It Follows is one of the most sneakily meaningful movies I’ve ever seen. It’s about a deadly curse that’s passed on by having sex, so on the surface, it appears to be a simple allegory for STDs and the potential dangers of casual sex. Now, that message is fine as far as it goes, but it’s pretty shallow. It’s barely deeper than not saying anything at all, so if the film is just about STDs, we don’t have much to talk about.
But thankfully, there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that. In fact, I would even argue that It Follows isn’t about STDs at all. That interpretation may work on a very general level, but once we get down to some of the details of the movie’s mythology, it breaks down and becomes untenable.
Instead, I’d suggest that the film is about the inevitability of death. Granted, there are other themes in it as well, but I think the inevitability of death is the main point of both the monster and the story as a whole, and everything else is like a tiny satellite that orbits that one dominant idea. Admittedly, this interpretation isn’t nearly as obvious as the STD allegory seems to be, so to understand why I view It Follows this way, we’re going to have to take a deep dive into the movie and its unique mythology.
The Problem with the STD Interpretation
To begin, let’s talk a bit about why It Follows isn’t really about STDs. Sure, the idea of a curse that’s passed on through sex definitely sounds like an STD, but the allegory doesn’t hold up beyond that very general similarity. See, this interpretation approaches the film in a highly literal way. On this understanding, the monster doesn’t just represent STDs. Rather, the thing simply is a supernatural STD, so for the allegory to work, the creature has to attack its victims just like STDs do.
And that’s where the allegory breaks down. While there’s definitely a very broad similarity between the monster and STDs, there’s also an equally clear difference that undermines this interpretation: when you give someone an STD, you don’t cure yourself, but in It Follows, the monster stops going after you once you pass the curse on to someone else.
Granted, the creature will go after you again if it kills the person you had sex with, so you’re not entirely out of the woods, but that’s still not what STDs are like. Giving someone an STD doesn’t give you a temporary reprieve from it, so at the end of the day, the STD interpretation simply doesn’t fit the mythology well enough to work.
Death and the Monster
So if It Follows isn’t an allegory for STDs, what is it really about? Like I said before, I think it’s about the inevitability of death. Pretty much all the monster does is slowly walk towards its victims until they come within arm’s reach, and that’s exactly what death does to us. Every second of our lives brings us closer and closer to our inevitable demise, so a creature that walks towards its victims at a slow but steady pace is a perfect metaphor for death.
Similarly, once this thing sets its sights on you, it’s unswervingly relentless, just like death is. You can pass the curse on to someone else, but no matter how far away from you the curse gets, you’ll always be on the monster’s “hit list,” so to speak. No matter what you do, you can never really be sure it’s not coming after you, and death is the exact same way. We can put it off temporarily, but it’s going to come for us eventually, and we can never know when we’re going to find ourselves back in its crosshairs.
On top of all that, the monster in It Follows can look like anybody, including people its victims know, and that’s yet another similarity with death. See, not only is the when of death completely up in the air, but so is the how. We can be killed by anybody or anything, even the people closest to us. Sure, most people are justifiably certain that their loved ones aren’t going to murder them, but at the end of the day, anything is possible. You simply never know what face death will wear when it finally comes for you, just like you never know what this creature will look like the next time you see it.
Loss of Innocence
Admittedly, there is one element of the It Follows mythology that doesn’t seem to square too well with my interpretation of the film: if the story is about the inevitability of death, why in the world is the curse passed on through sex? On the surface, that seems to make absolutely no sense, so to understand this apparently ill-fitting part of the story, we have to think a bit outside the box.
The key, I would suggest, is that we become aware of both our sexuality and our mortality when we grow up and lose our innocence. Think about it. Children don’t normally think much about death. They’re normally not burdened by the knowledge that they will die one day. Instead, they simply enjoy their lives as if nothing will ever change, and only later, when they grow up and learn how the world really works, do they realize that they and everybody they’ve ever loved are eventually going to die.
Similarly, children don’t usually think about sex, either. In fact, they typically don’t even know what it is, and much like with death, they only become aware of it when they mature and lose their innocence. So on a symbolic level, sex in It Follows signifies growing up and leaving childhood behind, and when we view it that way, it makes perfect sense that sex would be a gateway to a monster that represents the inevitability of death.
And if there’s any doubt about that, the movie itself actually hints at it. In the scene where Paul and Yara spend the night at Jay and Kelly’s house, Paul and Jay have a conversation where they reminisce about their childhood. They chat about a few different things, and at one point in the talk, they recall a time when they found a bunch of porno magazines and spread them out on the neighbor’s front lawn. They were kids, so they didn’t know any better, but when the neighbor found out, she was furious. She called their parents, and the children got “the talk” soon afterwards.
At first, it’s easy to dismiss this conversation as little more than filler, but when you view it within the context of the entire film, it becomes much more important than that. It confirms for us that the movie really does associate childhood with innocence and a lack of awareness of our sexuality. In turn, understanding our sexuality must be a mark of maturity, and from there, it’s only a small step to link sexuality with the inevitability of death the way I do. Granted, It Follows doesn’t connect all those dots for us, but it gives us just enough of a hint that we can connect them ourselves, and when we do that, everything in the movie’s mythology comes together and fits perfectly.
Now that we’ve seen how the details of the story fit together thematically, we just have one thing left to do. Sure, the inevitability of death may seem like a good interpretation of It Follows, but does the film itself give us any clues that this is its real meaning? I think it does, and to see them, we have to examine some of the details of the story very closely.
For example, consider the scene right after Hugh passes the curse on to Jay and shows her the monster. Before he unceremoniously brings her back home and kicks her out of his car, we spend a few minutes with Jay’s sister Kelly and her two friends Paul and Yara. They’re outside Kelly and Jay’s house, and as they play cards, Yara recites a quote from The Idiot, a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. She says:
I think that if one is faced with inevitable destruction, if a house is falling upon you, for instance, one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes, and wait, come what may.
This quote is obviously about the inevitability of death, and it’s not a coincidence that we hear it right after we see the creature for the first time. It Follows purposely juxtaposes these two scenes to show us that they’re connected. First, we see the monster, and then immediately afterwards, we find out what it represents.
And in case there’s any doubt about that, this quote also mirrors the movie’s opening scene almost perfectly, further hammering home the meaning behind the monster. Before we ever meet Hugh, Jay, or any of the other main characters, the story starts out with an unnamed girl who runs out of her house in terror and drives to the beach. We don’t see any obvious threats in the vicinity, but she’s clearly terrified of something. At the beach, she calls her father and says she loves him, and then the next morning, her body appears mangled and bloody.
When we first see this scene, we have no idea what’s going on, but by the time the credits roll, the truth becomes clear as day. The girl was being chased by the film’s monster, and the struggle to survive became too much for her. She drove away to the beach to keep her family safe, and when the creature finally reached her, she let it kill her, just like the speaker in Yara’s quote. She simply sat down on the beach and waited for her “inevitable destruction” to come, so it’s pretty clear that the quote really does tell us what the creature signifies.
The Inevitability of Death
If we went through It Follows with a fine-toothed comb, we’d be able to find even more clues to its real meaning, but I think the evidence we’ve looked at is enough to show that it’s not just an allegory for STDs. Rather, it’s about the inevitability of death, and for my money, that’s much more interesting.
While not everybody is going to contract an STD during their lifetime, all of us will die, and so will everybody we know. Death is the most universal of all human experiences, so we’re all going to have to deal with it sooner or later.
And by telling a story about this grim reality, It Follows presents it in a much more palatable form than we normally get in the real world. When death rears its ugly head, it normally hits us like a ton of bricks, but It Follows takes a much different route. It gently reminds us of our mortality, and that in turn removes a bit of the sting from this inescapable truth.
Sure, the movie may not help much when we have to face death for real, but it helps us come to terms with the idea of death in our day to day lives. It helps us carry on even though we know we won’t be here forever, and in a world as full of uncertainty as ours, that’s an immense help.