'It Follows' Explores the Spirituality of Horror | Sojourners

'It Follows' Explores the Spirituality of Horror

Should Christians like horror movies?

It’s a question that many a Christ-following cinema junkie has had to ask themselves. It’s hard not to feel a bit conflicted enjoying a zombie apocalypse or a masked maniac when peace and tolerance are core parts of your belief system. If we’re going to be discerning consumers of culture, what value is there in horror?

I could pose one of a dozen different possible answers, each with their own set of arguments — for example, how the collective act of yelling in the dark at a dumb teen NOT TO GO IN THE CABIN transcends race, politics, and gender. Or how horror can help us embrace the inherently supernatural elements of faith. Or how it does the important job of reminding us that evil exists in the world, and can take on any number of forms.

But the argument that truly separates the wheat from the tares is that great horror, going all the way back to its roots in gothic literature, offers some of the best social commentary there is. Truly iconic horror films (and horror stories, for that matter) allow us to go below the surface of your basic spine-chiller, and think about everything from racism to gender politics to the afterlife.

Horror is at its best when it gives you something to think about along with your creeps. The new film It Follows, out this weekend, fits that bill quite well. It also happens to be one of the scariest movies this year.

The plot feels like classic urban legend. Teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) is dating the slightly older Hugh (Jake Weary), and decides one night to go all the way with him. Once it’s over, however, Hugh informs Jay that he’s cursed by a demon, a demon he’s now passed on to her. The demon will follow Jay, slowly and consistently, until it catches up with her and kills her, unless she first passes it on to someone else through sexual contact. If the demon kills her, it will then return to stalk and kill Hugh. Only Jay can see the demon, and it can look like anyone, be it a stranger, friend, or beloved family member.

This premise could easily be turned into something silly and gratuitous, and were it a studio venture instead of a smaller independent film, It Follows might have been just that. But although writer-director David Robert Mitchell has made a movie in which sex plays a pivotal role, he’s more interested in the consequences of it than the act itself. It Follows is packed with symbolism that represents loss of innocence, the onset of adulthood, and reminders of mortality — the ever-approaching darkness that none of us escape. Grim, yes, but also pretty impressive in a genre more commonly associated with objectification and cheap thrills.

Like the best of its gothic ancestors, It Follows also places a high importance on building a terrifying atmosphere in addition to visual metaphor. While there’s some gore, it’s comparatively little for a horror movie. The true scares here are in the constant uncertainty of where and when the demon will strike. Its slow approach and ability to assume any shape mean you’re never sure what to expect, leaving the audience — and sometimes Mitchell’s camera — constantly scanning the frame, trying to spot the shambling menace. That uncertainty, bolstered by a synth-heavy soundtrack that is nothing short of perfect, creates an effective sense of paranoia that lasts long after the credits have rolled (I’m still glancing over my shoulder as I write this).

While It Follows is a creative and unique entry into the horror canon, it’s by no means an exception in being a terrifying film with plenty to say. The fear it depicts isn’t just a physical presence on the screen. It’s also linked with an existential dread that’s universal. The reasons for that dread, and the ways in which we respond to it, are questions horror filmmakers have posed and ruminated on for decades. Those same topics are also the gateways to meaningful conversations about life, death, and faith. The real triumph of It Follows, in addition to being absolutely terrifying, is exploring these subjects in the same tradition as the best examples of the genre.

WATCH the trailer for It Follows here.

Abby Olcese is the Advertising Assistant for Sojourners.

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