Permanent Precarity: Transient Spaces and Horrific Indebtedness in the Midwest

It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014).
Adam Ochonicky explores the relationship between mobility and precarity in the Midwestern spaces of It Follows.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Media, Precarity and the Home.” To read the introduction and other posts in the series, click here]

Tensions between movement and stasis—and related questions of cultural sophistication versus stagnation—have long informed the American Midwest’s identity and its accompanying representations in film, television, and literature. Even the regional label itself implies an in-between or transitional status. As a term, “Midwest” suggests neither a starting point nor a destination, but instead designates an intermediate realm on a spatial trajectory. While denoting both unchanging permanence and transience, the region has become aligned with multiple conceptions of precarity. Indeed, the symbolic and material importance of homes is a recurring central concern in depictions of the region. To list just a few examples, texts as disparate as Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944), Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973), Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir (2008), and Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011) are oriented around destabilized residences.1For an extended discussion of these works, see: Adam Ochonicky, The American Midwest in Film and Literature: Nostalgia, Violence, and Regionalism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020). Fears of losing homes, racial discrimination impacting relocation, and characters adopting transient lifestyles pervade these works and other Midwestern narratives from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present.

Across this roundtable’s initial posts, I was struck by a complementary emphasis on mobility and movement. Pamela Wojcik draws attention to the prominence of “unhomed and placeless” characters within the history of American cinema, Caterina Sartori highlights the forced displacement of “Right to Buy” homeowners in UK housing estates, and Isabelle McNeill notes the longstanding associations between suburban high-rises and immigrant populations in France. In my own first post, the character of RoboCop restlessly roams the imagined streets of Detroit. This hybrid being is set into motion by both his programmed purpose and an existential plight stemming from the loss of home and identity. Clearly, the first round of posts establishes movement as intertwined with aspects of housing insecurity. Whether such motion is elective or coerced, movement is shown to be a precondition for and/or a result of precarity.

For this post, I turn to a case study that bridges concerns with precarity, movement, the ethics of representing spaces, and the Midwest’s spatially and culturally in-between status: writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014). Since its release, the Detroit-set It Follows has received near-constant scholarly attention, particularly regarding the film’s thematic treatment of sexuality and use of the Motor City’s ruins for location shooting. Among other factors, the supernatural antagonist’s status as a shapeshifting entity without clear origin or backstory has rendered the film as an exceptionally interpretable work. Within the narrative, this mysterious being pursues a chain of victims in an unwavering sequence. A victim can defer their status as immediate target by engaging in sexual activity with another person, who then becomes targeted; as each victim is killed, the entity resumes pursuit of the preceding individual in the chain.2In an analysis of the film’s “queer ethics,” David Church points out that It Follows does not “specify which sexual acts will successfully pass along the curse.” See: David Church, “Queer Ethics, Urban Spaces, and the Horrors of Monogamy in It Follows,” Cinema Journal 57, no. 3 (2018): 7, emphasis in original. Pushing beyond the most immediate reading of It Follows as “an allegory for sexually transmitted disease,” Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock interprets the titular It as “the crystallization of contemporary paranoia, the shape of modern ambient dread. It follows in our wake, an irrational consequence of our actions that we must attempt to survive without truly knowing how to combat or address its threat.”3Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, “What is IT? Ambient dread and modern paranoia in It (2017), It Follows (2014), and It Comes at Night (2017),” Horror Studies 11, no. 2 (2020): 212, 215. Of particular relevance for this roundtable, Casey Ryan Kelly and Joni Hayward present economic-based readings of It Follows. Kelly argues that “It Follows invites audiences to consider the relationship between precarious life and postindustrial society,” while Hayward frames the film as a “commentary on the anxiety of millennials in post-recession America.”4Casey Ryan Kelly, “It Follows: precarity, thanatopolitics, and the ambient horror film,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 34, no. 3 (2017): 237-238; Joni Hayward, “No Safe Space: Economic Anxiety and Post-Recession Spaces in Horror Films,” Frames Cinema Journal no. 11 (May 2017). Drawing together these insightful analyses, I see the film’s unique monster as a manifestation of indebtedness that transforms every potential victim’s residence into a precarious space.

Annie races from her parents’ house to escape the pursuing entity (It Follows, David Robert Mitchell, 2014).

Although It Follows does not directly address economic forms of housing precarity, the film functions as an allegory of inescapable debt. Given that the main cast members are all millennials—a generation burdened with high student loan debt that has negatively impacted rates of homeownership—indebtedness is a highly relevant subtext for horror unfolding in the Midwest.5This generational dynamic has been so widely reported that selecting sources is a bit arbitrary. For a few examples, see: Yuki Noguchi, “Heavy Student Loan Debt Forces Many Millennials To Delay Buying Homes,” NPR, February 1, 2019; Troy McMullen, “For many black millennials, student debt is biggest hurdle in homeownership,” The Washington Post, October 31, 2019; Tori Syrek, “Student Loan Debt Holding Back Majority of Millennials from Homeownership,” National Association of Realtors, September 14, 2021. It Follows begins with Annie (Bailey Spry) racing from her home, which has been rendered unsafe by the entity. Soon, she is dead on a beach. Over the course of the film, protagonist Jay Height (Maika Monroe) flees her own home and neighborhood multiple times, as well as a college classroom and a friend’s lake house. Neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto), who lives across the street and knowingly assumes a spot in the victim sequence by agreeing to have sex with Jay, stubbornly resists becoming transient and is killed in his own bedroom. To adapt the central question of Pamela Wojcik’s first post, It Follows eliminates any pretense of secure housing once characters join the chain of victims. Unlike many works of horror, the threatening being is not connected to a particular site or structure. Unbound from space (beyond methodically walking everywhere), the eponymous It trails characters who have inadvertently (and, in some cases, intentionally) offered their lives as collateral for a transaction that cannot be repaid in an alternate manner. Their names are forever imprinted within a supernatural debt ledger. Consequently, as Hayward notes, these unfortunate Midwesterners “experience forced and constant movement.”6Hayward, “No Safe Space.”

Jay inspects the makeshift alarms in the abandoned home where Hugh/Jeff has been squatting (It Follows, David Robert Mitchell, 2014).

Intriguingly, It Follows reframes transient spaces—those traditionally associated with both leisure activities and economic decline, as well as homeless populations—as the only locales that offer a reprieve, however temporary, from the ever-approaching monster. To remain safe from It, Hugh/Jeff (Jake Weary), who deceptively infected Jay with the curse, has been squatting in one of Detroit’s many abandoned houses. When Jay and her friends investigate, they find makeshift alarms strung up on the windows and doors—symbols of security adorning a site of precarity. After the morphing entity first tracks Jay to her home, she escapes to a playground in a local park. A few scenes later, Jay and company retreat to Greg’s vacation cottage until the entity arrives and pushes them back to the city. Near the end of the film, Jay’s friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) develops a plan to attack It at an indoor pool; different locations were used for the exterior and interior shots, and, perhaps for some viewers, this site calls to mind temporary housing at American YMCAs and other recreational facilities. Shortly before this confrontation, Jay evades the creature in Greg’s house and ends up sleeping on the hood of a commandeered car parked in a wooded area; a sense of security is linked to the mobility of a vehicle rather than the fixed nature of a house. Hence, indebtedness to It paradoxically inverts conventional spatial associations with safety.

In the title of the second round’s introductory post, Anna Viola Sborgi poses a compelling question: “Home: An Impossible Pursuit?” Given that “pursuit” may mean a single-minded chase or goal-oriented practice, It Follows is an especially apt film to consider in response to this query. On a formal level, the repeated use of looping and roving camera movements heightens audience awareness of continual pursuit and generates a sustained feeling of anxiety. On a narrative level, a debt-collecting monster pursues a string of victims, who themselves pursue a respite by fleeing their respective home spaces. The film’s ambiguous ending—Paul and Jay uneasily stroll through their neighborhood with the entity possibly pursuing them—leaves these characters in a condition resembling what Annie McClanahan describes as “crisis subjectivity”: an undesired “knowledge” that develops from experiencing and witnessing the multifarious repercussions of debt.7Annie McClanahan, Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 196-197. Such a perspective seems omnipresent in the twenty-first century. No longer safe within their parents’ houses, the surviving Midwesterners of It Follows are destined for a state of permanent precarity in which a stable home is improbable at best and likely impossible.

Notes[+]

Ochonicky, Adam. "Permanent Precarity: Transient Spaces and Horrific Indebtedness in the Midwest." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 6, no. 5 (December 2021)
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