Saturday, 14 March 2015

"It Follows"

I'm trying to get into horror media more right now. For years I've consistently had friends who are really into horror, but a bad experience with a Flash game screamer years ago and an aborted attempt to play Clock Tower have meant that I always felt too scared to really delve in. Recently, however, after watching some friends play the Silent Hills Playable Teaser I found that despite getting my pants scared off once or twice, I didn't get the expected nightmares, and actually wanted to go back for more. I decided it was time to start becoming a proper horror fan. Shortly afterwards some friends strongly recommended David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, so I got somebody to come with me to see it.

This isn't going to be a review, per se, as that's not the kind of thing I like to do. It'll be a personal reaction, and I won't be moderating spoilers, so I only recommend reading on if you've also seen the film.

I enjoyed it, but I think I went in with the wrong expectations. As a relative newbie to horror I was expecting it to scare me shitless the whole way through. I yelped like a child when Paul threw the football at the window, but that was the only real jump I got. There were a couple of good scares, such as when the spectre walks up behind Yara at a moment when you've been led to believe things are safe, and lots of tension. However, I realised afterwards that my inexperience in consuming horror had led me to focus too much on whether or not I was going to be scared instead of really watching the film properly.

I started thinking about how the central premise could be read. The idea of a sexually transmitted ghost is certainly new to me. With the principle cast all being teenagers, and the almost complete absence of any visible parental figures, it is fitting for the story to be about how scary sex can be. The obvious parallel to draw is sexually transmitted infections. However, I cannot help but bring my own baggage out when thinking about this, and I wonder if the spectre is more of a parellel for psychological trauma and mental illness than venereal disease.

Hugh has a problem. This problem can be alleviated somewhat by sharing it with someone, but this means that that they now have to deal with it. His attitude is to give it to someone else then run away. Let them figure it out. When Jay and her friends track him down for more information, he says that they shouldn't be in the same place. Hugh's solution to his problem sort of works. It is no longer immediately to him. However, it is not guaranteed that he is free of it. If Jay succumbs, it will come for him again. And while distancing himself from her means that the problem is no longer quite so close to him, it also means that he has no way of controlling or knowing whether Jay is able to deal with it properly. He is still on edge, and has cut himself off from someone he apparently cared about.

Jay struggles with the problem. She tries to communicate it to those close to her. This is a challenge, as it is something they cannot directly see, and while they love her and want to help her it is hard for them to believe what she is telling them. However, she persists, as do her friends. She involves them intimately in helping her tackle this problem. She gives them all the information she has. By staying close to her they end up at risk of being hurt by the problem themselves, but in doing so they are finally able to see that it is not imagined, that it is real and is a true danger to Jay.

She agrees with Greg to pass the problem on to him. She thinks that he is brave and will be able to handle it. However, this does not work. Greg is less brave than he is ignorant. He does not truly understand the problem. It is suggested that he maybe doesn't completely believe Jay as her other friends do. Certainly, he was not close enough to her to be there at a crucial moment when it became visible to everyone else. As a result, it catches him off-guard and Jay is back where she started, minus one friend.

She and the others hatch a hare-brained scheme to solve the problem, but it doesn't work. In the end, she and Paul come to an agreement. They share the problem, both of them fully aware of the nature of it, both knowing that they may never be rid of it completely. They have ways to distance themselves from it temporarily, but ultimately they must live with it. The last shot shows them walking down a street holding hands, the problem still present in the background. They appear a little pained, but calm, and do not acknowledge the problem behind them, but we are left to imagine that perhaps they know it's there. It is still real and dangerous, but by staying together, rather than distancing themselves from eachother, they can both be aware of the danger and protect eachother and themselves.

I think this can very easily be read as being about coping strategies for mental illness. Hugh's strategy is avoidant. Get rid of it, give it to someone else, make the barest minimum effort so that they know how to stop it getting back to me, then run away. He is not necessarily a cold or bad person. He is visibly pained when he drugs Jay, and while the way he introduces her to the spectre is shocking, one could easily believe that he does it this way because he does not think she will believe him if he doesn't force it on her. He does something really awful less because he wants to inflict pain on somebody else, but because he is so mortally afraid of the spectre that he want to distance himself from it as much as possible. Reading the spectre as a manifestation of mental illness, or emotional pain, or trauma: Hugh wants to avoid thinking about it or dealing with it, coping by pushing it out of his mind. He pushes it onto somebody else, giving them a portion of that stress, but then runs away from them, hoping to leave behind the fragment he left them with.

Conversely, Jay's strategy is, to my eye, ultimately to accept this thing that has been brought into her life. She and Paul take it on together, but they remain with eachother. It is slightly painful, but they both know that no matter what they do they can't completely escape that pain. Rather than running away and ending up paranoid and distant as Hugh has, they stay close so that they can protect eachother. They accept the spectre and their pain as parts of their lives, and are prepared to accept and share it equally.

This actually parallels some of my own personal experiences in coping with periods of anxiety and catastrophic thoughts or triggers. While dwelling on them too much is a dangerous trap, I've found that it also doesn't always help to push them away immediately. That can only end two ways: either they're going to come back, and I'm going to be just as ill-equipped to deal with them properly; or I push those triggering, stressful things out of my life entirely and miss out on things that could be good even if they're scary (which is a big part of what I'm dealing with right now). The times I've dealt best with anxiety have been when I've been able to hold the thought in my head and process it a bit before letting it go. I need to accept these things as a part of my life and the feelings as a valid part of me even if they're painful, so that I can cope with them. This is why I read this into the different ways Hugh and Jay handle the spectre.

That the spectre is not given one consistent appearance is important. There are many iconic monsters in horror, but Mitchell seems to have understood that by giving a monster a face the fear becomes abgout that specific face. By having his spectre appear as anybody, random straners or people close to its target, it is made clear that the horror isn't literally about this spectre: it's about the more general concepts, whatever the viewer might read them to be, whether it's being followed, sex, intimacy, or, as I've decided, emotional pain. Of course, monster-as-metaphor-for-general-concept probably isn't a new idea in horror, but I liked this way of handling it.

A specific reason I was attracted to watch this film was knowing that the soundtrack was by Disasterpeace, who did the music for Fez, a game which I loved. I'm a little bit uncertain how I felt about this music in the film though. There's one specific track that feels almost lifted from Fez, just with notes changed around, and that was a distraction for me. The pseudo-chiptune synths came off as a little incongruous for me in general. I liked the bass rumblings, but the lilting melodies just felt kind of... cute. I definitely would enjoy the music out of context, but occasionally it felt too noticeable for me in this film.

All my more horror-savvy friends really liked this film, and I certainly enjoyed it and appreciate it more after thinking about it. Hopefully I'll have the stomach to watch some more horror and maybe play a few of those horror games that terrify me, and maybe I'll get more interesting thoughts out of those!

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