It seems cheap to say in a review of a horror film, but it’s the truth—there are no monsters. What we call monsters are abstracts of fear and uncertainty, given a form closer to our own to give us a fighting chance against our inner demons. Truly monstrous things HAVE no physical form, yet we sense the presence of them in our world acutely, which is why they can hold such sway over our lives. Monsters are like the concept of evil, a signpost we can point to in reference even when we are unable to define what exactly the thing is.
In John Carpenter’s Halloween, both Evil and the concept of the monster were embodied in the hulking figure of Michael Myers, “The Shape” who looked human but had no humanity in him. The Shape could not be killed, only survived, which Jamie Lee Curtis did by protecting her young charge and by showing resourcefulness that would mark her as the preeminent model for the female survivor in horror films. But what happens when a new young woman is faced with another horror that is not an unknowable “evil,” but an all too familiar one? What happens when the monster ceases to be in the abstract because of what it represents to the person stalked by it?
This young woman is Jay Height (Maika Monroe), a resident of a middle class suburbia in some unidentified era who lives like many young teens on the cusp of adulthood do; seemingly floating without care in her own bubble of familiarity like she does in the swimming pool that sits in her dilapidated yard. Her sister Kelly and her friends Paul and Yara are likewise disaffected teens who gather at her place to play old maid and watch black and white monster movies, while their parents remain absent from the movie frame.
But an intrusive element is poised to spoil their ennui, and it begins with Jay’s courtship of a handsome older guy. As is ritual for 19-year-old girls, the temptation to raise oneself to “maturity” is powerful, and during one of their dates Jay decides to venture out of the Garden of Eden in hopes of discovering what being an adult feels like. What she finds however is all too familiar for many young girls, a snake in men’s clothing, albeit one with a far more disturbing agenda.
Her partner is infected with something like a virus, but worse, which he passes on the horrifying knowledge through their union. “It” is a relentless pursuer, a doppelganger only she can see, capable of looking like anyone. It cannot be stopped or reasoned with, and while it will follow her at a walking pace, it will catch up to her eventually and exact a gruesome price. The only way to survive is to pass it on to another person through a sexual tryst, but if that person is killed by “It,” it will resume its pursuit of last survivor.
From here on the movie becomes a deadly waiting game, knowing that no matter where she goes, Jay will have to always be looking over her back and fearing everyone who approaches her. She is not safe, even with her friends staying the night “It” finds a way through her defenses. It is bound to her, unless she sleeps with someone else and bestows the same fate on them, and even then she’ll have to watch for signs in case the chain is broken and it comes to haunt her again. Hers’ is a fate sealed not in blood, but in the broken trust that her partner took when they came together. And now the trauma will follow her for the rest of her life.
You could barely think of a more appropriate metaphor for sexual trauma, and though it could be dismissed as a supernatural STD warning, the circumstances and the way “It” appears naked in several forms that tie closely to abuse. Horror is of course meant to get under our skin, but this is a different kind of unease, more real than not knowing if a masked killer is hiding in your closet. Jay is being forced to relive the fear that comes specifically from the incident that passed on this curse, and the only avenue open for her to escape involves spreading that fear to others in a hope that she can put it behind her. The trauma of “It” is not just a horror story, it’s a real story many survivors face every day.
And the movie respects this in it’s mundane picture of life, far from the bright stereotypes of most horror films. Ultra naturalistic scenery of a silent Detroit has never invoked the phrase “teenage wasteland” as much as it does here, forming a symbolic rift between the boring yet safe suburban households and the dismal reality that may await Jay and her friends just past the 8 mile. The film uses these silent scenes as visual shorthand for Jay navigating her own future, exploring the houses and looking for the deceitful man who has passed on this specter of suffering to her. There’s an unasked question to her search though: if she does find him, and knowing that he’s also a victim, how can he help her overcome anything?
There’s a clear contrast between these scenes and the ones where “It” threatens to catch up to Jay, and the vibe it creates is truly harrowing. Much like a panic attack, “It” invades these serene moments of her life, turning the score of the film into a cacophonous siren that just like the thing itself cannot be escaped. The reverberating synth chimes and dulcet tones are reminiscent of earlier horror films like Phantasm, which evoked a dreamy atmosphere one minute and set your hair on end the next. Composer Rich Vreeland AKA “Disasterpeace” has cut his teeth by making classic video game music, and it pays off with one of the most memorable horror movie soundtracks in recent memory.
Maika Monroe is a newbie to the horror genre, though her previous work in The Guest sets a high precedent for what her future may hold as a new lady of horror. Playing a survivor does not require bombastic touches, or great anger or fear towards the world, what it requires is that we see the weight that she’s been forced to carry, and as Jay, her face displays a haunting and devastating look of resignation that is painful in its realism. When “It” nears her though, she reacts with a kind of terror that is all the more affecting because we understand its roots. Jay is a girl forced to grow up by what she’s experienced, and the toll it’s taking on her life is apparent every second she’s onscreen.
The film rides all these rails, coming of age drama, sexual metaphor, and classic horror movie tropes, and does it in a way that is truly unique. It adroitly paints a picture of teenage adolescence that would resemble many people’s memories, and then slowly it transforms it into a nightmare horror world where you are never truly safe. The saying “Loss of innocence” is often invoked to suggest something’s been taken from you, but as Jay listens to a passage read to her by one of her friends from Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot,” her face suggests she grasps a deeper meaning. Adulthood is not the inverse of innocence, it is the acceptance of things we cannot change and which will not be put away like we can put away our childish hopes and dreams.
For Jay, and those like her who have inherited or passed on this reminder of trauma and inevitability, this is now how they must live. Monsters aren’t real, but one thing about them is true, they are immortal as the memories and experiences we collect throughout our lives. And like many horror movies, it is our fate to fight our inner battles against them again and again in a never-ending war just to get through the day. But the greatest struggle is knowing, and accepting like Jay does, that sometimes living means surviving the loss, not of innocence, but of the way we saw the world and person we were before.