Horror films are notorious for simple (even practically simplistic) and easy-to-follow plots, leaving plenty of room for the suspense, thrills, fright and gore that viewers pay for. You only have to look at the horror films available to watch every day to get a feel of how this plays out. The 2014 indie horror flick “It Follows,” however, defies this predominating paradigm, instead putting the onus back on the audience to figure out what actually just happened and what it all means.
In this spoiler-filled explanation of the film’s many ambiguities, you’ll discover the somewhat sensical explanations for the somewhat nonsensical elements left unaddressed and the slightly rational answers to the slightly irrational questions left open in the film.
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It Follows: Plot Summary
College student Jay begins dating Hugh, a sweet but strange boy. Right after the two have sex for the first time, Hugh disappears from her life. Before he leaves for good, though, he reveals that he’s leaving behind a curse for her.
Under this sexually-transmitted curse, according to the sense Jay can make of Hugh’s paranoid ranting, Jay is supposedly now being stalked by a horrific being that can take on the appearance of any person, be it someone Jay knows or a stranger. Moreover, Jay is the only one who can see the thing, whatever form it takes. If this creature, the “It” of “It Follows,” ever catches her, it will kill her.
To avoid becoming its next victim, she must now pass the curse on to someone else, since “It” only stalks one victim at a time, that being the most recent recipient of the curse, followed next by the one who passed it along to that unfortunate soul, and so on.
Jay and her friends ultimately decide to take the story at face value, believing it despite no actual evidence of its veracity. So they decide that, rather than Jay perpetuating the chain of infection, they’ll work together to kill “It” once and for all. This leads to the nail-biting, horrifying and somewhat perplexing ultimate climax in which the hapless group enacts a plan worthy of Scooby Doo to electrocute “It” using an abundance of plugged-in household appliances lining the pool’s edges.
Sounds somewhere between simple and silly, doesn’t it? So why do the film’s audiences have such wildly conflicting interpretations of what they all see on the screen? It turns out that could all be the director’s intent.
When is It Follows set?
Not only does the film seem to deliberately avoid establishing the period of time in which it occurs, but it seems to actively obscure any clues to when that time-frame may be.
Consider, for example, the e-reader one of the characters uses, one of the only forms of technology depicted in the film, and one that doesn’t even exist in the depicted form in real life. Rather, this e-reader looks like a cross between a vintage clamshell-shaped makeup compact and a more modern flip phone.
Other elements of the film that play an anachronistic game with one another, effectively obliterating any sense of a setting in time, include the following:
- All the televisions appearing in the movie either have dials and rabbit-ear antennae or are slightly less ancient cathode-ray tube (CRT) models.
- Everything the characters view on television is vintage era: either a 50s B&W monster flick or an early cartoon.
- The decor in Jay’s kitchen is classic 70s but the refrigerator in Greg’s home is modern stainless-steel.
- The photos on the wall of a young Jay and Kelly look too old to line up with their ages.
- Jeff’s mother is a full-on 80s fashion plate.
- Driving the roads are cars from a range of eras, from Henry Ford’s to the 21st century. Moreover, the vintage cars look just as fresh and new as the more modern ones.
As it so happens, this defiant abnegation of another filmic convention, that of establishing the setting in place and time, is, indeed, intentional. Specifically, it’s because, according to director Robert Mitchell in multiple interviews, the film has no time period. Rather, it takes place in all times and outside of time entirely, just like a dream. And it is a dream, in fact — specifically a nightmare in which a foreboding, inescapable force was following him — that Mitchell has expressed in interviews inspired him to make the film, hence the dreamlike feel he tried to evoke in it with these blatantly disjunctive elements.
For every time there’s supposed to be a season, but not in this flick. At its start, there’s a young woman running outside in a tank top and short-shorts. Her wardrobe and the lush green trees and lawn surrounding her clearly evoke summer. As soon as she turns around, however, the leaves on the trees in the yards opposite hers have already started turning colors and falling to cover the lawns. On one home’s porch, pumpkins sit, all suggesting autumn.
Likewise, prior to Jay’s date, she swims in her pool, implying summer. During their movie date, however, everyone in line outside the theater wears winter coats.
These are just two examples of how Mitchell obscures even any sense of time of year, beyond just the year in time.
Where is It Follows set?
If this film had a continuity supervisor, that person must’ve been pulling out their hair daily on the set, given so many of its “mistakes” were actually of the director’s conscious devising. Once again contributing to the film’s dreamlike quality are glaring inconsistencies in regards to matters of place, like windows showing up in office walls where they couldn’t even have fit, let alone been, previously.
Other Inconsistencies, or “What’s With the …?”
Beyond inconsistencies in matters of setting, the film is also seasoned (pun intended) with random acts of confusion throughout, all designed, it seems, to make the viewer work to unearth the film’s secrets rather than spell it all out. What effect they really produce, however, is to leave the viewer in a constant state of unsettlement from opening to closing credits.
What’s With the Woman Running in Heels?
At the start of the film, a young woman flees “It” while wearing heels. Why is she in heels? Perhaps, it’s to suggest that “It” came upon her by surprise and she had no time to switch into sensible shoes before running for her life.
What’s With the Cans and Bottles Strung From the Doors and Windows of Jeff’s Hideout?
The fact that Jeff has tried to protect himself by hanging cans and bottles over his hideout’s doors and windows tells the viewer without overtly telling the viewer that “It” does have a physical body and can’t simply enter a building by, say, walking through walls.
An Indistinguishable Woman and an Unidentifiable Man
Jay and Kelly’s mother is depicted in strange ways in the film that all combine to make her more of a mysterious apparition herself than a fellow protagonist. Her face is always obscured somehow, such as with light and shadow or blurred focus. What’s more, every time she appears in the film except the last time in Jay’s bedroom, she’s drinking during the day. Adding to this sense that Jay’s own mother is not really, fully “here” anymore is Greg’s mother’s later comment to him that Jay’s family is “a mess.”
One likely interpretation of this, though one not confirmed by the director, is that Jay’s mother is traumatized by the death of her husband, Jay and Kelly’s father. Supporting this possibility is the observation that the man “It” impersonates in the climactic pool scene, presumably Jay and Kelly’s father (more on this in a moment) appears to be the same age as the man in the old wall photo in Jay’s home, both looking in their late-30s to early-40s.
A dad dead by suicide could also explain why Jay doesn’t want to tell Kelly what form she sees “It” take in the pool house. Other photos depicting the man at the same age appear elsewhere in the film as well, like on Jay’s bedroom mirror posing beside her as a mere child, or in a family photo seen over Jay’s mother’s shoulder with Jay, Kelly and their mother all looking the same degree younger beside this man who look only the same.
The Climactic Impersonation
In the climactic fight with “It” in the pool house, Jay’s sister asks her who she sees, referring, of course, to the form “It” chooses to take this time. Jay’s answer: “I don’t want to tell you.”
Later, when the audience views the scene from Jay’s point of view, “It” appears as a character most audience members would say they haven’t seen before in the film.
Already aware “It” occasionally impersonates one of the victim’s loved ones, audiences are wise to wonder if this bearded, middle-aged man they see is one of Jay’s loved ones. Indeed, earlier in the film, when camera shots inside Jay’s home catch glimpses of the photographs on the wall, astute audience members may notice that some of them depict the very same man. While never explicitly stated, it would be safe for audiences to assume he’s Jay and Kelly’s father, probably, as suggested earlier, now dead.
Why So Cagey?
To truly understand “It Follows” requires delving beyond mere explanations of the meaning of the individual ambiguities in the film to the larger meaning of making a film with so many bald ambiguities.
Hugh doesn’t know enough about the monster to provide entirely complete, or even accurate, information about what it is or how it operates. The audience is unclear how far “It” can travel, whether it can find its prey no matter where or how far they run. The group’s plan to kill “It” is to electrocute it in the pool, even though they know so little about it to know if that would even work. And so on.
As director Mitchell essentially told Yahoo Movies, leaving so many obvious gaping holes in the movie subverted the common tendency for fans of the genre to simply pick apart a horror film in order to expose all of its plot holes. By presenting itself as unconcerned with unnecessary backstory and explanation, the film insures itself against such accusations of incongruity.
It Follows: The Ending?
Probably the biggest ambiguity in “It Follows” occurs in the final scene, when Jay and Paul are walking down the road post-coital as a figure approaches them slowly from behind.
What is the figure? Is it the monster itself, apparently not dead and defeated after all? And if it is, why don’t the pair run for their lives?
As Mitchell explains it, the ending leaves it up to the audience to decide what happens next and, thus, what the film’s ending really means. Is “It” finally, truly, permanently dead or isn’t it? Or is the creature dead but the curse still alive and rampant? There’s nothing in the closing moments of the film to contradict any of these interpretations.
Why people interpret It Follows as sexual
There are several interpretations critics and viewers have made of the film that share a sexual nature in common. In its most general form, this film is about something bad that teenagers pass from one to the other through sex. Some therefore see the story as a commentary on promiscuous teen sexuality in general while others drill down deeper to describe it as a metaphor for STDs.
Consider the evidence:
- The curse is passed from person to person via sexual intercourse.
- Most people are informed, if possible, that they’ve become “infected.”
- Only people affected by the curse, now or in the past, can “see” it.
Even the film’s director himself has thrown a hat into this ring. While he shies from giving any outright explanations of the film or for his choices in making it, he does admit to a conceptual framework around human mortality as an unavoidable inevitability from which flimsy and fickle uncertainties like sex and love may distract, but never ultimately deter.
No, Really, The End This Time
As these revelations collectively reveal, underlying the transfixing cinematography, lush soundtrack and novel plot twists of “It Follows” is a mystery locked in a puzzle trapped in an enigma. In other words, the more you watch “It Follows,” the deeper you delve into its nuances, the more you find how little you actually know or understand about it.
How did you like It Follows and its ending? Do drop a comment below with your thoughts.
Barry is a technologist who helps start-ups build successful products. His love for movies and production has led him to write his well-received film explanation and analysis articles to help everyone appreciate the films better. He’s regularly available for a chat conversation on his website and consults on storyboarding from time to time.
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