Imaginary Uncanniness, Real Threat: On The Value of Monsters

It Follows (David Robert Mitchell 2014)

I have loved many monsters. As a child, I filled my room with crude drawings of sandworms, demons, and marauding orcs, rendered all the more horrifying (I thought) by the jaundiced yellow of a legal pad, my then-preferred canvas. I still love monsters, but now I love them for what they represent: radical transformation, imminent change. A portent. It’s in the name: monster is derived from the Latin monere, “to warn.”

When a monster gives you a warning, I’ve learned it’s best to pay attention.

The premise of It Follows, David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 film, is simple: when Jay, the film’s protagonist, has sex for the first time, she attracts the attention of a malevolent entity. Her boyfriend, Hugh, explains that the creature had been following him, but by having sex with Jay, he has passed its focus onto her. If Jay wants to survive, she’ll need to do the same. Before fleeing, Hugh warns that the spectre is slow, but implacable, and that Jay should “never go anywhere with only one exit.” Jay is left with a hideous burden, and approaching doom.

On the surface, the film reads as a distillation of America’s puritan fears of adolescent sexuality. There are echoes of HIV anxiety, too, in the gross injustice of Jay’s situation. But there’s no lurid titillation in It Follows, and little moralising either; instead there is panic, dread, and one of the most interesting monsters in recent cinema.

Like the rest of the film, the entity that haunts It Follows draws its strength from its simplicity. It’s invisible to everyone but its target. It can change its shape to look like anyone – even family and friends. It never moves faster than a walk, but it never, ever stops. The impact is immense: in every scene, the background drips with menace. Crowds become minefields. Moments of peace are fractured by a tiny blur in the far distance, interminably advancing.

***

In 2014, not long before I saw It Follows for the first time, I stopped my medication. I had been taking escitalopram, and while I was no longer depressed, neither was I particularly happy. Mornings had disappeared, replaced by afternoons that, I swear to God, lasted one thousand years. Work lost its appeal. Sex, when it happened, felt perfunctory and uncomfortable, and I embarrassed myself in front of friends and lovers. I had become, I felt, intolerably boring. So I stopped, and like any good horror film, everything started out fine. There was a long, happy summer of gigs, festivals and joyful energetic idiocy. After that, everything was not fine.

It is difficult to describe depressive episodes, since they are often characterised by a total lack of sensation. I can chart my course through the following year, though, by what I found to fill my time: books about saints and martyrs; books about the Devil; huge amounts of horror, including It Follows; a cabaret about mortality; a theatre show where we tried to speak with the dead; and in between these things, a growing, nameless dread. The sensation of approaching a precipice. Lying in bed, dark and numb, began to feel preferable to being in the world. I was growing receptive to black thoughts.

***

In her 1980 essay Powers of Horror, Julie Kristeva uses “abjection” to describe our relationship with fear. Kristeva identifies the abject as the things that “disturb our sense of identity, system, order” – and which, by existing, point to the weakness of those identities and systems. This is the essence of horror. The abject is a “terror that dissembles”; like the shape-shifting monster, it’s a corruption of what we consider valuable and good. Criminal acts, for example, are abject because they show our moral order can be defied and broken. Violence, corpses and blood are abject because they point towards our own fragility. Depression, too, is a kind of internal abjection: a self-loathing; a beckoning toward oblivion. A premonition of the place where identity is finally annihilated.

The natural response to abject stimuli is overwhelmingly one of repulsion. We gasp, shiver, recoil, even vomit; we struggle to create distance between us and it. The function of art, Kristeva argues, is to achieve a kind of catharsis by representing the abject, confronting it, and symbolically purifying or controlling it. There is a tradition in horror films of depicting the female body and female desire as monstrous, abject; a challenge to patriarchal values and order. Cue evil mothers, vampire seductresses, legions of slaughtered teens. In a genre often dominated by the male gaze, the bodies and sexualities of women are frequently a site of punishment and disgust. But for all its concerns with sex, It Follows is a film that stalwartly resists patriarchal readings. Jay is mature, in control of her surroundings. Sex is frequently discussed, but in a reflective mode – the kind of conversations you have with friends when boys are disappointing and summer’s drawing to a close. When men – boys – try to protect Jay, they’re bumbling and naïve, their ulterior motives writ large.

It Follows is not a film about judgment. No-one is being punished, but no-one gets saved either. What, then, is the monster pointing towards? What is Jay fleeing? There’s a clue provided by one of her friends, who spends the film reading Dostoevsky on her phone, quoting him at length:

When there is torture, there is pain and wounds… but the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant – your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain; the worst thing is certain.

This is the meaning of the film’s monster. It is the ultimate abject. It is death made physical, stalking, ceaselessly approaching. It is a monster that cannot be killed or defeated. It confronts both Jay and the audience with what Kristeva calls “the fading away of all meaning and humanity” — not as a possibility, but as an unbearable certainty; a deep liminal terror that fascinates and repels in equal measure. For Jay and her friends, there is no resolution. The best they can hope for is fleeting reprieve. I won’t spoil the ending, but Jay’s final strategy for survival is desperate, deeply troubling, and raises ugly questions about sexual violence and victimhood.

***

The monster caught up with me sometime in late spring. It was humid and hot and I was lying on my mattress, lost in reverie. I was imagining the family farm: a crisp, clear morning. Distant crows. A rushing, rumbling sound – trucks on the highway, maybe, carrying unknown cargoes far away. Dry bark against my back. And the barrel of a gun, very cold and very real. We’ve got a few of them.

I jerked. I gasped at the intrusion. My spine curled. My heart pounded and I could taste hot acid in my mouth. Every part of my body was in revolt, screaming not me. Not that. I was experiencing the abjection of myself. For whatever nebulous reason – genetics, serotonin, stress – my mind had was obsessing over its own destruction; considering; circling; closing in. The vision came and went over the summer like bubbles bursting on a swamp. I kept coming back to it, probing. Eventually, I decided I had witnessed a portent. I had been warned.

I did the uncomfortable things. I found a doctor. I removed myself from isolation. I began, by degrees, to confront the abject. Naturally, there were costs. To tell someone you are unbearably sad, that you want to die, is to open a door that cannot be closed. That knowledge, once shared, will change you both in hard and permanent ways. Seeing that change in my mother’s eyes, or hearing it in her voice when she asks, carefully, how I am feeling, is enough to fill me with profoundest shame. But I am fortunate to have a family and friends who care for me, and to have access to treatment. There are no cures, but there are strategies of containment, and if they bear costs, I know now to pay them.

***

It Follows can be read in myriad ways. To me, it is a bleak, elegant articulation of depression’s insidious horror. It is a warning: against some monsters, there can be no final victory. Escape, if it exists, is temporary, and it usually comes at a price. The compromises we make in order to survive may well hurt us, but survival – even difficult, abject survival – still trumps the alternative. Above all, never go anywhere with only one exit.

Tom Albert is a writer and theatremaker based in Brisbane. His writing has appeared in Voiceworks, Tincture, and the Star Observer, and his next play is being developed with Metro Arts in October 2016.

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