Today we’re having a birthday party today for none other than Stephen King, creator of my childhood nightmares and the ignition of my love of all things horror. That’s hardly a unique experience given how prolific and evocative he is in his writing; it seems nearly impossible to go through life without having one of his stories affect you in one way or another. He is the author of countless cultural milestones that are ingrained in the zeitgeist of our time like Carrie, The Shining, and The Shawshank Redemption to name a few. If I were to reflect on the full scope of the impact Stephen King’s work has had on my life, this article would be as long as one of his books, so let’s focus on the story that started it all for me.
My entry point into this genre that now consumes my life is the 1990 miniseries It. I remember being far too young and walking in on my parents watching it one night, taking one look at Tim Curry’s Pennywise taunting Georgie from the storm drain, and promptly bursting into tears. He had me, and I became fascinated. I became the kid who brought a 3+ hour clown drama to scary movie nights. I was not invited back often. Since then, I’ve become an avid fan of (mostly) all things King, but the story of It, in all of its forms and adaptations, has always held the most special place in my heart.
Stephen King’s It is about a small town called Derry, Maine that is plagued by a string of gruesome child murders; a trend that seems to repeat itself every 27 years. The culprit of these killings is an intergalactic entity with the ability to take the shape of the greatest fear of its victims, though it most often takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The adults of Derry apparently can’t see the evidence of these murders, or simply don’t care, leaving the task of putting an end to things up to a group of kids, Bill, Stan, Richie, Eddie, Ben, Bev, and Mike, known to us as The Losers Club. As Stephen King weaves together the friendships and lives of The Losers Club into a decades spanning tapestry, he inevitably delivers onto us some major life lessons. Reading the book now as an adult, it’s impossible for me to not notice how many of those life lessons I have carried with me, and for Stephen King’s birthday, I’d like to share that gift.
Face Your Fears
“The fact is, I’m just about twenty-five years too old to be this scared”
Broken down to its simplest pieces, It is a story about fear. Fear is shown as a nearly tangible poison, coursing through everyone who lives in Derry. We also see fear be made actually tangible through the transformations of Pennywise to most effectively torment his victims. The stronger the fear, the better they taste, like Season-All for child eaters. However, the flip side of that is that if the kids aren’t scared, Pennywise has no power over them. If Bill believes that an unloaded bolt gun can hurt Pennywise, or if Bev believes that silver kills monsters, they can do some real and serious damage. The idea is that you are in control of your fear, which I find very empowering despite the fact that we see that is way easier said than done.
“Remember the simplest thing of all: how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark.”
Although as kids, they are able to kick Pennywise‘s ass pretty well, 27 years later, they learn that it wasn’t enough, It’s back. Mike, the sole member of the Losers Club to stay behind in Derry, calls each one of them to come back and make good on their promise to kill It if It ever reared its head again. Tragically, after receiving the call, Stanley dies by suicide rather than having to face the monster from his childhood. With the loss of Stanley from the group, the other Losers are forced to reckon with what could happen if they don’t kill this fear once and for all. It’s an incredibly powerful depiction of the idea of how unbearable it could be to allow fear to fester and grow over such a long period of time. It’s one of the several theses of this story that you need to face fears head on because it does nothing to ignore them.
Growing Up Is A Trap
“If this is the stuff adults have to think about I never want to grow up.”
This lesson feels perhaps the most “King-ian” to me. The idea that you lose something as you grow older is a thread that runs through much of his writing, but perhaps nowhere as strongly as in It. While this story certainly highlights the danger involved with being a kid, it even more strongly showcases the tragedies involved in growing up. The adults in Derry are all by and large monsters, with the rare exception. Adults are seen as abusive, mistrusting, and antagonistic, and it’s almost as if we see the grownup versions of our characters have to fight against that in order to be able to defeat Pennywise.
“Grownups could be so hateful in their power sometimes.”
When Mike calls each of them back to Derry, the rational, or adult, part of their brains tells them “hell no.” As they have each grown up and moved away from Derry, their memories of growing up there, including that summer, have faded into total darkness. The Losers all have to remember what it was like to be a kid, specifically a kid in Derry, and they have to tap into their childhood beliefs to even have a chance at coming out on top. It’s somewhat rare to have the opportunity to know characters fully both as children and as adults and I think that definitely factors into why people connect so deeply with all seven of these characters.
There’s certainly a sense of sadness that comes along with growing up too. I think particularly when they reunite as adults there’s an undertone of regret for the time that they lost together. It’s shown in the details like Richie not wearing glasses anymore or Ben losing a large amount of weight, the notion of things that changed about each other. Especially because we’re given the opportunity to see the strength of their friendship as kids, it feels like a personal offense that they would have forgotten one another. That, followed by the gut punch of Stan not being there, is enough for me to dig in my heels and say that I never want to grow up a single day more than I already have. A less cynical interpretation of this message is also the importance of holding onto the things that are worth remembering, which is perhaps easier to do if you didn’t grow up in a town that magically wipes your memory when you leave it.
No Such Thing as a Bad Friend
“No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”
This one’s my favorite. This piece of solid gold is delivered to us in the chapter where Eddie breaks his arm as a child. When his mom won’t let his friends come visit him in the hospital, he finally finds it within himself to stand up to her. He confronts her for pumping him full of placebo medications for his entire life and constantly holding him hostage in his own house. This burst of strength comes from a real place of love for his friends. The dynamics and the intensity of the friendships in this story have always been what keep me coming back to it.
Whether that profound bond comes from the celestial forces of a transdimensional space turtle (don’t worry about it), or the fact that they are kids who are hurting and find comfort in one another, the relationships ground the otherwise daunting story in something accessible. The Losers are real friends. I mean I think you’d have to be to answer a call from a childhood friend you don’t remember having and immediately dropping everything in your life to hop on a flight to Maine. I also think that’s something somewhat inherent about the friendships you make when you’re a child. Your world is so much more insular than it is when you get older, so those friends that you have at that time are everything. I also think it’s a really beautiful thing to be able to carry into adulthood that sense of “us against the world” with your best friends. Although in the case of The Losers, it literally is.
“I think we still all love each other…Do you know how rare that must be?”
As cheesy or saccharine as it may be, I also love that no single Loser could defeat Pennywise on their own because they sincerely need each other. Even though Bill is the designated leader of the group, we are shown that he doesn’t stand a chance without the rest of his friends. The only way that any of them are able to get on top of their fear enough to fight back is when they are backing each other up. Like any friend group, they blow up at one another and get into big fights, but as the audience you know that they’ll make up because there’s just no other option. They are all lost, they are all suffering, they are all scared kids, but when they’re all together they can destroy the physical embodiment of fear and I think that’s fucking cool.
There’s no such thing as a bad friend. There’s the people who you would willingly spelunk into the sewers to fight a space clown for, and then there’s everybody else.
Beyond my love for horror in general, Stephen King has also shown me what it is specifically that I seek out in horror. I believe that horror is at its most effective when it is driven by character and relationships. In addition to being scared of the batshit stuff that goes down in It, I’m scared because it’s happening to these characters that I care about. I think it’s a real feat to be able to produce such a satisfying character study while also single-handedly increasing the worldwide fear of clowns ten fold. I’ve examined a lot of big life hurdles through this story about the value of friendship, about growing up, about losing people, about conquering fear, about memory and things that are worth holding onto. For that reason, amongst many others, I am forever grateful for the reach of Stephen King’s work. In fact, I’m also forever grateful that my parents didn’t have the foresight to turn off the scary clown miniseries before their young daughter walked in. Happy Birthday Stephen King, I can’t wait to see how you traumatize us next.
What’s your favorite Stephen King adaptation? Have you also read the massive tome that is It? Want to talk about how The Losers Club is the sickest name for a friend group? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!