Executive Order Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High Priority Infrastructure Projects
All Around Us
Kelley Dong on It Follows
The nameless source of terror in David Robert Mitchell’s 2013 film It Follows is a shape-shifting being whose two-fold purpose is to follow and to kill. The only way for its victims to evade gruesome death is to pass “It” on through sex, much like chain e-mail or, as some have pointed out, a sexually transmitted disease. Yet for all of its sexual elements, the reduction of It Follows to a horror film about sex ignores the heavy weight of its location. Taking place in Detroit, Michigan, Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis fixate on the city’s decaying lots and boarded-up houses, now ubiquitous with urban decay. These images exist primarily to highlight the comfort zone of the middle-class, majority-white suburb where college student Jay (Maika Monroe) and her childhood friends idly drift through each day. Each moment spills into the next until the fateful night “It” shatters all suburban tranquility.
Jay awakens to find herself tied to a wheelchair in an abandoned factory. With a wild look in his eyes, Hugh (Jake Weary), her date and the man who fastened her to the chair, explains that because they have had sex, “It” will follow her. “It,” he says, could take the form of strangers and loved ones. “It” will appear at any time and any place, invisible to everyone but Jay and those “It” had followed before. Hugh disappears. After Jay returns home, the following begins. There is no one she can trust; and more importantly, there is nowhere she can hide. A girl appears in the kitchen and urinates; a tall man drifts into her room, hovering over Jay as she screams and runs into the street. Later on, “It” appears as her friend Yara, and even as her deceased father. To Jay’s distress, she can now see that which lurks within what others consider safe havens. Far from a delusion, what she sees is a truth that the comfortable residents of her community cannot see: there is something, not out there but here.
“It” may very well be a pathogen akin to Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, as depicted in Todd Haynes’s 1995 film Safe. A never-confirmed disease, MCS causes housewife Carol White (Julianne Moore) to develop extreme reactions to the unseen chemicals used to clean her home. But Carol is not merely allergic to a sickening brand of middle-class conformity; she is weakened by the suburbs themselves, literally and figuratively. Likewise, “It” does not simply punish those who are white, middle-class, and live in the suburbs, it also stands as disturbing proof that the purity of such an identity is only an illusion. Both Carol’s condition and “It” are manifestations of an evil within the infrastructure of the American suburb by way of its history of exclusion and enclosure.
The American suburbs are the symbol of the American dream, an image that only grows stronger with each costly push for more highways, bridges, ports, and pipelines. This dream exists alongside a nightmare of the city as dirty and dangerous, drawing a false moral line based on politically drawn zones to mask the suburb’s own pitfalls and to further keep unwanted people—people of color, immigrants, lower-class families, the homeless, all of the above—at a distance. “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,” Jay’s instructor says, reading from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Simultaneously, “It” takes the form of an elderly woman and reaches out to Jay through the classroom window.
Though sharing the same marks of resurrection, “It” is a deliverer of death, mirroring the slow self-destruction that underlies American infrastructure’s appearance of renewed prosperity. Death follows Jay as she and her friends take a spontaneous trip across Detroit in search of a solution, still hopeful that there is a way out. But “It” is a greater beast, far beyond a tangible enemy to vanquish. In fact, “It” cannot be destroyed at all because it is embedded in their surroundings. To truly eliminate its presence, they would have to deconstruct the only world that they’ve ever known.
“Infrastructure investment, strengthens our economic platform, makes America more competitive,” explains the Trump administration’s recent Executive Order Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High Priority Infrastructure Projects. Though this is among the most benign-sounding of Trump’s orders, the danger of it lies in the fact that infrastructure projects have historically benefited select populations while harming others (let’s not forget that not long ago Trump issued orders allowing permits for the construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines). Furthermore, the capitalist competition encouraged by infrastructure projects parallels the equally Darwinian task forced upon the film’s victims, who can only save their own skins by passing death onto others. It is an inherently destructive cycle. The feeling of safety is only a temporary sensation. When choosing who to pass “It” onto, Jay is left with two options: Paul, her childhood friend and first kiss, and Jeff, the local bad boy who follows Jay around like a panting dog. Jay chooses Jeff because she believes he has a higher chance of surviving long enough to pass “It” on. However, not long after they have sex, he is killed, and “It” returns to follow Jay, who locks herself in her room and stares at herself in the mirror in a daze. But locked doors cannot save Jay, and passing “It” on through sex cannot save her either.
Notably, not too far from Jay’s Detroit suburb is Flint, where in 2013, a year before the film’s release, city officials chose to construct a pipeline using water from the Flint River due to lower costs. Contaminated with lead, the cheaper water continues to endanger the city’s majority-Black residents, who only recently received funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to improve nearly five years’ worth of contaminated infrastructure. Though terrifying in itself, the free-floating horror of It Follows is an already existing reality for all those outside of Jay’s bubble, who find themselves perpetually haunted.
In interviews, David Robert Mitchell cites the work of photographer Gregory Crewdson as an influence on the film’s dreamy look. Though known mostly for its “suburban gothic” surrealism, his work is also an exercise in the rigorous manipulation of space. To produce one of Crewdson’s photographs takes several months and requires elaborate set-ups that include cranes holding up large lights to shine into bedroom windows as though illumination from the moon, and fog rain machines that simulate early morning mist. Jay and her friends seem to occupy one of Crewdson’s small towns, in a single, flat image of suburbia. They exist in a tight frame, unable to see or move beyond their constraints.
After their lengthy and unsuccessful quest for answers, the kids drive through a dark city street on their way home. From inside the car, they peer out at the shadowy figures, standing on the sidewalk, depicted through their eyes as without distinct names or faces. One of the kids, Yara, whispers that her parents never allowed her to go “where the city started and the suburbs ended.” Jay responds that her parents said the same thing, but she’s without the ability to articulate how she feels about this notion. Instead, she sits in silence, allowing the sentiment of her parents (and likely, her parents’ parents, and so on) to permeate the car without question.
Following a series of attempts to destroy “It,” Jay and Paul give in and have sex, awkwardly smiling and whispering to one another while doing so. Holding hands, the two walk through the neighborhood, just as an out-of-focus man appears behind them. The film cuts to black, implying that the cycle has not ended at all, and soon the pair will be torn apart. “It” follows and will continue to follow, whether or not its victims choose to accept it. In turn, Jay’s naive trust in the protection of suburbia and her belief that somehow she and Paul will make it out alive only further empowers “It,” allowing it to conquer every corner of their space. But before taking on a form, “It” existed. Wherever there is fear there is “It,” thriving on the paranoia in America’s ripe suburban feeding ground.