The Middle Distance

It Follows (2014)


Sometimes I play the game of “which film would you choose to live in?” If each film recreates the world in its own way, which parallel universe suits you best and why? I’m drawn to the warm hedonism of The Thin Man, the dashing mischief of Trouble in Paradise, or even the gentle rhythms of the world according to Ozu. The game I play less often is “which film do you already live in?” Which captures your interior life more acutely than any other? My answer would be the 2014 horror movie It Follows.

The genius of the urban myth at the center of It Follows is that it invites allegorical readings without confirming them: there’s a monster walking towards you. It doesn’t feel, doesn’t rest. It can take any human form, and when it reaches you, it will kill you. No one else will see it unless you have sex with them. Then it will follow them, until they in turn pass it on to someone else. If it kills one person, it will go back down the chain to whomever it followed previously. It’s a perfect monster because it looks like whatever scares you: STDs, aging, trauma, sin, death, post-industrial decline. It’s a nightmare that begs for interpretation.

When I first saw It Follows, the film frightened me more than any other—for a while it was all I could think about. It would keep me awake at night, and then I would dream about it. It took me a long time to work up to a second viewing, and longer to reckon with why I was being haunted by a movie. What was it about this monster that cut so deep?

Over the past few years, I’ve slowly become more negative, less patient, more withdrawn, quicker to anger, more scared, and generally paranoid. I get agitated by people walking behind or towards me. I’m often convinced that passers-by in the street are deliberately trying to instigate a fight, and just as often I feel like giving them one. My first response to any stranger assumes bad intentions. Anyone nearby, if I don’t know them, is a potential threat. These feelings are inconsistent and far from unmanageable, but they have coalesced into a distinct and growing pattern of behavior.

In trying to understand why this happens, let me briefly recount some memorable episodes from my childhood. When I was 12, a stranger threatened to stab me with a screwdriver. Another invited me to fist bump with a blade sticking out between his knuckles. In a more bizarre incident, I was attacked with bamboo sticks. I’ve been chased, kicked, mugged, and spat on. I’ve been threatened by people with fresh blood stains on their clothes. Almost everyone who attacked me was a stranger. The neighborhood where I grew up (in Birmingham, the UK’s second city) was a hostile place, but I should be clear that despite all this, I was largely safe. If I suffered this small list of violence, then it was far, far worse for others.

Still, the fact that it all happened during my adolescence made these experiences formative—something I’ve realized recently after moving back to Birmingham as an adult. Now I’m scared of the stranger in the middle distance. The few people I still know from my neighborhood speak of a similar inheritance: hostility, fear, dread. One friend described a “weird gothic energy” in that part of town. Once, in London, I met someone by chance who grew up near my family home. My reaction was, bizarrely, to laugh so hard that I ended up in A&E. I realized that I was still carrying the weight of that place in my body, and it has turned me in on myself and away from others.

This is why It Follows seems to screen not into my eyes, but out from them. Because every stranger might be trying to kill you, you must assume that they are trying to kill you. It Follows isn’t the only film to capture this feeling. The fact that the superhero in Unbreakable must purposely bump into strangers to activate his powers carries a marked chill. Even the POV conceit of Peep Show, often relying on the unmotivated nosiness of passers-by, manages to freak me out. Yet It Follows, with its fastidious and dreamlike construction, is uniquely familiar. As in many ghost stories, the monster here is not visible to everyone. It’s the legacy of trauma, a threat where others only see benign life. This paranoia, this Schrödinger’s killer, has been so foundational an aspect of my adult life that it has seeped into my bones.

I have to, of course, contend with what all of this means. It is the cursed fate of horror films to suffer analogy—critics were quick to assert that Safe is about AIDS and Night of the Living Dead is about the Vietnam war, just as the precise political stance of Jordan Peele’s Us was wrapped up before the end of its opening weekend. This ungenerous impulse, to nail down meaning in horror, reduces the genre to an elaborate delivery system for toothless undergraduate theses and criticism to a simple scavenger hunt for clues—or worse, absolute deference to the director’s commentary. But, with It Follows, an allegorical reading of what “it” means (the most obvious and bland being sexually transmitted disease) defangs both the monster and the movie. The funny thing is that this way of thinking about horror, a genre that aims to provoke fear, is profoundly paranoid. It recalls the debate over the “true” meaning of the hat in the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, another great work of paranoid art. Tom Reagan’s fedora is conspicuously centered in the film as a tool of combat, seduction, sophistication, currency, and even the subject of a dream. The Coens push us to ask what it means, even as they laugh at us for doing so. As Tom says, “Nothin’ more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat.”

The best place to start with what “it” means—helpful not because it ties things down but rather opens them up—is that the monster is a distorted reflection of life itself: passed on by sex, inexplicable, unceasing in its march towards death. The forms it takes—old and young, man and woman, tall and short—are all marked by whiteness. Not only are they all Caucasian, but all wear either white clothes or no clothes at all. White contains all colors as life contains death, its corollary as well as its opposite. Seeing death in life, or violence in the middle distance, is down to the beholder.

Director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis soak every frame in paranoid voyeurism. Jay’s curious neighbors spy on her over fences and through windows—the first time we see Jay, as she enters her pool, is in a creepy slow zoom from the street. The slow zoom, used several times in It Follows, is the perfect paranoid technique: a cautious attempt to bring the barely visible into focus, but without any physical movement toward it. With a judicious deployment of wide angles, long shots, open frames, and strategically placed interlopers on the horizon, the film coheres into a picture of absolute dread before the monster is even introduced.

In the opening act teenage protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe) goes on a date to the movie theater with slightly older man Hugh. Standing in line, Jay proposes that they play a people-watching game wherein Hugh secretly chooses a stranger whose life he would trade for his own, and Jay has to guess who he wants to be.

Jay’s game seems like a way to guess the lives of strangers, but the real task is to decipher the life of the person you’re standing right next to. Surprise: Hugh’s real name is Jeff, and on their next date he will violently subdue and curse Jay. In case the writing on the wall isn’t big enough, the film they’re waiting to see is Charade. Jay guesses that Hugh’s pick is a young man flirting with his girlfriend, but he surprises her by selecting a toddler: 

Hugh: How cool would that be, to have your whole life ahead of you? 

Jay: Come on, it’s not like you’re old. You’re 21. 

Yet Hugh/Jeff might as well be old. Cursed by the killer entity, his future has been cancelled. He longs to be infantilized, to retreat to a time not only before sex but before knowledge, before trauma, before fear. After Jay sleeps with him, under the vacant gaze of the derelict Packard Automotive Plant (an iconic symbol of a dead future), she talks about having “an image of herself” at her current age when she was younger: someone free and happy. But she can’t find herself on the timeline. It’s like rediscovering fear on the Birmingham streets I haven’t walked for 15 years: the future disappears as soon as you enter it. Jay can only relate to the present moment in terms of how she used to speculate it would turn out. The case is closed when, just as she is trying to align her nostalgic dreams with the reality of living them, she is drugged, tied up, and introduced to the malevolent creature that will ultimately punish her indulgences. Never has the break between past, present, and future been so violent. Life will not be what you imagined.

Hugh/Jeff’s rented house, Jay discovers later, has its windows papered over and is alarmed with strings of empty soda cans. What Jay inherits from him is not only the curse but also his paranoia. He brings about the irreversible change of making the monster real, and along with it some specific advice: never enter a building with only one exit, don’t trust anyone, and pass the curse on as soon as possible. We can turn again to the words of Miller’s Crossing’s expert paranoiac Tom Reagan: “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.”

After a car crash, Jay is taken to the hospital where, confined to a bed, she is more vulnerable than ever. White-uniformed staff walk the halls, and any one of them could be coming to finish her off. The window of her room overlooks other hospital rooms through a courtyard. Like suburbia, the space is a sort of panopticon without a central authority—unless we count the camera. Indeed, Mitchell films in a steady circular pan across each window, repeating a similar shot at a high school earlier on. Scared witless by this point, we furiously scan the screen for signs of malice. It’s a mini-Rear Window  and the audience assumes the role of L.B. Jefferies, turned paranoid by the camera’s incomplete omniscience.

The panopticon engenders paranoia not only in the prisoner (I am being watched) but also the guard (there are transgressions to be surveilled). Of course, in the order of the panopticon, prisoners become their own jailers—the perfect closed loop of a paranoid mind set. It Follows successfully makes paranoid subjects of us all.

The camera as a tool of paranoia is nothing new. Blowup, Blow Out, and The Conversation all put recording technology into the hands of their paranoid investigators, and each ultimately only furthers their paranoia. The opening sequence of Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, the first film of his “paranoia trilogy,” comprises shots of a tape recorder, which in the story of the film is a weapon of abuse. The power to record reality only ever undermines the capability to understand it. Like the guard in the panopticon, we become afraid not of being seen but seeing.

So how does It Follows bring this legacy towards horror? Paranoia is typified by “perceptual anomalies” whereby the world around us seems not quite real or consistent. These can be as extreme as hallucinations, or a simple imbalance in senses. The world of It Follows—that world with which I am so strangely acquainted—is a landscape of uncertainty, even down to the production design. The film seems to roughly take place in the year it was filmed and yet the signifiers don’t line up. Characters only watch black-and-white movies on CRT televisions, but read Dostoyevsky on a ridiculous clamshell e-reader. The local cinema shows a film from 1963 and the streets are lined with classic cars. Apart from the opening sequence, no one is ever seen with a mobile phone. It’s hard to even distinguish a time of year; some characters wear coats, while others are in vests.

Without doubt this contributes to the film’s intense atmosphere, but is the pile-up of signifiers really so odd for a film made in the early 21st century? In his essay ‘The Slow Cancellation of the Future,” Mark Fisher describes our contemporary culture thus: 

While 20th century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century.

In Fisher’s concept of this cancelled future, newness is replaced by nostalgia, a condition of the atomized suburban spaces of It Follows, too. These leafy family neighborhoods have not wavered from the spirit of 1950s conformity in which they were built. And in this uncertain landscape, because nothing need cohere into a stable reality, almost everything is a reference to something else in horror cinema. There are leaves in the street because of John Carpenter. The wide-angle lens dollies down the center of the street because of Kubrick. The girl in the opening scene is wearing heels because of De Palma. The scene in which Jay sees the monster through the window of her classroom, ignoring her teacher’s recital of Prufrock, is passed to the film from Halloween, by way of Nightmare on Elm Street (it pops up again in 2018’s Hereditary).

Fisher draws on Frederic Jameson’s observation that we are “unable today to focus our own present, as though we had become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.” The displacement and compression of time periods—a paranoid perceptual anomaly if ever there was one—is now so prevalent in horror at large that it has almost become a cliché. The enormous popularity of such nostalgic texts as Mandy, Stranger Things, and It (along with the wider, endless rebirth of Stephen King) indicate that the genre is celebrated not for its originality but for its references. Amidst these floating signifiers, what Fisher calls “the montaging of earlier eras,” the absence of a unifying order only punctuates more urgently the need to find one. Or, while the high school teachers scour the classics to find truth in life, our heroines and cyphers—Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, Jay Height—are dislodged from reality by the dangers lurking outside the window. Like them, I see a threat where a threat doesn’t necessarily exist. Who can say what is real?

I don’t think I am alone in feeling stuck on the tracks between past and future, nor is it a phenomenon restricted to horror. The wave of musical animations produced in the “Disney Renaissance”—which secured both the company’s ultimate market domination and its standing as a cultural touchstone for millennials—coincides exactly with my first decade on this planet. To see those films return to cinemas as almost exact facsimiles save artless technical updates is an oddly disheartening attack of the uncanny. Disney has graduated from adapting fairy tales to simply absorbing the last generation’s intellectual property and re-presenting it to us, like a bored parent playing peek-a-boo.

At the climax of It Follows, the heroes form a plan to lure the monster into a swimming pool and electrify it with household objects. They line the edge of the pool with everything they can find: televisions, desk lamps, irons, typewriters, hair dryers. All the accumulated detritus of the 20th century, the only inheritance they have to hand, is condensed into a foolhardy assault upon the monster. Of course, not only are these objects proven useless, but the monster weaponizes them with ease, launching them at Jay as she swims helplessly through the water. The reduction of yesterday’s commodities into literal floating signifiers is delightful, if a little arch.

In tackling a film by trying to figure out what it “means,” I risk engaging in the fiercely paranoid set of behaviors that now defines film criticism. The explosion of film review channels on YouTube, for example, has given us a mountain of explainer videos claiming to have deciphered the “hidden meaning” behind that week’s big releases (just type “Jordan Peele” into the search bar to see the evidence). Films no longer exist to provoke, surprise, or challenge, but simply await explanation. Mark Fisher again:

Producing the new depends upon certain kinds of withdrawal—from, for instance, sociality as much as from pre-existing cultural forms—but the currently dominant form of socially networked cyberspace, with its endless opportunities for micro-contact and its deluge of YouTube links, has made withdrawal more difficult than ever before. Or, as Simon Reynolds so pithily put it, in recent years, everyday life has sped up, but culture has slowed down. 

Such withdrawal is anathema to maintaining a loyal YouTube viewership. If your life is lived in cyberspace, then without content you might as well be dead, and the best formula to generate clicks is paranoia plus a webcam. With little care to engender new thought or ideas, we simply need to apply the same pattern recognition as ever and we’ll find the grand narrative.

It Follows itself does not escape unscathed. As well as the furrowed-brow thinkpieces and listicles nailing down exactly what the monster is standing in for, there are a hundred utterances of well actually that decry the film for its sloppy mechanics and “inconsistent mythology” (led by, of all people, Quentin Tarantino). Like trying to find a one-for-one reading of what images in a dream mean, it’s a misguided rationalization of a monster whose power is precisely in the fact that it can’t be understood. The essence of “it,” and its potential approach from the middle distance, is distraction, incompleteness, suspicion, and uncertainty. David Robert Mitchell himself has been beset with questions about what kind of sex passes on the cure and exactly how the monster could be defeated. Defying Barthes, the zombie author has risen from his grave to lay down the rules of engagement.

Everyone is entitled to their own games, of course, but we risk locking ourselves into a feedback loop where meaning is fixed, discoverable, and irrevocable. The trend is so blatant that thumbnails for many explainer videos contain gigantic red arrows superimposed onto film stills, almost a parody of the paranoiac’s den. Even worse is that you are only a click away from 9/11 truthers and alt-right misogynists, whose connections are not incidental: everyone wants to be in on the secret. Our epoch’s calculated undermining of expertise has hammered home the notion that not only is there a clear and nefarious meaning behind everything, but it’s being so obfuscated by the powers that be that to understand it you simply need to fully invert your definitions of true and false.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Mitchell’s follow-up to It Follows, Under the Silver Lake, concerns a man foolishly, desperately scouring popular culture for a conspiracy that he believes is hiding in plain sight. That man, a pseudo-perspicacious Andrew Garfield, butts up against a world of untethered signifiers and explodes in bursts of angry, entitled violence that belie his nice-guy persona. He’s the perfect YouTuber: not only chasing after his own hat, but picking up all the trash en route and pinning it to his walls with red string, obliterating anyone who stands in his way. Looking for meaning has become a hostile act.

The obvious truth here is that paranoia is big business. We don’t require conspiracy theories to point out which people do have power and are exploiting it to everyone else’s disadvantage; they compose approximately 1% of the population. Horror’s favorite decade, those vaunted 1980s, also saw the emergence of a neoliberal consensus that peddled all-consuming individualism and quashed solidarity. For certain vested interests, paranoia is handy because it kills commonality and precludes collective action. Until proven otherwise, everyone is an enemy: is there any idea more lethal to meaningful change?

This, ultimately, is what is so scary. The real horror here is not external, but the notion that I am something to fear. Wallowing in paranoia, I become another Hugh/Jeff: turned into myself, ungenerous, isolated, hostile, defensive, haunted by the past yet yearning to return to it. Just another white ghost guarding the panopticon, roaming the world to menace others without ever daring to go near them. Rage is how paranoia describes itself—not useful and righteous anger, but the solitary rage of entitlement. Every day spent in fear of others is a day spent as the stranger in the middle distance.

The paranoid seeds sown by my childhood have fruited many years later, but It Follows has scared me into wanting to break away into the future. Otherwise I’m as condemned as the monster’s victims are to seek out enemies or make them appear from nowhere. Fear is passed on from person to person like a curse, but that’s no reason to see the worst. Change is possible, even if I do try to convince myself otherwise. Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.