Facing the Millennial Mortality of 'It Follows' and 'Happy Death Day'

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Episode 1:

In the halcyon days of your teenage years and early twenties, it’s easy to believe that you may just live forever - no matter how hard you party or who you piss off in the process.

However, as two modern horror films about growing up conclude, you may feel invincible in the midst of a blissful drink or fuck sesh, but death catches up to all of us eventually. Sometimes literally.

Have you heard the one about the lazy, entitled, vain, and careless Millennial?! Of course you have! In the past decade those descriptors have lead the overriding narrative about what them young people that are ruining the country are like. The malice isn’t just extended to actual Millennials - the age parameters of whom are commonly muddled up and confused - but also to any person beneath the age of 40 who hasn’t quite got their shit together yet. Unmarried? No stable career? Don’t own your home? Have no savings to speak of? Congrats! You’re probably a Millennial.

According to the popular consensus, all of us are simply burning through time and money. We’re wasting our lives on avocado brunches, endless parties, and the pursuit of the perfect selfie without ever realising that the sands of time are dropping quickly and irrevocably into the bottom chamber of our apparently aimless lives. We’re the generation that’s often referred to as being “young invincibles”, not just because we apparently lack the foresight (rather than the wages) to save money in case of any medical emergencies, but also because we (and the generation coming up behind us) approach life with all the immortal death-wish zeal of an early-2000’s Steve-O. We’re plummeting head first into certain doom, gumming Tide Pods like Pac Man, and we aren’t even facing our own mortality as we do so.

That’s a reality confronted and subverted in Happy Death Day wherein archetypal Millennial (though, more realistically, a Gen Z-er) and messy sorority party-girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) is forced to relive the same deadly day over and over again. She needs to figure out who her killer is in order to stop the time loop and save her own life. When we first meet her, Tree is the embodiment of every negative op-ed you’ve ever read about young people: She’s cruelly dismissive of everyone in her orbit; She’s hideously self-centered and grossly entitled; She’s vacuous and vain and projects her superficiality onto everyone she meets; She does whatever the fuck she wants without considering the consequences or other people’s feelings.

But in the process of getting killed repeatedly by the same masked killer and reliving the same day over and over, Tree is forced to confront the flaws in her lifestyle and identity in order to survive and to mature. In being forced to face her own mortality on repeat, she’s made to confront the fact that she isn’t invincible, even if she is given the opportunity to redo the same day until she can survive it. Over the course of the movie, we see through Tree’s journey that though death is terrifying, it’s scarier to acknowledge that we only ever get one chance at life. If we live like there’s no tomorrow, there’s a very good chance that there won’t be one.

That’s a realisation that hits all of us at some point between the points of growing up and becoming a card carrying adult. Usually after our first three day hangover makes us question the agenda of the universe and our precarious place within it. As it turns out, the process of growing up doesn’t just involve the discovery of some harsh world truths, first heartbreaks, or the discovery of our sexuality and selfhoods. It also involves facing the fact that we’re going to die someday - possibly even sooner than we deserve - and in the meantime we have responsibilities to ourselves and to others to live our lives the best we possibly fucking can.

Of course, that can mean the noble pursuit of becoming a better person - as Tree decides upon in Happy Death Day. But it can also mean the less noble pursuit of behaviours and feelings that can mute the dread and panic of life, however momentarily. And that’s a statetment you could definitely pull from David Mitchell Green’s It Follows. With a plot that revolves around a carefree teenager named Jay (Maika Monroe) inheriting a deadly curse from her new boyfriend after she sleeps with him for the first time, It Follows explores the necessity of love and sex as tools for survival. But the film also explores the reverse of this notion, showcasing how love and sex can become dangerous and even lethal when they’re enjoyed irresponsibly.

Back in 2015, upon the movie’s release, Green encouraged audiences to interpret the movie however they damn well please while offering the disclaimer that “the film is a nightmare” and as such also follows the logic of one. “If you find yourself in a nightmare, there’s no trying to explain the logic of it. You just try to survive.” For Jay, he reasoned, part of that survival rests on the nature of sex and it’s relationship with death in the film, suggesting that though she “opens herself up to danger through sex” the character also finds that “sex is the one way she can free herself from that danger” too.

“We’re all here for a limited amount of time, and we can’t escape our mortality,” Green suggested about the potential philosophy of It Follows, “but love and sex are two ways in which we can – at least temporarily – push death away.” In this manner, It Follows & Happy Death Day both present a depiction of young women exploring ways with which to push death into the farthest and most distant periphery imaginable.

Happy Death Day’s Tree isn’t just trying to escape her own mortality, she’s been partying through the pain of her mother’s death just a few years previously. Her coming of age is inexorably connected to the passing of her mother and as a result Tree is living her life to what she believes is the fullest to escape the pressing grief of death. In acting consistantly irresponsible, the Tree we meet at the start of the movie appears to have conspiously opted out of any of the responsibilities of being an adult.

On the other hand, Jay’s coming of age is inexorably connected to the curse she contracts from Hugh (Jake Weary) in It Follows but the character is able to face up to the responsibilities that come with it, no matter how grisly or pressing. Her sleeping with Hugh marks a moment for the character that ushers her into a new dimension of adulthood - one where she’s forced to stare directly into the abyss of her own mortality and the heinous responsibilities that come with being an adult. We see how that which can grant us escape from our own lives and mortality (like love, sex, or drugs) can also in turn generate an environment which we’ll later need further escape from (like heartbreak, psychological trauma, addiction, or illness).

None of us delight at the idea of having to be responsible for anything, least of all for ourselves. But both movies present the idea that part of growing up means facing up to our inveitable responsible for ourselves, our actions, and for the people we love and fail to love. But they also posit that we aren’t completely responsible for the messes we’ll inevitably encounter in the world and within our own lives. It’s all well and good for Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers to point their fingers and judge the generation younger than them for whatever heinous misstep they’re currently making. But at some point they need to acknowledge that these younger generations are simply doing their best with a world they’ve inherited and with the clusterfuck of everyday grievances they’re still trying to make sense of.

It’s telling that in both Tree & Jay’s respective journeys that adults play a miniscule, if nonexistant, role in helping either of them to survive or to cope with the terror of facing their own mortality head on. Happy Death Day & It Follows revolve around narratives where death is unstoppable, catching up to our female heroes no matter how well they try to escape or hide - and not a single adult can help them with that. In the grand narrative of now, young people are likewise confronted with a daunting, often oppressive world in which adults are keen to point fingers rather than offer a hand of support.

What both movies may suggest is that the gatekeepers of society may have it all wrong about the generations currently growing up, or failing to. That what they call self-obsession is actually a healthy interest in personal growth. That what they call self-serving interests is actually a dogged pursuit of survival during uncertain times. That our apparent propensity for vanity and shallow interests are actually an uncompromising pursuit for happiness - no matter how temporary. Because you know what? We’re all going to die someday. And for now, we’d much rather live than fight to survive.

Textbook Horror is a weekly essay series where we dissect our favourite horror movies via the scalpel of a specfic theme or idea. For the first season of the series we’re delivering full-bodied autopsies of coming-of-age horror movies for a collection we’re calling Growing Pains.

In Episode 2 of the Textbook Horror: Growing Pains series, we’ll be returning to It Follows again. Only this time we’ll be talking about the teen horror movies that subverted the age old sex = death trope, to find young women exploring sex and surviving.