On Mitchell’s It Follows: Literary Allusions

In David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, various characters are cursed with a wraithlike ‘follower’ that brings certain death to whoever it captures. Iconographically, one can interpret the follower as a personification of the characters’ mortality, which has existed in literary history since antiquity in the figures of Thanatos, Abaddon, Samael, and others. A modern, similar narrative would be Antonius’ efforts to elude Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The film contains two literary allusions to the awareness of mortality -the awareness being either the transition from adolescence to adulthood or the realization of the aging process and of the inevitability of death. These themes are often bolstered by the film’s aesthetic choices, such as the absence of adult characters in the film, anachronistic props, and occasionally the physical appearance of the follower.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, 1915.

When the character of Jay first sees the follower walking toward her, she is sitting in a classroom listening to a lecturer reading from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, written between 1910 and 1915. Lines from the poem appear in other media, the best-known perhaps being those spoken by Dennis Hopper in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. When Jay sees the figure approach, the following stanzas are heard:

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas 
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter, 
I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter; 
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, 
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, 
And in short, I was afraid.”

The poem is written from the point of view of an adult man who reflects on his life, describing, among other things, an awareness of his advanced age. Narratively, the purpose of the scene in It Follows is to show the moment that Jay realizes that the curse is real and that it is following her. At this point in the film, however, Jay does not necessarily now that the follower intends to kill her.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 8.36.38 AM 2
Young and old in It Follows, 2014.

Figuratively, it is perhaps significant that the follower first appears clearly to Jay as an elderly woman, the figure signifying what all young women inevitably become. One aspect of the follower is that it can alter its appearance, and does so throughout the film. A physical attribute about the follower that never changes, however, is the speed at which it moves. A person of advanced age will typically move slower than a person who is young. This aspect of the film together with Eliot’s verse suggests a binary between youth and advanced age, and a child’s realization of the physical effects of age. For the young, this realization is a new life experience and can register as a source of anxiety and fear.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1896.
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1869.
e reader
Photo from the set of It Follows featuring Yara reading Dostoyevsky, October 2013, from Ms. Luccardi’s Instagram.

The character of Yara provides ‘bookends’ to the film: In an early scene she reads Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1869 novel The Idiot, and when asked if the novel is any good, states “I don’t know yet,” implying that the viewer will return to the novel later. As an aside, the image of Yara staring into the clamshell electronic reader recalls Hans Baldung Grien’s painting The Three Ages of Woman and Death from 1510, wherein a young girl regards her likeness in a handheld mirror, while the emaciated figure of Death holds an hourglass above her head.

The Three Ages of Woman and Death by Hans Baldung Grien, 1510.

In the film’s penultimate scene, Yara reads a passage from the novel aloud: “But here I should imagine the most terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at all -but the certain knowledge that in an hour -then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now -this very instant- your soul must quit your body and that you will no longer be a man -and that this is certain, certain! That’s the point -the certainty of it.” The scene in the novel features its protagonist, Prince Myshkin, debating whether or not death by guillotine is a ‘painless’ death:

“Well, at all events it is a good thing that there’s no pain when the poor fellow’s head flies off,” he remarked. “Do you know though,” cried the prince warmly, “you made that remark now, and everyone says the same thing, and the machine is designed with the purpose of avoiding pain, this guillotine I mean. But a thought came into my head then: what if it be a bad plan after all? You may laugh at my idea, perhaps -but I could not help its occurring to me all the same. Now with the rack and the tortures and so on -you suffer terrible pain of course. But then your torture is bodily pain only (although no doubt you have plenty of that) until you die. But here I should imagine the most terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at all -but the certain knowledge that in an hour -then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now -this very instant- your soul must quit your body and that you will no longer be a man -and that this is certain, certain! That’s the point -the certainty of it. Just that instant when you place your head on the block and hear the iron grate over your head -then- that quarter of a second is the most awful of all.”

Yara reads the passage from a hospital bed, where she has been treated for a gunshot wound. The setting and the passage together suggest a binary between physical pain and physical death, or the binary between ‘torture as bodily pain’ and ‘the soul quitting the body,’ according to Dostoyevsky. She is about twenty pages into an almost 500-page novel, and substitutes ‘man’ with ‘person’ to make the passage applicable to the protagonists. The passage is perhaps meant to highlight the adolescent characters becoming ‘people’ -which would include, for people their age, a newfound awareness of their sexuality and mortality- and, in their inevitable deaths, the characters ceasing to be ‘people.’ Dostoyevsky’s prose reinforces one of the film’s central themes: that one’s demise is inevitable and inescapable, and the certainty that the characters will enter adulthood and will, one day, die.

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