The Hard Truth of Growing Up: Coming of Age Horror

I think my fascination with the coming of age horror sub-genre arose from my mass consumption of Goosebumps when I was a kid. Like so, so many others, Goosebumps introduced me to horror with its kid-friendly, but spooky veneer, but as I entered my teenage years and started reading darker stuff, I had a thought. What would the kids in Goosebumps grow up to be like? After all, they often go through some pretty traumatic experiences in their preteen years, a time that is difficult enough without having to deal with monsters and ghosts. Today I’m going to explore what makes this my favorite sub-genre of horror through three films I believe to exemplify it at its best.

It Follows

This section will be touching briefly on sexual assault. Please read at your own discretion.

Jay is tied up in a wheel chair in an abandoned building
On a personal note, every single shot in this movie looks like a painting.

Since you’re on this website, I’m going to assume you’ve at least heard of this masterpiece. After all, it’s one of a handful of horror movies not released by Blumhouse to achieve commercial success in recent years. Not only is this a simply phenomenal movie in its own right, but it’s my favorite horror movie ever made, period. This isn’t just because of the fantastic film making, atmosphere, performances, or soundtrack, either. The movie holds a much deeper message than it initially seems.

One of the more interesting parts of this movie is that all of the characters are technically adults. The lead, Jay (Maika Monroe) is attending Community College but doesn’t really know what to do with her life. She is kind of wandering aimlessly through life with her friends and sister until she is given a sexually transmitted ghost by her boyfriend. It turns out, he was being haunted by a figure that moves towards him constantly. The only way to get rid of it is to pass it on through sex, an act that is inherently adult. Now Jay has to cope with this specter and figure out some way to stop it.

On the surface, this is a metaphor for STDs and sexual trauma. After all, after sleeping with her boyfriend, Jay is chloroformed in a very uncomfortable scene, but he doesn’t violate her physically in any way. Instead, he ties her to a chair and forces her to look at the entity that is now following her. Even though it doesn’t actually happen, the scene is very emblematic of rape, and it’s definitely uncomfortable to watch. In fact, he dumps Jay on her front yard in her underwear like she’s nothing after he tells her about the entity.

And while there’s certainly a very argument to be made that the movie is about sexual trauma and STDs (with the follower being representative of the disease/trauma in that you can’t get rid of it and it follows you no matter where you go), I think the follower is actually something else. Let’s step back and discuss biology for a moment. Most animal species on Earth have sex to procreate. Humans are one of the few that do it for pleasure, but the fact remains that most people have an urge to have sex in some way (there are, of course, exceptions). And the reason that humans, and others, procreate, is to pass on their genes so that they might live on in some form after their deaths. In other words, people are programmed to procreate because they know they will die someday.

It’s not a fun topic to think about, which is probably why most people just don’t think about it in that way at all. But I think it’s a fair assessment to say that sex is an attempt to refute death. It’s humanity’s way of giving death the middle finger, even though no matter what, we all meet the reaper someday. It Follows is about that acceptance of death that comes with sex.

There are lots of small moments in the movie that fill in some backstory to Jay and her family. Her mother is mostly at work and absent from her kids’ lives, and we know this because her face is never shown directly. We know that her father is absent or, more likely, dead. The last form we see the follower take is that of her father, who is shown very briefly in a photograph near the end of the movie. And said follower almost always takes the form of someone who appears sickly or violated in some way. Even though it’s never spelt out, Jay and her family have dealt with death before.

Take this into consideration with the fact that the follower will kill you emotionlessly if it catches up to you. To quote the trailer, it doesn’t think, it doesn’t feel, it follows. Death itself doesn’t discriminate whatsoever. The second you’re born, you have a death sentence on your head. It’s inevitable whether you’re the richest person in the world, or the poorest. Jay’s acceptance of sex in the movie forces her from her childish mindset because she is forced to be an adult by accepting death.

This is made explicit with the motif of bodies of water in the movie. When we first meet Jay, she’s floating in the pool in her mother’s back yard. One of the attempts to evade the follower in the second act is to go to Greg’s old summer home on a lake. The final attempt to kill the follower is at a public pool in a bad part of town, where each character mentions a significant first happened (ie their first beer). The climactic scene in the pool is Jay standing between childhood and adulthood. This final shot at killing death doesn’t work, and instead, it bleeds out into the whole pool, dirtying the once clear water where she and everyone else had their first taste of adulthood.

The final shot of Jay and Paul walking hand in hand down the sidewalk with a mysterious figure following them is them finally accepting death as a part of life. They’ve both become adults through Jay’s trauma of being forced to confront her own mortality. It’s a fascinating movie, and emblematic of what makes horror as a genre, so effective. It forces characters who aren’t adults yet into a very scary, very real situation and makes them confront it head-on. And when they can’t beat death, they have to simply live with it.

Boys in the Trees

One of the bullies in the film wears a clown mask and wields a flare, giving off a bright orange light
This is also a great-looking movie.

In this lesser-seen Aussie Halloween horror film, Corey (Toby Wallace) is tasked to bring Jonah (Gulliver McGrath) home on Halloween night. Earlier that day, Corey’s friends bullied Jonah, taking a picture of him and putting a slur on it all around town, and Jonah just wants Corey to see that he really shouldn’t associate with those kinds of people. This movie is on Netflix last I checked. Go check it out if you haven’t seen it because I’ going to be discussing major spoilers for the movie here on out. Seriously, it’s fantastic.

As the movie goes on, we learn that Corey doesn’t really like his friends and instead hangs out with them out of fear of being left in the dust as Jonah has been. Only, we see very late that the two of them used to be best buddies when they were kids until something very bad happened that left Jonah a social pariah because of rumors that he was gay. Whether he is or not is smartly left ambiguous the entire movie, because that’s really not the point.

Like how It Follows is about accepting death, Boys in the Trees is about realizing that the social caste of your teenage years really shouldn’t stop you from being a good person. Corey turned his back on Jonah because he didn’t want to be associated with someone who could possibly be *gasp* gay and, as we see in the film’s heartbreaking climax, the years of bullying eventually catch up to Jonah and he drowns himself in a reservoir. By this point in the movie, Corey has forsaken the people he called his friends and embraced Jonah as someone he cares about, but it’s too little, too late.

There’s a wonderful element of magical realism at play in the movie, because Jonah’s time of death is relatively unclear. We only know that he died some time that Halloween. It’s a genuinely upsetting ending, but forces Corey to realize that associating with people just because it’s “cool” or out of fear can only lead to heartbreak. We see him at the end presumably as an adult in college, but he has kept a memento of Jonah’s to remind himself that he needs to always do better or else someone might suffer the same fate as his friend.

Not only that, but it’s just a great movie in its own right, filled with great performances from a young cast, fantastic visuals, and a top-notch Halloween atmosphere that is perfect for keeping the season alive year-round. It’s a cautionary tale in every sense, one that uses spooky dressings to send a very simple but powerful message: be good to others. It’s simple, but one that so many people don’t ever really learn (and if you think I’m wrong, read any kind of political debate on the internet and see how it inevitably devolves into name-calling and personal attacks).

Super Dark Times

The film's characters stand silhouetted on the edge of a lake with their bikes
This is also also a gorgeous movie. There’s a theme here.

Like the previous entry, this movie is on Netflix and you should see it before reading this section. It’s probably my favorite movie from this century that isn’t called It Follows, with masterful film making, fantastic performances, and a wholly unquantifiable sense of place that makes it feel like you’re watching real-life unfold on screen.

So you’ve watched it, right? Good.

This movie is about learning how people, when backed into a corner, are nothing like you think they are. Zach and Josh (both played fantastically by Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan, respectively) are best friends who, along with one other, are caught up in the manslaughter of one of their peers with a katana. It’s up there with the Log Lady’s death as one of the most genuinely hard to watch scenes in anything I’ve ever seen. As I mentioned earlier in the article, being a teenager is already a really tough time, with social pressures and raging hormones running amok, and this movie puts the teenagers who are still kind of childish into possibly the most adult situation imaginable with its first act.

I put forth a question: how would a teenager react to accidentally killing a friend of theirs? They were just messing around in the woods with Josh’s brother’s katana when disaster struck. The death is sudden, quick, and the characters barely have time to process what’s happening before it’s over. It’s a scene that can give just about anybody anxiety, and it’s made all the worse by the characters’ ages. When I was 16, I barely knew how to talk to a girl (tough to believe since I’m such a smooth-tongued devil now, I know) and I probably would have died of a heart attack if I’d been in a situation where someone was killed.

Zach and Josh inevitably have a falling out, with Josh secluding himself in his room and dealing his brother’s weed to popular kids while Zach desperately tries to function normally, and as the movie nears its harrowing third act, people who have wronged Josh in the past start turning up dead.

At the end of the movie, Zach is being attacked by Josh with the katana and says, “Aren’t we friends? Best friends?” Not only is it heartbreaking for him to ask such a desperate thing in such an intense moment, but it kind of drives home the point of the movie. People will act like they’re someone else in difficult situations.

It’s an interesting message for a coming of age horror movie (and even though there’s no supernatural element, I think it’s safe to call this horror). Not only do people fall out with people they were previously best friends with, but they often have to see their friends in difficult situations as they age and very real adult pressures are put upon them. I’m sure everyone reading this has a story they can tell where they thought they knew someone intimately, only for them to show a completely different side when faced with some kind of adversity. It’s a painful truth to learn, made worse the closer you are to someone, and it’s reflected in an exaggerated way by Josh’s descent into darkness. By the end, Zach and Josh are two entirely different people, forced to become someone else because of the extreme situation they’re in.

The coming of age horror sub-genre, when done right, mirrors hard truths that everyone has to learn at some point. In the best examples, the events feel plausible regardless of how exaggerated or fantastical they become. It is, to me, fascinating to see how someone who hasn’t fully developed confronts very grown-up truths, and it’s why this sub-genre is my favorite.

And if you have any suggestions/favorites not mentioned here, please comment with them. I’m always open to suggestions.

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Written by Collin Henderson

Collin has loved all things horror since he was a wee lad, as long as it's not filled with jump scares. He holds up It Follows as the greatest horror film ever made, and would love to hear your thoughts on why he's wrong about that. He's written a couple of books called Lemon Sting and Silence Under Screams, and lives in Massachusetts.

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