Horror Movie Ethics: “It Follows”

I just watched “It Follows” for the third time in six years. (That’s why I’m writing this post at 4:10 am.)The 2014 horror film is original and avoids the usual cliches: there is no cabin in the woods, no zombies, no heavy-breathing slasher in a mask, no demonic possession or haunted family heirloom. The first time I saw it, all I could think about was how creepy it was. The second time, my attention was drawn to the writing and direction, which are excellent.

This time, all I could think of was ethics.

Horror, like science fiction, is a genre that frequently lends itself to ethical considerations, creating rare, indeed weird, problems and dilemmas that nonetheless need to be solved by traditional ethical decision-making processes. “It Follows” is a great example.

The dilemma is this: a curse, the origin of which is never explained, but that might have been going on for thousands of years, sics a relentless “thing” on the curse’s victim. That whatever-it-is makes a slow bee-line on foot on the trail of the cursed individual. It only walks at a steady pace; it never runs or speaks. It can’t be killed, or if it can, nobody knows how. No one but the cursed can see it, and to the thing’s prey it can look like anyone—a friend, a loved one, a homeless person, an innocuous stranger. But if it catches up to the object of the curse, the follower, whatever it is, delivers certain and violent death.

There is a way out, however. The individual being followed can transfer the curse to someone else by having sex, and then the murderous thing will follow the sex partner instead. The previous victim(s) of the curse can still see the unstoppable pursuer. But there is a nasty catch: if the supernatural juggernaut kills the new object of the curse, then it will go back to following its previous target, and work its way right down the line, death by bloody death.

The movie’s heroine is a teenage virgin whose boyfriend seduces her to shift his follower to someone else. Now it’s after her. After initially refusing to believe the existential situation she has been thrust into by her boyfriend’s calculated betrayal, a series of close encounters with shambling, dead-eyed strangers that none of her friends can see convinces her of her mortal plight. Eventually, especially after the now freed boyfriend meets with them and explains the rules of the curse, her small cadre of friends believe too.

“It Follows” was a critical and financial success, but all of the reviews focused on the plot as a parable about sex, relationships, and sexually transmitted diseases. What interests me is this question: What is the ethical way to handle the curse, if “it” is following you?

Eventually, a young man who loves the protagonist makes love to her to remove the curse from her and transfer it to him.

Yes, before long, the thing is back to following the girl again. Did her boyfriend consent to being followed? There is a strong hint that deep down, he doesn’t really believe that some invisible malign entity is chasing– sloooowly-–the love of his life. As a result, he hasn’t really given informed consent to be the new target.

Was it ethical for the heroine to have sex with him?

Obviously what her first boyfriend did, tricking her into being the one being followed, is unethical. If someone volunteered to take on the curse, however, is it ethical for the current victim of the following thing to accept?

This is a zero-sum game. Each time a new living victim is added to the chain, the previous curse-holders are one more individual safer from “it.” The best way to freeze the curse is to transfer it to someone with a lot of assets and freedom (this is my assessment; it’s never discussed in the movie). The thing just walks; it doesn’t go through walls and locked doors, and it can’t swim. Since it doesn’t speak or carry credit cards, It won’t avail itself of cars, ferry boats or airplanes.

I’d move to Vashon Island off the coast of Washington (or a similar place surrounded by water—Bermuda!), and pay a previous curse victim or four handsomely to keep an eye out, as I had a yaght fueled and ready to go. A houseboat would work too, if Robert De Niro or Robert Mitchum weren’t after me too.

What would YOU do?

12 thoughts on “Horror Movie Ethics: “It Follows”

  1. Some speculation here, basically out of curiosity as it doesn’t really address the ethics.

    Actress (or A) transfers the curse to Bishop (or B). If Actress is immune to the hunter while Bishop is still around, and can still set up others while in that state, then Actress can transfer the curse to the hunter safely Then, with any luck, the hunter will self-immolate after getting Bishop but before turning back to Actress – and, with even more luck, will avoid getting Bishop so as to avert that fate. But it all depends on the rules of the game, so to speak, and the only ethical aspect is whether attempting that would be ethical, even with the informed consent of Bishop (or of the hunter – would Actress be forcing that on the hunter?).

  2. Jack wrote:

    Was it ethical for the heroine to have sex with him?

    Basically, it boils down to this — she knew the threat was real and he, apparently, did not, and was either unwilling or unable to convince him. He may have thought he was merely removing some kind of psychic malaise by having sex with her, but she clearly knew better.

    So no, I think her having sex with him fails the ethics test on many levels. She failed the ethical responsibility of courage, loyalty, responsibility, and fairness. Having acquired the creature, it was her responsibility to remove it as a threat to others, and more broadly, the species by any means possible. Her lot in life sucked, but alas, life can be cruel that way.

    She wasn’t the only one who failed, though. All the ones before her did as well, and a group of previously afflicted people would’ve had a much better chance of removing the threat than just one, because they can all see the otherwise invisible entity.

  3. Our heroine doesn’t have to do anything. Here’s what happens in the Older version of the story:

    “What giants?” her boyfriend, Cervy, asks.
    “The ones you can see over there,” Donna answered, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
    “Now look,” he said, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
    “Obviously,” was her reply, “you don’t know much about”… IT.
    . …”Since neither good nor evil can last forever,” she continued with bright optimism as any good horror heroine can,” IT Follows that as evil has lasted a long time, good must now be close at hand.”

    [with apologies to the Don and his creator]

  4. I remember watching this movie around the time it went to home video. And it took me now to realize something. What happens if the oldest living person in the chain gets caught and dies? There isn’t anyone before this oldest person for the curse to jump back to. I would assume that means that the curse is defeated once the oldest living person in the chain dies or gets caught.

    In that case, the only two options would be to find everyone who had the curse at one point, and convince them all to either live in an isolated commune together or face the curse head on; one of them might find the cure to the curse though it is a slim chance. Since everyone who was cursed can still see it, they know the real situation and can give informed consent.

    Personally, I’d rather choose the commune in isolation, though that would only be viable if everyone in the group could scrape together enough assets. These plans also assume everyone afflicted with the curse is willing to work together for the good of humanity, when every person but the newest initiate has most likely already deceived the next person down the line.

      • I have to laugh, because with Captain Kirk you have the sex and the logical quandary all in one role…

        Now this is frustrating: weren’t there some monsters in mythology that could only be harmed by their own power? I’m drawing complete blanks, here, and my Google searches aren’t bearing any fruit.

  5. If the killer-thing only walks slowly, and is bound by physical reality (other than the invisibility to the uncursed, I guess), then wouldn’t it be relatively simple to trap the thing? Dig a hole and put palm fronds across it, ala Gilligan’s Island, and hey presto, curse averted. Bonus points if you fill the hole with concrete after the thing falls in. Even if it’s immortal, it ain’t going anywhere.

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