Sex and death in It Follows

Josh Larsen

The hit independent horror movie It Follows seems, on the surface, to be just another fright flick in which sex equals death. Yet the movie offers a narrative variation that suggests something far more interesting, especially in regard to a Christian understanding of sexuality.

The sex-as-death theme goes back to the early days of film - 1942’s Cat People is a good example - yet it came of age, so to speak, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In movies such as Halloween and Friday the 13th, horny teenagers were punished by knife-wielding maniacs for their sins, all while audiences watched in excitement/judgment.

If it weren’t for the exploitative elements of these pictures, they would be in line with a common evangelical attitude toward sexuality, one defined by fear and punishment, with an emphasis on rules and “purity.” (In those puritanical flicks, the virgin is usually the only one to survive.) But as Caryn Rivadeneira wrote in a recent TC piece on “sex ed for Christians,” a richer theology of sexuality understands sex as “a gift from God.” If it’s a gift we sometimes misuse, she argues, even those failings fall under His grace.

It Follows doesn’t fully endorse this vision, but it moves the conversation closer in that direction. The main character is Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman who discovers, after having sex with her new boyfriend, that he has passed a curse of sorts on to her. He tells her to look out for a slowly approaching figure - which changes in appearance and will sometimes look like someone she knows - because if it catches her, it will kill her. The only way for her to escape the curse is to have sex with someone else.

It Follows gives sexual activity a metaphysical weight.

It Follows proceeds, then, with a heavy sense of dread, something writer-director David Robert Mitchell emphasizes with his slowly advancing camera. He also employs a 360-degree shot that means to calm our paranoia, but actually only enhances it. The bedrock assumption of the movie is that sex has lasting repercussions – and I think this goes beyond reading the film as a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases. By allowing its characters to live in the aftermath of their sexual activity and wrestle with the implications of it – instead of offing them in the midst of it, a la Friday the 13th - the movie gives sexual activity a metaphysical weight. Rather than depicting sex as titillatingly naughty, frivolous or simply an inconsequential physical act among consenting adults, It Follows recognizes sexuality’s significance to us as created beings in search of meaningful connection.

This recognition of sex’s significance and connectedness resonates well with a Christian understanding of sex, like that of James V. Brownson’s Bible Gender Sexuality. In a passage I’ve quoted elsewhere on TC, Brownson describes sex as “not simply about the satisfaction of desire. To make such a simplistic claim would be the equivalent of the Corinthians’ claim, ‘Food for the belly and the belly for food.’ …If sex is to achieve what the body most deeply longs for, one must enter into deep communion with the other - the kind of communion that the Bible speaks of as a one-flesh union.”

It Follows, at the very least, recognizes that there is more to sex than satiety. Discussing the movie on the Christ & Pop Culture podcast Seeing & Believing, Wade Bearden suggested it explores “this idea that sexuality really cuts to our core. …Sexuality, at least in this film, is a very spiritual thing. It’s something that matters.”

You could even say it follows.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Theology, Home & Family, Sex