It Follows (2015), directed by David Robert Mitchell, tells the story of Jay (Maika Monroe) and how she tries to escape from an unknown supernatural yet physical entity that comes after her as a consequence of her sexual encounter with her then-boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). It is a film that delivers its scares psychologically, in the way that it builds up tension and suspense as it plays with the audience’s expectations of what the “It” may look like, when it may appear, and how it could hurt the characters.
The film moved slower than the average mainstream horror movie, but it worked well because what was key here, more than shock, was anticipation and looming dread. The audiences were put on edge as they were led to expect certain things to happen, and these expectations, especially about the “It,” were guided by what the film showed to its viewers. Central to the film was the use of the gaze.
When we talk about concepts like the gaze in film, we are led to think about subject-object relationships and power dynamics. We think about the process of objectification that happens when the film takes on a certain point of view and shows certain things for us to look at. In It Follows, we see how this concept is applied, especially to Jay.
“In the classical narrative cinema, to see is to desire.” (Williams, 2002) Yet in horror films, women often have a sort of blindness, whether literal or figurative, and they only exist to be looked at. They are objects that are desired by the ones who look, they are objects that others have power over, but they cannot have their own desires. In the film, we see this in Jay. She was “the pretty one” (according to her sister), and she was always looked at. We see this in the early scene where some neighborhood boys were looking at her from the fence. We also see this when she was used by Hugh to spread the “It.” She was seen as an object to fulfill Hugh’s desire, a man who had power over her, and her own desires of having a romantic first grown-up date were pretty much cast aside. Hugh’s need to save himself and pass the “It” takes priority, and all romance was killed when he knocks Jay out, ties her up, and tells her all about how “It” works when she comes to her senses.
This particular sequence was interesting because of its shift in perspective. For that scene, the audience shares in Jay’s view, and we see things through her eyes. Here, we see the difference in the male gaze and the female gaze in horror. Here, we see that when the woman looks, she is punished. When Jay looks, there is the power of the Monster, the “It,” over her, and all she wants to do is look away, run away, or else she could be badly harmed. In sharing her perspective for a little while, instead of a sense of power that is supposed to come with holding the gaze, audiences feel the sense of fear and loss of agency that Jay feels as the “It” chases after her.
In horror films, “the woman’s exercise of an active investigating gaze can only be simultaneous with her own victimization.” (Williams, 2002) This actually starts in the scene in the cinema, where Jay turns around to look at woman in the yellow dress that Hugh pointed out, only to see no one and ask, “What woman?” This alarms Hugh and increases his need to pass on the “It.” Jay not seeing the woman (the “It”) is indicative of her blindness, but she looks again, wondering who it was that Hugh saw, and thus, the start of her problems. When she comes face to face with the “It” as Hugh explains everything to her, the reality of being the victim that has to escape the Monster dawns on her.
Throughout the film, Jay struggles with looking and being looked at. All eyes were on her, even this “It” was looking for her. Everything around her seemed to have power over her. We see her struggle in trying to hold power over herself after her complete loss of agency in the scene where she looks at herself in the mirror. Here, she holds the gaze, yet she is also the one being gazed at. I personally read this as an existential moment where she tries to convince herself that she does have control over what is happening to her, that she does have agency and real choices, and that she is not just a victim. However, she does continue to struggle with looking until she’s had enough, and she decides to pass on the “It.” We see Jay taking control, always looking around to make sure that the “It” was not around her. She actively looks for males to have sex with, particularly in the scene with the boys on the boat. This is when we see the active female gaze as something dangerous, something that could “mutilate and transform the vulnerable male,” (Williams, 2002) since we know that the “It” would come after the boys next. This is when she asserts herself over the dominant male power. She is no longer afraid to look, and in the final face-off with the “It” taking the form of her father, she tries hard to keep looking so that she could fight “It,” and even tries to help her friends see “It” by being their eyes.
Nobody really knows what “It” is, but we can all agree that “It” is unknown and unfamiliar. In horror, the unknown and unfamiliar are feared and they are also the objects of curiosity. These were two things I felt as I tried to think about the “It.” On the one hand it was the creepiest thing in the movie, but on the other hand, I wanted to know more about it. I think the mystery of it all works in the favor of this horror film.
It Follows was a film I looked forward to seeing for class, since I did hear that it was good, but I never had the time to go see it. After watching it, I was not disappointed, especially as I applied the concept of the gaze to supplement my thoughts on the movie. Aside from being a movie that never offers cheap scares, It Follows is a movie that opens up the discussion about the power that the gaze holds and what this means for portrayals of women in horror movies, especially when it is their turn to look.
Linda Williams,“When the Woman Looks.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002)