“Imagine [having] your whole life ahead of you,” is one quote that struck me the most from the film It Follows (dir. Mitchell, 2014), mainly because it captures the essence, and irony, of the struggle Jay faces in the whole film. And more than that, it captures the struggle of the stories behind the text, with the story serving as a representation for issues regarding the stigma against mental health illnesses and sexually transmitted diseases.
In the beginning, Jay seemed to be like any other typical girl her age – a bit angsty, a bit ambitious for life, and somehow longing for love. Everything changes as she meets Hugh, who she believes is dating her with good intentions. And this is where the struggle begins. Jay ‘inherits’ ‘it,’ the main protagonist of the film which ultimately makes life hard for Jay – and eventually, everyone around her as well. This, for me, is a well-executed and clever representation of the struggle of being a person who experiences a mental health illness, and to a point the stigma of having sexual intercourse and getting a sexually transmitted disease.
In this film in particular, we can connect the Linda Williams’ article When The Woman Looks, which primarily talks about the gaze of a woman and how she is punished for it. The character Jay, on a surface level, represents the woman who is gazing in multiple aspects, especially as she starts getting followed by ‘it.’ As the film begins, she exists, to be looked at as a pretty girl by those around her, even with her friends. Additionally, her curiosity as to the act of sexual intercourse, which we can connect to the act of gazing into it, ultimately punished her by contracting her the seemingly inescapable ‘disease.’ With this, she becomes the monster, one who got traumatized by an experience, and who acts oddly because she experiences something quite unexplainable to the rest of the world. And eventually, she uses that gaze, the power and dominance, to try to assert herself and kill the monster within.
On a deeper level though, we can also apply this theory of the woman and the gaze to a bigger narrative. In particular, the woman here can be seen as an other, because of how she is treated by society. In this case, she was objectified by Hugh as a means of trying to get rid of the disease, and was given a traumatizing experience she did not ask to be a part of. But Jay as an other, goes far beyond being a woman. As she tries to navigate her way through the struggle of being followed by it, she becomes a walking metaphor and representation of people who have mental health illnesses and sexually transmitted disease. Being a part of the audience of this particular film, or being people who observe people who struggle with these diseases around us, we are at a distance from what the person is actually experiencing. We oftentimes try to understand and comprehend what they are going through, but sometimes fail to truly empathize with them. This is especially the case when these people say that they have their particular diseases, yet we ignore them and brush their suffering off as something they can just get through. Jay’s struggle of having an invisible enemy already signifies this, because oftentimes, it is only the person herself who can comprehend what he is going through, as much as others try to understand it and help the person. And more than that, the stigma and the disease involved not only affects the person struggling, but the people around her as well. Because she is struggling with it without anyone to understand, people get hurt, physically or emotionally because of her experience.
Overall, I commend the film not only for being well-crafted in engaging the audience with the narrative, but for placing the audience in the main character’s shoes. The audience, with this experience, are given the opportunity to feel the dread that comes, or the inexplicable feelings that people struggle with. And that is something powerful, pushing for the empathy and the understanding of the audience for something bigger than the film itself.
Source: Linda Williams, “When the Woman Looks.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002).