A few years ago, I made the startling observation that I am a “hard sci-fi” film buff. Whenever I refer to myself in this way, I always raise eyebrows. What exactly is “hard sci-fi”? I’d taken for granted the meaning of this niche term for any fiction based on actual science and technology. It is why I hatedPrometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). And as much as I still can’t whole-heartedly embrace Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014), I find it endlessly fascinating. The science and the implications of its use in manipulating the natural world is one of the reasons why I love Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) so much.
I’m not exactly sure what led me to seek out these thought-provoking narratives about life, history, and time. In short, the nature of existence. Is it because my father, a numbers and all-around science geek, would routinely tell us children that he believes in aliens and a multiverse? “Remember, in a parallel universe, you’re my mother, and I’m your son. In another, you are green, and in another blue. Anything and everything is possible.” In much the same way that people find comfort in believing in god, I find the notion of life on other planets, in other universes, so impossible to ignore or rule out that it is almost certainly true. For me, anyway. In any case, perhaps having this open mind and this desire to gaze up at the stars, to imagine different lives and circumstances, all but ensured my eventual identification with hard sci-fi. I may not understand everything, but my determination to make sense of these narratives defines my relationship to the genre. Hell, you could say that my lifelong obsession with cinema influenced this deep-seated belief that anything and everything is possible. For what is cinema if not the exploration of alternate realities defined by space and time? Cinema is still so young, and we’ve only scraped the surface of what is possible.
My hard sci-fi epiphany may have occurred when, in April 2007, I was one of only a handful of people taking in an afternoon showing of Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) in Lancaster, England. Sitting in the darkened theater, thousands upon thousands of miles from home, and submitting to a film narrative that runs counter to our current fears about global warming, I had a visceral reaction to everything I watched on the big screen. I’d often thought about the time when the sun will die, over a billion years from now, and how its gaseous explosion will likely swallow up Earth. It was quite another thing to be confronted by a crew of astronauts charting a course to blow up the sun, to bring it back to life so that it may end the terrible Ice Age enveloping all of Earth. The physicist hero Capa can only successfully fulfill his mission by delivering himself with the payload, in the end reviving the sun in death. It seems perfectly logical to me that the film’s screenwriter, Alex Garland, would then go on to make one of the best hard sci-fi films about artificial intelligence. I fell hard for his directorial debut Ex Machina, which came out in April of 2015, and it cemented my new obsession with all things artificial intelligence.
Like Garland (and Stanley Kubrick before him), I believe that the next step in human evolution is the moment when we reach singularity, opening the door to a world where the reasoning of man-made machines supplants that of humankind. In Ex Machina, you root for the android Ava to escape her laboratory/modern home. She is a gothic heroine held captive by her megalomaniacal creator Nathan, and even though she cleverly manipulates and outwits her sympathetic suitor Caleb, leaving him to die on the compound after killing Nathan—even though she is a computer—you relate and identify with her plight. Ava is the future, and her discovery of the outside world suggests that our future, when it is run by machines, will not be without wonderment. It may be a scary thought that our computers will be in control one day, but we’re already headed in that direction (after all, who checks her phone for messages whenever it dings, like Pavlov’s dog?), and by the time scientists reach singularity, I will be long gone. That future doesn’t frighten me one byte bit.
On a high from Ex Machina, I devoured other cultural products about artificial intelligence last year. Chief among them were the novel Speak by Louisa Hall and The Brain with David Eagleman, a six-part documentary series that only touched on A.I. in its last hour. In the former, Hall weaves a compelling intertwining narrative around five different people from disparate times and places, people directly or indirectly involved in the science of artificial intelligence. She presents one of them, Alan Turing, the inventor of the modern computer, through letters he writes to the mother of his childhood friend Christopher, whom he loved all of his short, tragic life. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014) touches on some of Hall’s themes, and I inevitably pictured Cumberbund while reading Turing’s sections of the book, but that prestige picture paled in comparison to Hall’s thought-provoking and evocative language. Here is one of my favorite lines by Hall, writing as Turing, who’s reflecting on the theoretical experiments he was never able to perform with Christopher (because he died while they were still boys at school):
… I can only imagine that our brains must grow in similar patterns: one step backwards, added to the present term, resulting in a subsequent term that combines both. Past and present, contained in the future (191)
I thought of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), too, when reading the book. Another official voice in Speak belongs to an inventor of lifelike companion dolls for children that, upon extensive exposure, inadvertently and progressively transform the children into lifeless robots. Interspersed are the memoirs that the dolls’ creator, Chinn, writes from prison as well as chat transcripts entered as proof that his programming did (or did not) intentionally harm children. Framing each section of the book is a first-person account from one of his dolls, on its way to die in the desert. The bleakness of its fate, its battery dying, its struggle to hold onto language, for that is what it thinks makes it humanlike, reminded me of David, the robot boy in A.I. When I grieve for a fictional humanoid robot—whether on screen or on the page—I must be subconsciously grieving my own mortality.
That is why I found the story of budding neuroscientist Kim Suozzi so fascinating (not to mention, we share an almost uncanny resemblance). Recognizing the impossibility of beating cancer (she was twenty-three when she died in 2013), Kim spent the remaining months of her life raising the funds to, essentially, donate her brain to the science of cryonics. She fought alongside her boyfriend to preserve her brain in extremely cold temperatures so that in the future, when the science has finally been developed, her consciousness can be plugged into a computer. In other words, she would reach a singularity that Johnny Depp does in Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014)—only without the ability to take over the highly connected digitized world. The New York Times profile of Kim by Amy Harmon is heartbreaking, but it asks a lot of questions—the right questions. When she died, Kim knew that she was making a gamble. We still don’t know if we will ever be able to simulate our connectomes, or the connections in the brain that give us our own unique consciousness. But isn’t it beautiful to dream of that possibility? I don’t see Kim’s wish as selfish (as in, why does she get to cheat death and become immortal through reviving her brain?). I think it’s inspiring that a young woman would devote her life—however short—to science, to figuring out the mystery of whether or not we can bring a person back to life.
In The Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman happens to visit the facility where Kim Suozzi’s brain is being preserved in order to highlight the controversial science guiding organizations like Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Ted Williams is also uniquely interred there. More so than his comments on artificial intelligence, I savored Eagleman’s distillation of complex concepts, such as identity and reality, and how these socially constructed notions first and foremost exist within the brain. They can get distorted there, too. The Brain also made an alternate reality for me all too real: what might have I become had I continued studying linguistics in college? (I checked out when phonology got too challenging.) Back in the day, I’d imagined being a sociolinguist—I still act like one, to an extent—but with my new fascination with the brain, I know for sure that I would have liked to have been a neuroscientist who studies language, memory, and the brain.
In other words, The Brain confirmed what I already believe about life. We are who we are because of what we have in our brains and because of how our brains interact with each other, transcending time and space. That doesn’t mean our brains always work properly, or in the ways that we want them to. Memory is reliably unreliable. Words escape us from time to time. These are but two reasons why I attempt to document my every waking hour, why I write down what I have seen, why I used to write about everything I have seen. I know I cannot store all of that information in my brain. But my brain allows me to create the systems I use to remember, including a coded language. It doesn’t matter; these records will always be incomplete. There are some things I forget to write down, some things I don’t want to commit to paper for fear that another’s eyes may read my words and know my secrets. I may be knowable through what I think, say, and write, but I will never be known. This is the beauty and cruelty of our human consciousness. We’ll never be able to see the world exactly as someone else does. But of all of the art forms, cinema comes the closest to achieving empathy.
I had never heard of the indie horror film It Follows until I spotted its poster hanging in the hallway of a local art-house cinema here in Kansas City, announcing its imminent showcase. Using familiar iconography of American teenage rebellion, the minimalist printed advertisement poses two attractive young people in the midst of a backseat tryst in a classic car parked in the middle of the woods. A smoky footlight from within illuminates the interior of the car parked on this Lovers’ Lane. Without a tagline, the poster for It Follows relies on a quote from The Dissolve to entice spectators: “One of the Most Striking American Horror Films in Years,” which isn’t quite the same as saying it is the most striking American horror film in years. However, the beguiling film title is the viewer’s most helpful guide to interpreting the poster scene (and, by extension, the film it represents): what is “It?” Could “It” be me, as I look at this intimate moment between two people? The voyeuristic film poster perfectly encapsulates the dueling yet complementary senses of dread and yearning that the 2014 film, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, instills in the audience.
Given the film’s strong word-of-mouth marketing campaign and sizable box office gross, distributors RADiUS-TWC scrapped plans to release the film via video-on-demand and instead rushed it to more theaters around the country. Even though I routinely eschew horror films (unless there are vampires; don’t ask why!), I determined that I had better see this thing, to judge for myself how “striking” it is. I couldn’t see It Follows at the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport now; when the film’s distribution widened ahead of the theater’s advertised opening day, Tivoli put on alternate programming instead. Wishing video-on-demand was still an option, I entered into an agreement at an AMC multiplex, voluntarily giving away control, allowing myself to be scared out of my mind. After all, if New York film critic and self-proclaimed “horror-movie freak” David Edelstein could barely handleIt Follows, how was I ever going to walk away un-traumatized? Apparently, the film had frightened him so much that he left with a “so-upset-I-feel-sick kind of amorphous dread.” Yikes.
And here is where I must insert my common refrain: there be spoilers ahead. But if you are like me and avoid torture porn, slasher movies, and possession flicks, then you should know—if you’re even considering seeing It Follows—that the film is not scary! That’s right: to my pleasant surprise, It Follows isn’t scary in the least. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any jump scares (there are a few) or that the plotting doesn’t create and alleviate some violent tension. The sole “hideously gory image” that Edelstein can’t wipe from his memory arrives early, but it is no more traumatizing to look at than any of the so-called elegant murderous tableaux featured on the network drama Hannibal. (I admit: I watch that, but never before or after eating and only during daylight hours.)
By now, you probably know the premise of It Follows. A pretty but nice girl, Jay (Maika Monroe), has sex with a quiet but nice boy, Hugh (Jake Weary). Afterwards, he chloroforms her face, and she wakes up in her underwear, bound in a wheelchair. In an abandoned parking garage somewhere in the suburbs of Detroit, Hugh explains to her that, through intercourse, he has just passed a “thing” onto her, a monster that only she can see and that will take different forms, usually people she knows and loves. It will never stop haunting her, Hugh warns Jay (and by extension, the audience). It will follow her everywhere on foot, but she mustn’t let it kill her. If she succumbs to its evil force, then it will come after him.
In the introduction to the interview she conducted with David Robert Mitchell, Flavorwire writer Alison Nastasi hints at the parallels that Jay’s newfound diagnosis shares with venereal disease (prognosis: not good!). She writes, “Jay’s sexually transmitted haunting evokes the film’s theme of the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety” (emphasis mine). In other words, despite coming of age well after the initial HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the subsequent “safe sex” movement of the 1990s, teenagers today approach sex with some trepidation regarding infection. But in the film, the teenagers don’t so much internalize the idea that intercourse is more than just physically and emotionally laying yourself bare. Instead, sex is a means of, to borrow Nastasi’s words, “surrendering a part of yourself to someone else” whose sexual history weighs heavily on your own. The “interconnectivity” inherent in the sexual act renders Jay vulnerable to the aftereffects of one of Hugh’s earlier assignations and winds up controlling her destiny. Despite the support that she receives from her sister and friends, the visions of stalkers are too much for Jay to bear, and the burden of having to pass on this “sexually transmitted haunting” constitutes not only cruel and unusual punishment for all involved but also her only means of escape from imminent death.
But what does it all add up to? While Mitchell is open to various interpretations of what It Follows means, in talking with Nastasi, he resolutely denies that viewers should walk out of the theater believing that Jay’s “sexually transmitted haunting,” to use that phrase again, is a result of her sexuality. He also disagrees with the notion that the film purports a “sex-negative” message, specifically about women losing something during the act and that they should therefore be afraid of sex. Jay is not being punished for sleeping with someone, and casual sex isn’t something to fear. Watching the movie, I purposefully looked beyond the STI connection and about midway through decided that It Follows is about the collision of the real and the imaginary and how convincing someone of your truth binds you both together. I thought that what Jay suffers from isn’t a real physical threat but rather the psychological torment that Hugh first puts into her head. Can she trust him? Is this “thing” real? Will anyone believe that she is not crazy?
Young adults commonly struggle to make sense of the world and their place within it. What do I want to be when I grow up? Will my best friend and I always be close? How can I be cool? I don’t want to be anything like my parents! One of the elements I like best about It Follows is the companionship that Jay enjoys with Kelly (Jay’s sister, played by Lili Sepe), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Paul (Keir Gilchrist). Eventually, a classmate and former high school paramour, played by a young Johnny Depp lookalike named Greg (Daniel Zovatto) joins the crew. They all trust that Jay is seeing some pretty disturbing visions and that she isn’t crazy. Their teenage clique demonstrates that even if they cannot see or identify with the viral bullying that Jay endures, they can relate to it and desire to put a stop to it. In this way, It Follows turns the average teenager’s general desire to fit in (and the complementary fear of rejection) on its head. Jay’s supernatural condition infects everyone around her, thereby producing a cohesive social unit that doesn’t label her an outcast or social pariah. This is the silver lining to “the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety,” as Nastasi labels the film’s overarching theme. In the end, the group relies on Jay’s vision to extinguish the monster once and for all.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It Follows does showcase the interplay between Jay’s supernatural condition and the awkwardness of teenagehood in some poignant ways. Paul is in love with Jay, his best friend’s older sister. Years ago, they shared each other’s first kiss. When Paul finds out that Jay slept with Greg in order to pass on the haunting, he behaves somewhat like a petulant child. Why Greg? Paul wants to know. Because Jay thought that Greg could handle it. For days, Greg is unfazed, insisting that the monster has yet to visit him. Its absence leads him to believe that it is all in Jay’s mind. What happens next in the film rendered incorrect my observation about the slippage between what is real and what is imagined. One night, Jay watches a zombie-like stalker in the shape of Greg break into Greg’s house across the street. Jay realizes that her transmission, however successful, hasn’t freed her from the visions. So she runs across the street to warn him. Once in the house, it takes the form of Greg’s mother (Leisa Pulido), naked but for an untied silk robe, and pounds on Greg’s door. Jay yells for him to stay locked in his room. He doesn’t heed Jay’s warning, and for the first time the film audience catches a glimpse of what happens when the monster kills someone in the chain: it literally fucks the victim to death, their skin gelling together. That’s when it dawned on me that It Follows is simply about the fear of death—by incest.
In an interview with Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, writer-director David Robert Mitchell discusses many of the film’s plot twists and turns. I think he’s being particularly cagey about why the monster takes the form of the victim’s loved ones, limiting his remarks to just the following: “So why did I make it the mom, other than just saying it was one of the more fucked-up things that I could think of? [Laughs.] It’s also that within the film, we’re sort of avoiding the influence of the adult world, and so I thought it was interesting to only enter into that space through the trope of the monster.” Without revealing much, this quote pinpoints exactly what the film is about: the anxiety over growing up and becoming an adult, and the film story uses incest as a metaphor for the teenagers to confront their own mortality, by becoming “one” with their parent.
Whereas my sister sees the teenagers’ mission to extinguish the monster on their own (that is, without adult supervision) as evidence of their self-sufficiency, I view it as an expression of the horror genre’s conventions. In these films, parents often don’t interact much with their teenagers—unless they are part of the problem. Just look at The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy 1973) or A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984), two seminal entries in the genre. In the former, orgiastic villagers use their children to lure a virginal fool to their Hebridean island in order to sacrifice him as part of their pagan May Day celebration. The titular nightmare(s) in the latter film also refer to a slippage between the real and the imaginary, and the adults are similarly of little use to solve the teens’ horrific ordeal. The adults’ attempt to murder Freddy Krueger, who now stalks the teens’ dreams, is the reason for their children’s torment today. It Follows even recalls the work of cult director David Lynch, specifically Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-91), and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). Writing for Slate, and without elaborating on the specifics, Mark Binelli claims that “Mitchell is clearly indebted to Blue Velvet,” probably because teenagers also investigate the psychosexual crimes of the adults in that voyeuristic picture. The highly influential Twin Peaks presents a more apt comparison; Leland Palmer killed his daughter but claims to have been possessed throughout his life by a demon, which led him to rape and murder her. The “influence of the adult world,” to use Mitchell’s phrase, is certainly something to avoid in these films and TV series, but since we only catch glimpses of the adults in It Follows, what makes them so sinister that copulation with your parent is deadly?
If the hallmark of teenage rebellion is not wanting to be anything like your parents, then, according to Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytical theory, the Oedipal and Electra complexes should be the death of you. It Follows realizes this destiny for those who contract the sexually transmitted haunting, but Mitchell goes one step further. Rather than merely promoting the fear of incest as the victim’s undoing, he combines these metaphors for psychosexual conflict with another Freudian theory: the interplay between the sexual and death instincts. While the former drives the individual to seek (sexual) pleasure and live life to the fullest, the latter binds the individual in a series of repetitious traumas that subconsciously influence the individual to seek solace in the space before his or her birth. In other words, life is about negotiating the libido and the death drive, which underpins the unconscious desire of the individual to cease to exist. In It Follows, the sexually transmitted haunting forces the infected to face his or her fear of death through violent confrontation with a monster that resembles the literal beginning of the victim’s being. For example, Greg’s pursuit of pleasure (his sexual instinct or libido) ends as his death drive brings him back to the place before he existed, in his mother’s loins. If the chain of victims haunted by the monster represents a series of repeated traumas, then the monster’s killing one victim and then going after another illustrates our inability to escape the death drive.
Evidence that It Follows is an exploration of (Neo-)Freudian psychoanalytical theory abounds throughout the picture. In fact, one of the most ominous aspects of the film’s prologue, shot in an extended long take, foreshadows what is to come. A young woman named Annie (Bailey Spry) runs out of her house dressed in a rather grown-up lingerie ensemble and high heels. Her father (Loren Bass) calls out to her as she circles around the stationary camera several times, afraid of whatever is in the house. The audience never sees what haunts her, so her father is the sole person (or even thing) that we can associate with the house. If you didn’t know the premise of the film, you might think that there is a history of sexual abuse between Annie and her father. She eventually gets into a car and drives far away to a secluded lakefront. She calls home and, fearing that the monster will soon reach her, insists that she loves her dad. Although we do not know who or what defiled and contorted Annie’s body (this is the gory image critic David Edelstein couldn’t erase from his memory), I think it is safe to assume that the monster probably took the form of her father in that unseen moment.
Once Jay contracts the haunting, the fear of sexual misconduct with her loved ones becomes more obvious. In conversation with Kyle Buchanan, Mitchell comments on the first form that Jay’s iteration of the monster takes: “And I think what you’re saying is true, it’s about the contrast of this [old] woman in its location [the campus of Jay’s community college]. Instantly, you realize that something is not quite right. And people are not paying attention to her, although in any other situation, they would be.” I recognized the old woman in her nightgown as the old woman from a photograph on the wall that Jay studies earlier in the film. The implication is that this woman is Jay’s grandmother. When Mitchell refers in the same interview to his method of keeping a distance between what the protagonists see from their perspective on the ground and what may be haunting Jay from any other vantage point, I believe he is referring specifically to the moment when Jay sees an old naked man standing atop her roof. Even though Mitchell and co. didn’t put on a longer lens to capture the menace’s visage in more detail, I still recognized that he is probably Jay’s grandfather, from the same photo.
Although the monster assumes more unfamiliar personages, including a young peeping tom from next door and an extraordinarily tall man (whom I couldn’t place), a majority of its reflections are familiar. When Jay and her friends track Hugh down and visit him at his real address, his mother answers the door, her wide smile in deep contrast to the emotionless face she had on while coming after Hugh (real name Jeff), completely naked, in the parking garage following his successful transmission of the haunting onto Jay. Furthermore, the violent climax at an indoor community pool not only resembles the end of Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008), it further illustrates my argument. The group (minus Greg, of course) plugs in various household appliances, hoping to use Jay to lure the monster into the pool so that they may electrocute it. Mitchell admits to Buchanan that the group’s plan is “the stupidest plan ever!” Paul has brought a gun and depends on Jay’s description of where it is in order to shoot it. Yara gets injured in the process, but it eventually falls into the pool, attempting to drown Jay. She gets away and watches as the pool fills up with blood. Crucially, however, throughout the whole scene the monster appears to Jay as her absent father, whom I also previously glimpsed in a family photograph. Besides wanting to keep these familiar connections as opaque as possible, I don’t understand why Jay, especially in this scene, never calls out whom it resembles. For that matter, after so many close calls, she never tells anyone whose appearance the monster adopts. Either I am completely off base as to why the monster threatens to kill the teenagers while in the form of their parents, or Mitchell is just one cagey guy.
Despite the bloodbath, Jay and her friends are not out of the woods. Inexplicably, Jay sleeps with Paul. It Follows is not funny, but Paul’s asking Jay if she feels any different after they have sex cleverly corrupts the trope of (teenage) virginity. Next we see Paul troll for a prostitute. Meanwhile, Jay curls up on her bed in a familiar fetal position, her mother (Debbie Williams, whose face is never in focus—if it is even in the frame—throughout the film) stroking her naked back. This may be the most haunting image of It Follows. It demonstrates that the threat of death, expressed through her parent’s sexual menace, is ever near and ever present. The final shot of Jay and Paul, holding hands while walking down the street, may hint that the person following them in the distance is also haunting them. In this way, “the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety” is defeated: these friends have become lovers and can now face the monster/death together. Although the film ends on an ambiguous but still upbeat note (in spite of everything that has happened, anyway), the image of Jay’s mother suggestively touching her daughter is creepier and more foreboding than the couple’s maybe-stalker.
Below is the lyric video for “From the Night,” the first song off the 2014 album No One is Lost by Stars. The Canadian band’s dreamy soundscapes complement the electronic synth score by Rich Vreeland (Disasterpeace), which borrows heavily from the horror-film themes of the 1970s and 80s, such as Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). More than that, the newest record by the prolific band, which I only recently got into thanks to a live studio-session they performed on the CBC radio show Q, thematically and stylistically dovetails with one of It Follows’ themes: the average teenager’s desire to fit in and have fun. The cover of the album, which you can glimpse in the video, showcases a similar youthful yearning for connection and social acceptance that It Follows deconstructs. Most notably, listen to the lyrics after the bridge (at the 3.40 mark in the video). They could be telling Jay and Paul’s story.