Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
What urban myths tell us about racial fears.
This month, CityLab will be rounding up essential scary movies about cities—films that speak to the anxieties of urban life, showcase urban settings to terrifying effect, or forever change the way you see the cities they depict.
One question is lobbed frequently throughout the Detroit-based horror flick It Follows: “What are you running from?”
It’s asked of the movie’s main character, Jay Height, because she’s getting stalked by these walking-buttnaked-deadass figures who seem to have no origin. The way that Jay becomes the stalked comes at the expense of her lost innocence. It begins with sex in the back seat of her boyfriend’s car, where afterward she sprawls prone, like one would in a hammock, reflecting in postcoital bliss on the daydreams of her virgin years. Back then, Jay tells us, she thought dating would mean driving off into the sunset with her prince as her favorite song played on the radio.
“It was never about going anywhere really, it was more about freedom,” says Jay in the scene. “Now that we’re old enough, where the hell do we go?”
Before their back-seat jam session, Jay and her partner were making out at a beach, which apparently wasn’t thrilling enough. So they decided to retreat to an abandoned lot near a gutted warehouse in the dead of night to escalate their hanky-panky. This turns out to be a mistake. Jay’s boyfriend informs her that now that they’ve had sex, she will be followed by this thing—the It of the movie title—some amorphous, supernatural, sexually transmitted doohickey that will follow her the rest of her life until it kills her, or until she has sex with someone else.
This is what Jay is fleeing, except no one else can see these ghostly followers, hence that frequently asked question about running. Other FAQs, but from the movie’s audience: What does this story have to do with Detroit? Could it have been set in Cleveland or Austin and been just as creepy?
The movie will leave you hanging if you truly want answers. In fact, the name “Detroit” is never uttered. But you figure it out if you recognize historic landmarks like the Redford Theater, which was once regarded as “America’s Most Unusual Suburban Playhouse,” and Clark’s Ice Cream and Yogurt, both on the outskirts of Detroit. The story revolves around Jay and her ragtag group of siblings, BFFs and would-be/might-could-be boyfriends, all white and living in the suburbs. We know it’s the suburbs because the Detroit these kids inhabit is totally devoid of black people and music, which is frightening enough on its own.
The horror dimensions of It Follows could have taken on many different Michiganian forms: the toxic lead-laden water found in Flint, or Dearborn’s new Syrian immigrant neighbors, or a flock of rabid Tea Party fanatics. But writer and director David Robert Mitchell, who was born in the Detroit suburb of Clawson, chooses the terrors of inner-city Detroit, which are mostly unseen by Jay’s suburban gang and reflect the anxieties of their isolation.
In one scene, one of Jay’s friends explains how her parents wouldn’t let her venture south of the 8 Mile Road marker, a border that she says she didn’t understand as a child, but later learned that it was where the “city started and the suburbs ended.” (The inverse for an inner-city counterpart would be that 8 Mile is where the city ends and the suburbs start.) Jay responds that her parents gave her the same geographic prohibitions.
But we never see parents in the movie. These kids are living a teenage dream: Residing in a parentless state in an adult-free abode, complete with a swimming pool in the backyard and a car in the driveway. They barely go to school. They even have access to somebody’s lake house.
And so they roam, rev, and run across various Detroit landscapes, from suburb to city, city to suburb, suburb to exurb, exurb to the beach. One poetic but music-less scene is composed purely of Jay’s crew driving down a long desolate road, from their neighborhood into the forbidden city, and it’s like one long strip of B-roll featuring the corpses of buildings and businesses that once were. It’s the built environment left for dead by white flight. The kids gawk from behind their car’s windows—perhaps afraid of what the history of these buildings might teach them.
The dread in It Follows ends up being whatever’s left over when all racial Others have been subtracted from the environment. All of the zombie-ish followers in the movie are white, as are their targets. You begin to think that either these ghoulish Its are racists, because they only follow white people, or their acts of haunting/bedding/following are, like everything else in America, another consequence of racial segregation.
From within this context, what these kids dread is their own freedom. Their suburban homes have become too claustrophobic for comfort, even with all their extra square footage. All Jay’s gang seem to be looking for, with all the free time on their hands, is the sensation of a first kiss, or a first making love, unburdened by the dangers that these otherwise innocent acts will unlock. But in any case, these are exercises of pure privilege. If this was a story about a gang of black kids, left to roam the streets unsupervised by parents or other authority figures, they’d be called, well, a gang.
There are many racial analogues to this narrative throughout pop culture, though. You hear it in Kendrick Lamar’s song “Sherane aka Master Splinter’s Daughter,” about how the pursuit of teenage love and lust can easily lead to violent ends. In many ways, It Follows is a kinda Wonder Bread-version of Lamar’s 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city. The movie comes complete with its own stories of ”Swimming Pools (Drank),” sexual ”Backseat Freestyles,” and the suburban ”Art of Peer Pressure.” Those songs from Lamar’s album all speak to the risky behavior of simply being a teenager—a universal experience, though the risks and harms take different forms depending on the environment.
Or perhaps a better complement is the story of the 1992 film Candyman, and specifically rapper Danny Brown’s Detroit-based version of it for his “Cyclops” video. The original Candyman teased to death the real or perceived spooks that await white people as they venture into inner-city Chicago, where the ultimate terror is revealed in the form of the ghosts of slavery. For Candyman, slavery’s legacy has been paved over with public housing towers, urban renewal, and gentrification projects that make white people feel safe and comforted in urban spaces. In “Cyclops,” Brown extracts the base of Candyman’s urban spook-lore and remixes it into a soundtrack for Detroit’s “Devil’s Night” ritual—the historic pre-Halloween rampage that either subverts or confirms (depending who you are) the notion of the “inner city” as a pure disaster zone.
It Follows suggests that there’s no need to frighten white people with “inner city” mythology, because white people are getting chased by their own demons, no matter where they live. The message seems to be that, despite all of their freedom and yard space, suburban whites still feel stalked and trapped.
For those of us living less-charmed lives, though, you have to wonder: Stalked and trapped by what? Jay never understands what the thing is she’s running from in the movie. What exactly or metaphorically is the It that follows? Lethargy? Suburban malaise? Emotional malware? White supremacy? The Patriarchy? Global warming? The IRS? Herpes? By the movie’s conclusion, it’s still not clear. All we know is that It continues to follow these white folks. And they keep running. They keeping taking flight. That’s the story of Detroit.