dream of daydreams. Midway through the movie, Maggie sits with Steven on a floating platform in the middle of a dark lake. She’s ditched a friend’s sleepover to come to his party. “I actually liked when my friends had sleepovers,” he says, since “it’s the kind of thing you miss when you’re too old to do it anymore.” For Steven, once you “[s]tart showing up to keg parties and going skinny dipping, you don’t even remember how amazing it is to play a board game on the floor of your friend’s living room.” “Or a game of tag in the backyard?” Maggie offers. “Yeah. I miss tag,” he replies. The conversation parallels one that takes place between Jay and her friend Paul in It Follows after Jay’s become a player in its own game of tag. Jay’s friends are sleeping over (Jay’s friends sleep over every night after it begins to follow her). Unable to nod off in her bedroom, Jay wanders down to the den, where Paul is watching an old sci-fi movie. He tells Jay that this is the first time he’s slept over at her house since they were kids. They reminisce about a time when they were younger and they found some dirty magazines in an alley and they didn’t even know what they were looking at. They reminisce about how Paul was Jay’s first kiss but Jay wasn’t Paul’s. Their nostalgic reverie is interrupted by it, in the guise of a decomposing cheerleader, piss streaming down her leg.
The Myth of the American Sleepover’s horrors are lower key, but they’re similarly tied to sex and adolescence. At Tom Higgins’s sleepover, Rob and his friends watch a slasher flick. Some women sit in a hot tub. One asks where Sandy went. “Hey boys, you can call me Skinny Dipping Sandy!” another jokes, lifting up her top. One of Rob’s friends picks up some nudie magazines—the same kinds of magazines that litter a pivotal scene in It Follows—and heads to the bathroom to jack off. As he leaves the room, Tom’s older sister Julie wanders into the adjacent kitchen. Rob shifts his gaze to her as we hear screams coming from the horror movie on the TV. Julie notices Rob noticing her and flicks him off. At Janelle Ramsey’s sleepover, meanwhile, Claudia discovers that Janelle has slept with her boyfriend, and she uses a Ouija board to get herself and Janelle’s boyfriend Andy alone. “You want two of us to visit you in the basement?” she asks the board, and she and Andy head downstairs. They sit knee-to-knee next to a water heater. “So you look over my shoulder and tell me if you see the ghost,” she says, “and I’ll do the same for you.” Andy surveys Claudia’s face instead, in a series of small, lingering close-ups. “I wanna kiss you,” he admits, “but I can’t.” Claudia responds: “Have you ever breathed through another person before?” They kiss.
As in It Follows, horror becomes the context for the kids to confront far more mundane dilemmas: questions of growing up and moving on, of moving out and putting out. The Myth of the American Sleepover underscores that It Follows isn’t only about sex, because adulthood isn’t only about sex. It’s about hoping that your parents will leave the lights on until you hope that they won’t. It’s about what you do once you leave home¬, for the night or for good, for better or for worse, till death do you part. It’s about the moment when sleepovers stop being sleepovers, when it’s just sleeping over, when it’s just sleeping.
That mythic, all-American band the Beach Boys once sang, “You know it’s gonna make it that much better / When we can say goodnight and stay together.” But It Follows suggests that it wouldn’t be nice, or it wouldn’t be that much nicer. When Paul and Jay sleep together at the end of the film in a last ditch effort to outrun it, he asks her: “Do you feel any different?” She replies, “No.” In the next scene they stroll down a sidewalk holding hands, as a figure moves behind them in the distance. Mitchell cuts to black, leaving us to decide whether it’s still following.
Watching The Myth of the American Sleepover, then It Follows, then It Follows, then The Myth of the American Sleepover, I experienced my own return of the repressed. I had a nightmare: I was back in my parents’ basement, the lights were off, and something was walking toward me. I stood, paralyzed. It kept coming. I woke up.
I told my partner about the dream the next day. I told her I wondered what the thing was. She shrugged. “It’s your anxiety,” she said. She was right.
The nightmare lingered like nightmares do, like horror movies do, like sleepovers do. Like when you stumble into the morning light a little changed, a little dazed, a little different. A little more anxious, but a little less
Kyle Meikle is a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware who researches and writes about adaptation.