An Exploration of Rape Trauma Syndrome in It Follows
Horror films have a complicated and long history of depictions of rape. As many people have pointed out before me (most famously in Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film), the violence in horror movies tends to be undeniably gendered, sexualized, and unabashedly voyeuristic. Also, let’s not forget rape/revenge films: a cult subgenre of horror in which an assault survivor creatively dismembers her (often multiple) attackers after being similarly brutalized herself on screen.
At first glance, it may seem that the rape/revenge subgenre might be empowering for survivors. However, it nearly always simply serves as a vehicle for more and more sensational and gratuitous violence and, ultimately, a reinforcement of the status quo for our society’s understanding of survivorship. While these movies include sexual assault as a direct part of the plot, others feature story lines that present allegories for survivorship — intentionally or not.
One such movie is It Follows, an independent film released last March that was described to me as a story about “a sexually-transmitted haunting.” This phrasing immediately made me think of STI prevention and safe sex cautionary tales. As a lover of horror and sex education, I was on board immediately. I expected images and metaphors of disease transmission, condom use, or the plague fear-mongering so commonly seen in modern zombie films. But instead, the visuals and set-up of this film immediately brought trauma response to mind.
Admittedly, it is not uncommon for me to see symptoms of trauma when they are not intentionally being depicted. I work one-on-one with sexual assault survivors as a Companion, and I am a rape survivor myself who experienced a case of Rape Trauma Syndrome which lasted for years, so it’s not unnatural for me to read my own experiences and training into the media I’m consuming. By the director’s own admission of the inspiration for the film – a recurring dream he has had since childhood – I sincerely doubt the meaning I took from the film was intentional on his part. However, I saw it with a friend of mine, also a survivor, who saw the same metaphors that I did. Maybe the intentions of media aren’t quite as important as the messages the audience can take from it. I believe this is especially true for survivors of sexual assault, who often never feel safe or comfortable publicly identifying as a survivor. In such an isolated state, it’s common for survivors to feel like they are ‘crazy’ or overreacting. Without honest, accurate, and sympathetic depictions of the toll of sexual assault, survivors will continue to feel like they are damaged and alone in their trauma symptoms.
Rape trauma syndrome (RTS), a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is a stress response very commonly experienced by survivors of sexual assault and rape. Symptoms can occur immediately after an assault and may continue for months or even years afterwards. It is characterized by disruptions to normal physical, emotional, and social functionality. Physical symptoms can include shock, sleep and eating disturbances, and fatigue. Behavioral and emotional symptoms cover many issues including disorientation, purposefully isolating oneself, fear of being alone, crying more than usual, feeling restless or agitated, emotional numbness, hypersexuality, increased anxiety, feelings of guilt, feeling alone, and more.
Every survivor’s emotional experiences after an assault are uniquely personal, and symptoms can be as varied as they can be damaging. The symptoms I’ve listed here are only a few of those possible, and I chose to only include symptoms that I saw depicted in the film, which should give you some indication of the scope and variety of RTS experiences.
It Follows focuses on the story of Jay, a girl in her late teens or early twenties living with her inattentive mother and sister. The horror portion of the film doesn’t really start until Jay goes on a third date with a guy named Hugh, who seems to be roughly her age. After having consensual sex with Jay, he then chooses to chloroform her and tie her to a wheelchair in an abandoned parking garage. He does this in order to have an opportunity to force her to listen to some very unbelievable and time-sensitive warnings. He tells her:
“You’re not going to believe me, but I need you to remember what I’m saying. This thing…it’s gonna follow you. Somebody gave it to me, and I passed it to you back in the car. It can look like someone you know, or it can be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you. You can get rid of it, ok? Just sleep with someone as soon as you can. Just pass it along. If it kills you, it’ll come after me. Jay, I’m doing this to help you. Just so you know it’s real.”
Jay spends the rest of the film with her friends and sister, attempting to desperately outrun a slow-moving but deadly serious adversary that only she (and others affected by the curse) can see. Along the way, the film depicts Jay developing unhealthy coping strategies (as well as the shame associated with them), a heightened sense of anxiety, and frustration with the supportive but disbelieving attitudes of her friends and family.
To me, there were three basic aspects of this story that were reminiscent of common RTS experiences: the symptomatic manifestations in Jay, the basic approach of the antagonist itself, and the reactions of Jay’s friends and family to her situation.
Jay immediately begins to exhibit symptoms of RTS, beginning with the very common experiences of shock, hypervigilance, change in appetite, and increased instances of crying. Her symptoms grow increasingly complex as the film continues, covering things such as body repulsion or confusion:
isolating herself to the point of being in danger:
and feelings of being “wrong” or “crazy”:
However, to me, the most interesting symptom exhibited in the film was Jay’s repeated and subconscious use of dissociation to exert a measure of control and self-preservation in her dangerous circumstances. The filmmaker employs shots of Jay ‘spacing out’ and looking at her hands or at random objects during particularly tense discussions or moments. This culminates in a sex scene in which Jay not only ‘passes on’ the curse to a friend, but also is completely dissociative throughout the entire interaction.
Dissociative sex after a traumatic assault experience is something that is hardly ever discussed in general, and to my knowledge has never been explored with this level of respect in a horror movie. Correctly and non-judgmentally depicting an RTS symptom of this caliber in film is extremely powerful and gives visibility to an issue that countless people suffer from and feel isolated by.
The way the antagonist hunts and terrorizes its victims is extremely similar to how many people experience the after-effects of trauma. This entity is invisible to people who have not been given the curse at some point, making it extremely difficult for others to have empathy or understanding for victims.
After being passed on, a victim may feel safe for a while, but it is impossible for them to know when it might crop up in their lives again. This constant feeling of passing the curse on, only to have it frustratingly and frighteningly come back again (and the sense of paranoia and anxiety that would go along with that) directly mirrors the cyclical nature of trauma recovery.
While for the most part supportive, Jay’s friends and family have a lot of trouble relating to her feelings or understanding the reasoning behind many of her reactions. Jay’s friends constantly press her for details, and either question or completely disregard the things that she is seeing and frightened of.
While these questions do seem to be coming from a place of her friend’s desire to understand, this is a common mistake people make with survivors and such questioning can feel overwhelming and skeptical to trauma survivors. Many people also try to heavily influence Jay’s actions and decisions, in an effort to protect her. This is also an extremely common experience for survivors, and can feel infantilizing and controlling. One of the most frustrating things Jay’s loved ones do and say throughout the film is how often they minimize or deny what she is feeling. This serves only to make Jay feel more alone and misunderstood.
Couple all of this with Hugh’s experiences and justification of passing on the haunting to Jay:
and you actually have a very comprehensive allegorical look at short and long-term effects of sexual trauma, including the oft-cited (but fairly harmful) assertion that a large percentage of perpetrators are survivors themselves.
In an interview discussing the childhood nightmares which led him to make this film, the director David Robert Mitchell stated, “Sometimes, I’m at home with my family, but it’s the same thing: There’s someone coming for me.… It’s so slow I can easily get away.… But it’s always there. I just can’t get away from it.” Intentional or not, that is a concept that every trauma survivor can likely relate to. And in a culture that endlessly minimizes and disbelieves survivors, it’s nice to be represented.
Camille Zimmerman has been a Companion with the Center since 2013. She provides support and resources for survivors of sexual violence and is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. Her other writings for the Center include an analysis of stalking in pop culture, a guide to supporting survivors, and a summary of global anti-violence campaigns.