A Lacan-ian framework proposes how the genre of horror is and can be liberating––exploring human desires and fears. Jacques Lacan, a French theorist of psychoanalysis, introduced the concept of “orders of the psyche”, a rendition of Freud’s tri-partide model of the mind (superego, ego, and id). According to Freud, the id is our psychological realities, our impulsive desires which our ego––our rational mind, or rather, our outward presentation to the world––represses. Lacan’s version of the id is the ironically-named “Real”. The Real is not real––though its name would suggest that it is a material thing, it is not. The Real is an intangible reality, an authentic truth; like the id, it is shrouded in a deceptive outward appearance.
We have an illusion of control over the Real––we use language, or symbols, to gesture towards it, to codify it. But the Real is really an abyss of non-meaning; language simply hovers over the precipice of this abyss. What horror does, or can do, is momentarily rupture the symbolic order. In these traumatic breakdowns of normalcy, the Real appears.
In this appearance of the “Real”, it is very much possible for horror films to eloquently explore female desires and traumas. Horror’s history though, is fraught with misogyny. Slasher horror bears the worst end of this misogyny: women’s bodies are rendered sexual objects and are brutalized, often subjected to sexually-charged violence. During the filming of Hitchcock’s famous The Birds, he said: “‘I always believe in following the advice of the playwright Sardou. He said ‘Torture the women!’ The trouble today is that we don’t torture women enough’ (Clover, 206).”
In her 1992 Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in The Modern Horror Film, Carol J. Clover coined the term “The Final Girl”. The Final Girl puts a name to the trope common in slasher horror: “[The Final Girl] is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified (201).” She is, in Clover’s words, “boyish”. Her “feminine” attributes are downplayed and she must be virginal or sexually inactive. These traits set her apart from the women surrounding her, who die at the hands of the killer.
Jay (Maika Monroe), the main character of It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2015), can be characterized as a Final Girl. She alone perceives the horror of the film’s “killer”, and it is her will-power that allows her to survive. However It Follows revises some previously essential character traits of the Final Girl, empowering Jay and rewriting the misogyny of the genre.
The film’s plot is as follows: Jay, a university student, sleeps with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). What begins as a night of fun sex turns into a night of horror: Hugh chloroforms her. She wakes up tied to a wheelchair, only to be told by him that because he slept with her, she now has to bear the same curse he does: being forever followed by “it”, a being who takes on the appearance of others––strangers, though at its most violent, often loved ones. She can pass on the curse to others if she pleases (by sleeping with someone else––the STD allegory is quite obvious), but is condemned to a perpetual state of horror, never knowing when they will appear or who they will appear as. Though her sister and friends accompany her, they cannot see it, and so they do not experience the extent of her dread. Jay ends up sleeping with her neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto), infecting him with the same curse. He is eventually killed by the entity––who appears to him in the form of a half-naked version of his mother. Jay, with the help of her friends, plans to lure the entity to a pool; there she manages a narrow escape, aided by her friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) who shoots “it” in the head. Jay and Paul have sex, and the film ends with the two of them holding hands, walking down a sidewalk as a figure follows them.
While in classic horror, sex remains in the vicinity of the male (or coded as male) killer, often when ingrained in his violence. It Follows gives sexual agency to Jay. Her first sexual encounter (in the film that is; she explicitly expresses the fact that she is not a virgin) is tainted by Hugh’s manipulation. However, throughout the film, Jay is awarded increasing power in her sexuality. When she decides to sleep with Greg, both parties understand that she will infect him. It is consensual and she instigates it. Later, Paul offers to sleep with her, insinuating that he can do so to take off the weight of her curse. She refuses. And they only do sleep together after the threat of “it” is seemingly gone. Jay understands the violence of sex, and how she can weaponize her sexuality.
It Follows pays attention to sex, and not just because it is the vector that transmits the metamorphosizing horror. It pays attention to the sexual gaze, and it does so in a way that underlines how sex is weaponized in the horror genre––especially because sex in this case is implicitly violent, made so by the monstrous threat of infection. Plenty of shots establish Greg’s scopophilia, including a classic upward foot-to-hips pan of Jay’s sister. Paul drives past two sex workers, his gaze lingering on them. Jay spots in the distance three men on a boat, then promptly undresses and begins to wade through the water towards them. It is implied that she does so to have sex with them, though whether she did or not is never made explicit.
The film’s revision of the “Final Girl” can be seen too through the way the film ruptures the symbolic order––that is, in this case, its version of “the killer”. The nameless entity is seemingly genderless (at its core), unlike the usually male-coded killer. It metamorphoses into various forms, most terrifyingly their parents. When it is at its most violent––grabbing hair, throwing objects, killing––it always is in the form of a loved one. Greg is killed by a bare-chested version of his mother. At the end of the film, the monster that attempts to kill Jay appears as her dead father. Its physical manifestations are not quite the Lacanian Real. However it is precisely the creature’s outward appearance from which the horror derives and momentarily ruptures normalcy; it could be said that the entity’s essence can be equated with the “Real”, an intangible reality of Jay’s (and those infected with it) fears and desires. The symbolic appearance of their parents gesture towards a horrifying “Real”, one with undertones of abuse and trauma.
Can the “Final Girl” be feminist? It Follows argues that she can; slasher horror can and should be revised accordingly. David Robert Mitchell’s film sets the revisionary path alive, and Maika Monroe brings to life the modern Final Girl: the empowered agent in her own story, tackling her demons with wit and guts.