The slasher flick is absorbed in the heroine’s experience of incessant trauma. But unlike the genre’s other characters, she is the one who does not die: she is the “Final Girl.” A victim-hero, she is resourceful and intelligent and ultimately vanquishes the masked murderer.[i] A slew of recent horror films like The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015) and It Follows (David Robert Mitchell) have taken up the archetype seemingly in celebration of the female-empowering figure. After all, horror is one of the few genres that enables its female protagonists to “kick ass.”
And on the surface, It Follows, a 2014 Cannes Film favorite, seems like just another in a long line of likeminded slashers. The film centers on 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe), a college student from the Detroit suburbs. After having sex with the outwardly charming Hugh (Jake Weary), Jay is drugged, bound to a wheelchair, and is told she now carries a sexually transmitted curse. An amorphous monster—it—will follow her everywhere she roams, and although no one else can see it, for Jay, it could appear like anyone. It is painstakingly slow but inescapable. Temporary respite occurs only by passing it on through sex with somebody else. In a way, the plot feels like an urban legend of sorts, and the formula obeys many of the same rules touted by Randy (Jamie Kennedy) in Scream (Wes Craven, 1996): “There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex.”
The novelty of It Follows, though, is that Jay and others do get to have sex and live on; even the love interest has a fighting chance. Boyfriends usually become fodder for the killer as do drug enthused and lustful friends. But with It Follows, Jay’s boyfriend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) survives; they both do, striding hand in hand into an indeterminate future—both unremittingly peering over each other’s shoulder.
This in and of itself suggests an interesting alteration to the final girl: she is not the only one left standing. The Final Girls has a similar conclusion. The heroine wakes up in a hospital bed with her friends and boyfriend lying beside her. Dark comedy ensues even here as she and the audience realize that the characters will soon have to survive the second installment of the killer’s attacks.
Yes, Jay does get to have sex and fight on, but like Sydney (Neve Campbell) from Scream before her, she will have to try to outlive the consequences. Sydney has sex with her boyfriend-turned-killer, but each sequel shows Sydney fending off further assaults. Likewise, It Follows concludes with the assurance that Jay will ever be followed, ever stalked by the sexually transmitted haunting. The severity of her battles somehow seems equal in proportion to the length of Jay’s sexual encounters presented onscreen. Sydney’s arrival into sexual maturity was very slight by comparison. Laurie’s in Halloween was even less—nothing. Each successive final girl gets to enjoy more sex, but more sex means more persecution by the killer.
It looks like vice will always prefigure slice and dice. During Jay’s date with Hugh they play a “people watching” game. The point is to guess who among the crowd the other player would choose to trade places with. Hugh chooses a small boy, saying “how cool would that be to have your life ahead of you?” At twenty-one, Hugh’s life is basically over. In the car during the hazy afterglow of sex, Jay ponders: “It’s funny. We used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates…I had this image of myself holding hands with a really cute guy…It was never about going anywhere. It was about having some sort of freedom, I guess. Now that we’re old enough, where the hell do we go?”
Immediately afterward Jay is bound to the wheelchair. She is hampered by her sexual promiscuity, becoming figuratively crippled, and, later, literally crippled with a broken arm. The water she enjoyed in the backyard swimming pool will forever elude her now, representing the purity she can never recoup. In fact, one night the monster enters the family home through a window, and in a panic, Jay cries out for a glass of water. Each time Jay and her friends seek refuge, they come near bodies of water, once at the lake, another at the community swimming pool, where Jay wades in neck deep.
It is only a matter of time before the monster reappears, and here it manifests as Jay’s dead father. Fathers are often treated as arbitrators of moral authority, and it comes as no surprise that the monster smiting Jay with electrical equipment would wear the visage of the father. These scenes at the pool demonstrate the group’s failed attempt to purge Jay’s sexual misdeeds. Final girl enthusiasts must observe this significant change. True, Jay gets to live and have sex, a progressive development in the conventional slasher plot, which for decades has imagined what it must be like living in an Old Testament kind of world—misdeeds require punishment from God. But what life can she possibly have now?
Though its lack of ending might annoy some viewers, this is also part of what makes It Follows so terrifying. This film’s final girl can never let down her guard. She can never have a prolonged break, even at the film’s conclusion. The monster, or the expectation of the monster, will ever wait lingering just on the periphery. There can be no safe harbor for the sexually promiscuous, who, like Jay, have been cast adrift.
[i] Please see Carol Clover’s wonderful book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, for a more thorough analysis and definition of the final girl.
MICHELLE MASTRO is a graduate student at Indiana University, Bloomington’s English PhD program. She studies the development of the novel (loves the Gothic) and never tires of reading Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins—believe it or not. But most of all, she adores horror films!