There have been a lot of words written about this movie. About how great it is, how its the scariest thing since sliced bologna (which is delicious and horrible, btw), about its sense of timelessness. I’m going to discuss the monster, the demon that infects people through sexual activity, and what is it’s meaning to the main character. These ideas are not set in stone, this is just me speculating about the events in the film. I just think its too easy to think of the demon infection as a form of STD, or that the film is only about sex. It is about sex, but the underlying theme of the film is much deeper.I think it’s about the inevitability of death, and the various anxieties that young people have about being alive.
A conventionally pretty blonde girl, Jay, is infected with the curse from a young man named Jeff (aka. Hugh), when they have sex. She is cursed to be followed by a demon that will eventually kill her. It can look like anyone, but she’s the only one who can see it. Although the sex between them is consensual, the aftermath is filmed like a kidnapping and rape scene (which is not graphic). Jeff ties her to a wheelchair in a carpark, where they await the monster’s arrival. While they do that, Jeff lays out the ground rules about what will be happening to her. How Jeff came by these rules is unclear, but he still doesn’t make for the most reliable of narrators.
Jeff dumps Jay on the street outside her house, where she is found by her sister Kelly, and her neighbors: Yara, a friend of Kelly, and Paul, a childhood friend who has a serious crush on Jay. There’s also her neighbor Greg, a handsome young man, who lives across the street, and loves to wash his car. (Jay once slept with him in high school.) Paul, Kelly, and Yara were sitting on the porch playing Old Maid, (the point of which is to get rid of the Old Maid card by secretly getting someone else to accept it. You lose the game if you die holding that card.) Given the subject matter of the film, this is not a coincidence. Nor is it a coincidence that Yara is reading excerpts from Doestoevsky’s The Idiot for the rest of the movie. The only passages she seems interested in reading out loud are the ones about dealing with the inevitability of death ,which is also not coincidental, considering the book itself isn’t actually about death.
There are mild sexual relationships between all the characters, which I believe informs a lot of the film, and has some bearing on the movie’s monster. For example Yara expresses some mild jealousy over how pretty Jay is to Kelly, who agrees. Jay was Paul’s first kiss, after which he kissed her sister, Kelly. Its well acknowledged by everyone that Paul has a crush on Jay, though she doesn’t seem unduly bothered by it. She truly must not be because the demon never appears to her as Paul. Although Kelly and Yara relentlessly tease Paul for it, he is good-natured about their teasing, and the four of them get along well. There is also the little neighbor boy, who appears to be maybe thirteen or fourteen, who regularly spies on Jay while she swims in her backyard pool. Jay knows about “some” of his spying, and at one point good naturedly calls out that she can see him watching her.
Jay’s world appears very boring, without any great amount of tension or drama between her and anyone else, but I think what this movie proves is that Jay’s world is full of a great number of deep seated terrors. Some of these are the conventional fears of pretty young women everywhere, and some of them are unique to Jay. I think the monster is an expression of some, if not all, of these fears. Essentially its an id monster.
The first time Jay sees the demon, is just after her infection by Jeff in the carpark. It appears in the form of a naked young woman. It is unclear if Jeff is seeing something different from what she is seeing, however. I think it appears as whatever fears it can glean from its victims minds. Either that, or Jay is simply having a very bad nightmare, where the monster chasing her, always looks like something she’s secretly afraid of. I think the naked young woman represents Jay. She just had sex, she’s drugged, groggy, deeply afraid, cold and half naked, in an abandoned carpark. I think the demon shows up as a generic fear of being naked and vulnerable in public, (much like any anxiety dream where you show up at school missing your pants.) Later, as the demon becomes more attuned to Jay’s mental state, it appears as much more specific fears.
The next day, Jay is examining herself in her bathroom. She doesn’t know that the neighbor boy is sitting on the roof and spying on her through the window. As a pretty blond girl, she knows that people look at her all the time, but this is one of the few instances where she is being gazed upon and doesn’t know it. Her privacy is being violated, not just by the neighbor, but by the filmgoer.
The second time Jay sees the demon, things get a bit more specific. The monster becomes more detailed in its terrorizing of her as the movie progresses. As Jay attends school the next day, she sees (there are lots of window shots in this movie,windows are symbolic), an old woman, slowly walking towards her. Although the woman is wearing nothing more than an old hospital gown and slippers, Jay’s reaction to her is entirely out of proportion to her appearance. To anyone else, the appearance of such a person at school would be puzzling, maybe even disturbing, or laughable, but Jay is seriously frightened to the point where she runs out of class. Note: during that scene, the teacher is reading an excerpt from “The Love Song of J. Albert Prufrock”, a poem about a man who is getting older, while he dithers on about some important thing he was supposed to have done earlier in his life.
The monster (the old woman/the old maid) may be symbolizing Jay’s fear of getting old and not having accomplished what she set out to do in life. It is obvious that Jay is attending some kind of community college, so she may not even have in mind what she wants to do with her future. She doesn’t seem particularly interested in her future either. Earlier, on one of her dates with Jeff, she played a game with him called Changing Places, where the objective is to pick a person from the crowd and have your partner guess who you chose. Jeff chooses a small boy, and when she questions Jeff about his choice, tells Jeff that he is only twenty-one and has his whole life ahead of him. Jay could just as easily be discussing herself but she allows Jeff to humorously sidestep the seriousness of her question.
Jay, in a panic, goes to see Kelly and Jeff, at their job. She’s having some difficulty explaining why she was so frightened, because her fear doesn’t make any sense to them, or her. Paul promises to spend the night and make sure nothing weird happens, even though Kelly roughly teases him for it.
I do have to make note of the fact that whenever the characters are talking in Jay’s house, there’s usually an old movie playing. Even the background dialogue of the movies they’re watching is something that will play into the later plot of the film. For example, before her date with Hugh, Jay stops to speak to her three friends sprawled on the living room couch, watching what I think is Forbidden Planet which is about an invisible entity terrorizing a space station, that appears to be made of electricity, and hates water. This movie playing in the background isn’t a coincidence either. Everything in the movie, from the soullessly downbeat, electronic synth music, to the background conversations between seemingly unimportant characters, and the camera moves themselves, has a purpose. Clocking in at a quick ninety minutes, nothing in the film is wasted. The film seems longer than it is because it’s so dense with meaning and imagery.
Later that night, Jay sees the demon for the third time, and this instance is much more disturbing, and more specific, in its iteration. Hearing glass breaking, Paul checks to see what happened but can find no one. When Jay goes to check, she finds a girl in her kitchen, who looks as if she’d recently been raped and brutalized. Her hair and clothing is wet, torn and dirty. She is wearing a single sock, a torn red bra, and appears to be urinating on herself (as brutal rape can sometimes cause incontinence). She is partially nude and her arms appear to be tied behind her back, while her face appears bruised. She is very obviously a victim of violence. Its impossible to name any pretty young woman for whom rape is not one of the great fears of life. It certainly appears to be one of Jay’s great fears.
Jay panics and runs screaming from this encounter, as well. Once again, she is completely unable to explain what she saw, or why she’s so scared, while Paul and Kelly both insist that there is no one else in the house. When Yara attempts to enter the room, she is followed by an extraordinarily tall man. This is also not a coincidence. The director says he tried to find the tallest person he could for that particular scene. This may mean that one of Jay’s great fears is growing big, (i.e. getting fat). Jay runs away again, biking to a nearby park, where she can see all around.
Kelly ,Yara, Paul and now Greg, catch up to her and its at this point she decides to go on the offensive. She needs to understand what’s happening, and the only person who can explain it, is Jeff. It turns out that Jeff isn’t his real name. His real name is Hugh, which the friends find out, when they investigate the house he rented in town. He left behind some personal objects, along with porn magazines, which lead some reviewers to speculate that Hugh was a rapist and that was how he got infected, when he raped the girl who gave it to him, but I reject that idea. I think the demon can only be passed on by the willing. I don’t think you can pass it on to someone who doesn’t accept sex with you. Its why Hugh goes through such pains to woo Jay, over several dates, and then carefully explains things to her afterward. She needs to know what’s happening to her, because the longer she stays alive, the longer he can stay alive.
The porn magazines are not a coincidence either. Earlier, when Jay confessed to Paul she was having trouble sleeping , the two of them reminisce about finding some porn magazines, when they were children. When their mothers caught them with the books, spread out on the front porch, they each got the sex education talk, the next day. The movie is suffused with seemingly innocent sexual conversations, and even those conversations that are not about sex, pertain to the characters and plot, in other ways. It is during this same conversation that we learn about the sexual history between Jay, Kelly, and Paul.
The windows of Hugh’s abandoned house are strung with tin cans, to alert Hugh, if anything tries to get inside. The movie is especially terrifying because the creature isn’t dumb. It has a certain level of sly cunning. One of its tactics for reaching its prey, if they are indoors, is to break a window and slither its way inside, as it did at Jay’s house.
They find out Hugh’s real name, and address, by visiting his high school. One of the more interesting parts of the movie is when the camera does long panning shots of whatever environment Jay happens to be in. The viewer spends that time warily looking for the creature. In some sense we have become like Jay. We have been infected too, since we can see it. Constantly on our guard against the creature’s appearance. In some scenes, the demon can be spotted slowly walking in the background, but since it can look like anyone, it may take several viewings to spot it. While visiting the school, the demon can be spotted,twice, slowly walking towards the school, and then Greg’s car, in the form of Jay’s friend Yara. What makes these scenes especially frightening is we can see that the real Yara is in the car with Kelly and Paul.
The group visits Hugh’s house, and the door is answered by his mother. The only parents we see in the movie are mothers. In fact there are no adult males at all in the film. They are all entirely absent. It would be easy to believe that they are all at work, except there are little clues that make me think that most of these teens fathers, if they’re mentioned at all, are dead. We never see Paul’s or Yara’s parents. In fact, Yara spends the entire movie at Jay’s house. Even Greg’s father is absent, although we see Greg’s mother a couple of times in the movie.
The conversation with Hugh is unhelpful. He doesn’t have any more to tell them than what he first told Jay, other than he can still see it, even though its not after him. He urges Jay to pass it on to someone else. Greg is indignant and blustering with Hugh. He wants to protect Jay. You start to get the sense that Jay is something of a hot commodity. Both Greg and Paul would love to sleep with her and this would be a great excuse to talk her into it.
Greg takes everyone out to his father’s lake house. This is the only time that anyone’s father is mentioned. We don’t know if Greg’s father is dead, just that he’s gone. The fourth time Jay sees the creature, it attacks her on the beach. It’s a quiet scene so the viewer sits, breathlessly, waiting for the creature to appear in the background. It walks up behind Jay in the last form we saw, Yara, and grabs her hair. This is the first time when anyone other than Jay can see a manifestation of the creature. Except for Greg, who conveniently chose that moment to go pee in the bushes. All Greg can see is people running and yelling. Paul is the only one who has the presence of mind to attack it by hitting it with a chair. The creature releases Jay and hits Paul, knocking him backward. This is our first real evidence that the creature is an actual physical thing, just invisible. Every other time the creature interacted with physical objects, it happened off screen. So anyone can be harmed by it, but if they can’t see it, the creature is not interested in hurting them.
The day before, Greg took Jay out to teach her to shoot, and then hid the gun in the boathouse. Jay and the others run to the boathouse where she retrieves the weapon and shoots at the Yara creature. As I said, earlier, Yara expressed some mild jealousy about Jay, and I think the creature takes Yara’s form because Jay knows about that, and has some anxiety about other girls being jealous of her prettiness. She seems to have no problem shooting at what appears to be her friend, so there may be some suppressed hostility there. The longer the demon stays mentally attuned to Jay, it starts taking forms that are specific to Jay’s personal life. Just like in dreams, where the images represent things, and people, that are specific to you. Only in Jay’s case the nightmare is made manifest.
The bullets stop the demon, but the effect is only temporary, as it gets up and continues its approach, attacking the door of the boathouse after Jay locks it. Greg insists that no one is there. He can’t see anything and thinks that his guests have damaged the door. The next time Jay sees the demon, it has changed form again, as it crawls through the broken door. This time it looks like the neighbor boy who is always spying on her. Even though she was good natured about it, Jay may still have some anxiety about his watching her. Its possible Jay may have some general anxiety about being stared at, made manifest in the form of the neighbor who constantly spies on her. Or that she has some latent desire to hurt him for always watching her.
As Jay exits the boathouse, the demon follows and switches form to that of her sister, Kelly. Now, we have to talk about Kelly for a moment. Throughout this entire ordeal, Kelly’s behavior has been exemplary and truly admirable. Although she’s the younger of the two, you can tell she really loves and cares deeply for Jay. She has been kind, loving and supportive, saying and doing all the right things during Jay’s panic attacks. She repeatedly states that she loves Jay, that she worries about her, and that she’s scared too. She never attacks, scoffs, or attempts to minimize Jay’s fear. She wants to help her sister, and to do that she needs to know what’s happening, and what Jay is seeing. At one point, Jay accuses her of not believing her, but Kelly shrugs that off. That’s not important. What’s important to her is that her sister is in pain and she wants to help, no matter what. Kelly sticks by her side throughout the rest of the movie, even going so far as to move into her room at night to make Jay feel better.
That the demon takes Kelly’s form may be an indication that all is not well in their relationship. Jay may have some freeform anxieties about whether or not Kelly actually loves her, or is jealous of her. She may think that Kelly doesn’t believe her and is just humoring her. Jay doesn’t appear to have any friends other than these three, or four people, and Yara seems more Kelly’s friend than Jay’s. Jay may be jealous of their friendship and scared of her feelings about it. During the movie it becomes obvious that Kelly also has a crush on Greg, and Jay may feel threatened by that as well.
Fleeing in Greg’s car causes Jay to have an accident, where she passes out. Waking in the hospital she discovers she has a broken arm, and is terrified that the demon is walking toward her in the hospital. This is interesting. The demon is always stalking its victim, but the only time we ever see it get close to them, is during the day. The perfect time for it to attack would be when they’re at their most vulnerable, but that’s not what happens. During the movie Jay falls asleep or passes out but the creature never attacks then. It’s a possibility that it can only track its prey when they’re awake. When they’re asleep, maybe it can’t mentally feel them. But that’s just my speculation.
Jay decides to pass it to Greg while she’s in the hospital. Greg is more than happy to sleep with Jay. He makes it clear, he doesn’t believe in the demon, for one moment, and over the next few days, Greg sees no sign of it. I think the reason it takes so long to find Greg is that it’s harder for it to tune into his mind. Greg is the usual, cocky, self assured, handsome guy. He’s seems pretty laid back, with few insecurities, so the creature may have difficulty latching onto any of his fears. What anxieties he does have, he seems honest about, unlike Jay’s fears, which she keeps a secret, even from herself.
Several nights later, Jay sees the demon approach Greg’s house in the form of Greg . I think it takes Greg’s form for Jay’s benefit. The only person who can see it is Jay, and Greg was the last person she slept with. I think Greg’s safety is her most immediate and loudest fear, which is why it takes this form, when Jay sees it break into Greg’s house, through a window. She runs over to warn Greg but is unsuccessful, as the demon takes the form of Greg’s mother and gains entrance to his room, pausing just long enough to give Jay a significant look, as if to warn her that it hasn’t forgotten her. It seems like the demon found one of Gregs anxieties after all. It’s still unclear exactly how Greg dies, as it happens off screen. When Jay looks into the room, she can see the demon straddling Greg, as if it were having sex with him, but both of them are fully clothed, and Greg is already dead.
Jay runs from the house, with the demon, now back in its Greg form, hot on her trail. She drives far into the woods and exhaustedly falls asleep on the roof of her car. The next morning, she spies a lake and three young men on a boat. She swims out to the boat and has sex with at least one of them. I say at least one, because to pass it on, she only needs to sleep with one of them, but it’s unclear if she slept with all of them. Having very deliberately passed on the demon, she heads home and barricades herself in her room, where Paul finds her and tries to persuade her to sleep with him. I think she refuses Paul because she’s aware of how badly he wants her, and she’s reluctant to get him killed. She is already full of guilt over whichever of the young men on the boat will die, and is still grieving over Greg.
Paul is the only person thinking outside the box in this film. On the beach, he was the only one to attack the demon, and now he comes up with the idea of electrocuting the demon in water. Since Jay’s backyard pool has been destroyed, possibly by Jay or the demon, it can’t be used. Much has been made of how stupid Paul’s plan is, even by the director, but you have to remember, the movie operates on dream logic. It’s not supposed to make sense. Just like in dreams, it has its own logic particular to the dream, and nothing will be explained to the viewer. It’s also a callback to the movie they were all watching in Jay’s living room earlier in the movie.
Jay and the others take a carload of electrical objects to the public pool and wait for the demon to appear. This is its last iteration and it takes the form of Jay’s and Kelly’s father. Some people have theorized that their father may left them because he was guilty of molesting one of the girls. When Kelly asks what Jay sees, Jays response is, “I don’t wanna tell you.” I disagree with this theory. It think their father recently died, possibly in the past few months. A recent death could also explains all of the character’s lackluster approach to living, at the beginning of the film, and everyone’s flattened emotional effect. This also explains why Jay and Kelly’s mom drinks so much. Every time weve seen their mother she has a liquor bottle, or glass of alcohol, nearby. The family may be in mourning. It appears as Jay’s father because he represents Jay’s biggest, and greatest fear, the fear of sudden and unexpected death.
The demon does appear to be reluctant to enter the water with Jay. It’s unclear why. Is it because water is Jay’s safe place? Will the water harm it? Will it be weaker? When the creature decides to throw the electrical objects at Jay, rather than get in the water, Paul forces it in, by shooting it with the gun he stole from Greg’s boathouse. Once again, the demon is only temporarily incapacitated as it struggles to pull Jay to the bottom of the pool, but Paul shoots it several times. When Jay climbs out, and looks back, all she can see is a spreading bloom of blood in the pool.
Jay decides to sleep with Paul after this. It’s unclear if they believe the demon is destroyed, or if Jay is simply being cautious, and making sure at least one other person can see it. Yara gets in one last reading about death from her novel, while lying in the hospital, recovering from an accidental shot by Paul, during the pool skirmish. Later, we see Paul driving by prostitutes. It is strongly implied that he may have passed it on to one, but this isn’t something made clear.
The movie ends with Paul and Jay, walking slowly down the street, holding hands. Their love doesn’t seem genuine, although Paul seems quite happy. The viewer can see a figure slowly walking towards them, in the background. My theory is that the demon isn’t dead and that the two of them will continue passing it back and forth each time they have sex. On the other hand the demon may not be able to focus on just one of them long enough to kill them, or a monogamous relationship keeps it from killing its prey. But again that’s just my speculation.
Here are some links to reviews, speculation and interviews about it Follows:
It Follows exists out of time in a paranoid nightmare
*This person rightfully brings up the constant water motifs in the film along with several other things I missed and some other speculations about the monster. Water is indeed a very important factor , per the the lakes, faucets, pools, and rain, but as of yet, I’ve seen no explanations or fan theories for its meaning.
*I found this article to be especially informative. No, I haven’t actually listened to the film’s commentary myself but this was fun to read.
ETA: The first version of the entity, that Jay sees, appears in the form of Hughe’s mother. It’s the reason she looks so shocked when Hughe’s mom answers the door.
The second to last version of the entity we see, is the naked man on the roof. It’s not her father, becasue we see her father last and he’s fully clothed. This man is larger and naked, but I haven’t yet figured out the significance of this character to Jay. This is also the only time we ever see the creature stationary. (Just like in dreams, there appear to be certain rules, until those rules are broken. One of the rules we’ve seen is that the monster keeps moving, until it doesn’t. ) What’s more interesting, and chilling, is that it’s on the roof, seeking another way into the house, via the window, since Jay has blocked all the doors, and it may have gotten that idea from the neighbor boy, who had climbed the roof to peer at Jay in the bathroom.