March 30, 2015 by Laird
I am frequently asked, what scares you? Or more recently, what’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you? People might expect me to say something about blizzards, or falling through the ice, or getting lost in the wilderness, or doppelgangers. While all those things have a foothold in my mind, among the most dreadful experiences I’ve had is a recurring nightmare of walking along an endless sidewalk in a Seattle neighborhood. The dream has haunted me for twenty years.
And the scenario is always the same: It’s late and overcast. Dead leaves cover the wet lawns and clog the gutters. Streetlamps ignite a murky twilight haze and my shadow stretches before me. Something awful trails me. I don’t know what it is, or where it is, except that it’s malevolent and that it only emerges between glances over my shoulder, inexorably closing the distance. I wake before I make it to my door and the sense is that moment of awakening is the moment of my death.
Today, I went to a matinee of It Follows. My only company in the theater was an usher who patrolled the walkway every twenty minutes or so like a shark cruising the shallows. I’m not going to say much directly about this film. Hype aside, director David Robert Mitchell doesn’t reinvent the genre so much as take a nightmare and filter it through the lenses of John Carpenter and James Cameron. This story isn’t shiny or new. The threat isn’t breathtakingly original. No, we’ve met it before; we’ve known it all along. It is old, and scaly as our darkest hind-brain. It lurks within the clammy, clumsy first embrace with a stranger; it lurks between the lines of the story of The Birds and the Bees, and it lurks at the overheated core of the North American horror tradition. That unpleasant, inevitable familiarity is precisely what makes It Follows affecting.
Mitchell gets it so right because he takes on the relationship between category horror and sexuality. He sets our terror of intimacy and pleasure within the confines of an inescapable nightmare powered by its own illogical and contradictory progressions. He’s accomplished a devastating takedown of Judeo-Christian-inflected horror and its insatiable preoccupation with hedonistic sex and nubile youth and a corresponding compulsion to punish and destroy that youth.
Walking back to my truck after the show, I glanced warily at a guy shuffling across the lot. It occurred to me from the ache in my arms, that I’d been white-knuckling for an hour and change. Of course, I chuckled ruefully and moved on. Been a while since a horror movie got into my head and much longer since one has inhabited my subconscious to the degree that I swim up from a nap to type out a few sleep-drugged thoughts on the experience.
Mitchell’s film took me back to my nightmare wasteland of deserted Seattle streets and the sense of being stalked by some incarnation of malevolence. My baggage is unique and what disquiets me will leave another shrugging. Most of us understand the nightmare, though. Most of us share it, in some form. Mitchell certainly does, and It Follows taps that primordial vein.