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?