Right from the start of the horror movie It Follows, I recognized my hometown of Detroit—or, more precisely, a suburban residential architecture native to the place. As the camera tracked, eerily, across an unremarkable tree-lined street in the movie’s long opening shot, I spotted the squat red-brick ranch houses of my youth, where, like the soon-to-be-Followed teenagers, I had watched bad science-fiction movies in wood-paneled family rooms and floated in homely above-ground pools in neighbors’ backyards. (We were Italian and so had a rock garden.)
I also knew kids who, like one of the teens in the film, were forbidden by their parents from crossing 8 Mile Road and entering the city proper. This moment, which comes fairly late in the picture, is the only explicit regional reference in It Follows, but it’s a telling one, as the tension between Detroit and its suburbs is employed, and upended, by director David Robert Mitchell in the same way he tinkers with genre horror conventions. Detroit has turned up in a number of movies in recent years, mostly thanks to generous Hollywood tax credits doled out by the state of Michigan in an attempt to stir up some new local industry, and cinematographers have, understandably enough, lingered upon Detroit’s photogenic ruins. In A Most Violent Year, that was Detroit doubling for Brooklyn in the bad old days; Transformers have done battle at the old Packard Plant; most baroquely, when Jim Jarmusch decided to pay homage to Huysmans’ Against Nature with a weird movie about vampire aesthetes (Only Lovers Left Alive), he shifted the setting from 19th century France to—where else?—a crumbling mansion in Detroit’s Brush Park.
If you haven’t seen It Follows, the scary part, without giving too much away, is a sort of curse that’s transmitted sexually. Once you’ve caught it, you’re followed by zombie-like creatures that only you can see. (In this way, they’re more like ghosts.) The creatures move slowly, but never stop in their pursuit, and the only way to shake the curse is to pass it along to someone else. Despite a premise seemingly complementary to images of Detroit’s desolation, though, as ruin porn goes, It Follows is definitely softcore.
Instead, Mitchell makes the city’s suburbs even more sinister than the city itself. While it’s not as if this hasn’t been done before—Mitchell is clearly indebted to Blue Velvet and the photographer Gregory Crewdson—for anyone from the area, there’s a pleasing specificity to this particular depiction of suburban dread. The fact, for instance, that it’s impossible to say when exactly the film takes place, which is a pretty accurate reflection of the anachronistic feel of many older Detroit suburbs. (In It Follows, the kids watch movies on black-and-white televisions, drive ’80s cars, and don’t have cell phones, and one of them scrolls through passages of Dostoevsky on an odd clamshell e-reader.)
Likewise, while the central ghost story can be read as both an obvious AIDS metaphor and as broader existential horror, anyone who grew up in the area might also view the unstoppable forces of decay as representative of the widespread suburban fear of the city itself, and all it had come to represent: unplanned obsolescence, crime, and, of course, unchecked blackness. I can remember the racism and paranoia openly expressed by many white suburbanites in the eighties when you’d get them going on the possibility of “Detroit” crossing 8 Mile Road. (You can still find traces of an actual wall that was erected on the suburban side of 8 Mile in the 1940s.) It doesn’t strike me as coincidence that Mitchell, who grew up in suburban Oakland County, has his white heroine catch the curse in Detroit (while having sex in the parking lot of an abandoned factory), and that when the decay follows her to the suburbs, she flees further north with her friends, repeating a pattern started by her parents and grandparents.
Today’s Detroit suburbs are far more diverse than those of my youth—the fact that all of the main characters are white seems like another intentional anachronism by Mitchell—and racial fears have been, if not supplanted, then at least supplemented by very real fears of economic decay. Once the embodiment of the American middle-class, where a decent-paying factory job could get you one of those backyard pools and a modest hunting cabin “up north,” Detroit suburbs have been forced of late to reckon with some of the same issues the city has faced for years: foreclosed houses, shuttered businesses, plummeting property values. Last year, an old friend moved back to the area and bought a mansion in one of the toniest neighborhoods in Grosse Pointe for the price of a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. In an even more remarkable reversal of fortune, L. Brooks Patterson, the loathsome, race-baiting County Executive of Oakland County, complained in a speech in November about Detroit companies stealing jobs from the suburbs. The logic of Mitchell’s great propositional title resonates in this context. What follows is what everyone who grew up in the shadows of a city left for dead knows in their bones: that all things must pass, and that your city (or town, or suburb) is next.