Fear has many faces, and no one knows that better than children. Growing up, there is the potential for monsters to lurk in our closets, crawl out from under our beds, and creep in the darkness whenever the lights go off.
Ask any horror fan who grew up in the ‘90s what movies terrorized them or ignited their love for the genre and a lot of answers will probably involve the television miniseries of IT (1990). Based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel, the miniseries was just over three hours long, split into two episodes covering the Losers Club’s encounters with Pennywise as children, and then again 30 years later as adults. This month marks 30 years since Pennywise first popped onto our screens and terrified a generation of young horror fans.
The reason IT probably featured so heavily in many fan’s early horror educations is because of the story’s focus on a monster targeting children by transforming itself into their worst fears. Rather than teens being stalked by a masked killer, IT reflected our fears back at us. IT showed us that movie monsters can escape the screen and terrorize us in real life, that creatures are lurking down the drains waiting to grab us, and that monsters are waiting for our parents to leave us alone for just long enough that they can snatch us unseen.
While It’s favorite form is Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Pennywise is actually a shape-shifting entity from outer space who can take on any form it pleases. Pennywise works in 30-year cycles of sleeping and feeding on children to sustain himself, and uses his shapeshifting ability to change into a child’s worst fear because they taste so much better when they’re afraid.
And this is what makes Stephen King’s creation so special because instead of being treated to just one terrifying monster with Pennywise, we’re shown fear in several different forms. Not only does this keep the scares fresh for the audience, but it also gives us a deeper insight into the different things that scare people and gives us a chance to explore our own worst fears.
As children, we worry about those unseen things that lurk in the shadows, just beyond where we can see comfortably. Georgie shows this perfectly when he lingers at the top of the basement stairs, working up the courage to plunge into the darkness and retrieve the paraffin that Bill needs to seal his paper boat. Even though Georgie pushes himself into the basement, he runs up the stairs as though he expects something to spring out of the darkness and start chasing him. And Pennywise exploits this, ensuring the children are already on edge and fearful before he targets them.
As Richie explores the school basement looking for Mr Marsh or as Stan enters the house in the park after hearing someone call his name, there’s a sense that they shouldn’t be there. As Georgie chats to Pennywise in the sewer, he knows that he shouldn’t be talking to a stranger. As Eddie showers in the school locker room, he knows he is going against his mother’s wishes. This sense of unease and of already knowing that they’re in a less-than-ideal situation leaves them the perfect target for Pennywise, and it’s a state that children find themselves in often when they disobey the rules that the adults in their lives have set for them. There’s that constant fear that lurks in the back of your mind worrying that your parents will catch you breaking the rules, and Pennywise is almost the physical form of that. He’s a much more extreme version of the things our parents worry will harm us when we’re out of their sight.
“Rather than teens being stalked by a masked killer, IT reflected our fears back at us.”
While most children return home safely even when they play in a dangerous spot or break the rules, that isn’t the case in Derry, because Pennywise is waiting. In Derry, the kids cannot tell themselves they’re being silly and monsters don’t exist, because they know they do. There’s no reassurance in pretending that noise was just a pipe, or that shadow was just your imagination because Pennywise is never far away and always ready to strike.
Pennywise’s many forms have a few similar themes running through them, showing that while everyone had individual fears, there does tend to be a common thread running through most of them, uniting us all in the things that scare us.
The Losers are seen hanging out as a group at the local Paramount theatre, enjoying an afternoon showing of I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) with most of the young population of Derry. While Richie is more interested in dropping popcorn onto Henry during the showing, it’s clear the movie has an effect on him when he’s later attacked by a werewolf in a varsity jacket in the school’s basement.
Even the toughest of horror fans are plagued by nightmares of the monsters they see in movies, and it’s an easy target for Pennywise to pull out of their mind. Stan is also attacked by a mummy/clown creature in an abandoned house, and though we don’t find out where this fear came from, chances it was during another movie matinee with his friends.
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This is something Stephen King makes far more use of in his novel with Frankenstein’s Monster, a mummy, Gill-Man, a bird that looks a lot like Rodan, Dracula, a werewolf, and even a large crawling eye all making an appearance.
Pennywise knows the effect that loved ones can have on children, even if they’re no longer alive, and uses this power over them to trick them just long enough so he can get his dinner.
The main person he abuses with this power is Bill, by constantly taunting him with the image of his dead little brother, Georgie. Whether it’s with the moving photobook or presenting a version of Georgie in the sewers to try and tear Bill away from the others, Pennywise knows what is going to hurt Bill the most. Pennywise recognizes Bill as the strongest member of the group, and so he pulls no punches with Bill because he wants him weak and scared.
However, all this has the opposite effect on young Bill and actually spurs him on even more to defeat Pennywise and prevent him from killing anymore more children like he did Georgie.
When Bill returns to Derry as an adult, Pennywise knows his weak spot is still the ones he loves, and so this time he goes after Bill’s wife, Audra. Knowing that Pennywise has her momentarily pulls Bill away from the rest of the group, separating them and leaving them defenseless, but Bill manages to come to his senses in time.
“Pennywise knows the effect that loved ones can have on children […] and uses this power over them to trick them just long enough so he can get his dinner.”
Beverly is similarly targeted by Pennywise using the image of her father to try and scare her. Her abusive father has a terrible amount of control over Beverly’s life and her friendship with the Losers is her only escape, mainly because her father doesn’t know about it. Pennywise tries to strike fear into her and make her abandon her friends by appearing as her father ordering her home. Even when Beverly returns to Derry as an adult, Pennywise still chooses to appear as her father, albeit a very dead version, to try and run her out of town. By tricking her back into her childhood home and having her father chase her, Pennywise hopes to remind Beverly of the intertwining sorts of fear she felt when she lived here 30 years ago.
Pennywise tries to strike fear into the friends by making them unsure who they can trust when he pretends to be Beverly confessing her love for Ben after all these years. It’s such a tender moment, and all that Ben has been waiting on for 30 years and it’s ruined by the appearance of Pennywise screaming “Kiss me, fat boy!” It means that later when Beverly does try to have a heart-to-heart with Ben, he can’t trust his own judgment, and makes Beverly prove it is indeed her before he believes her.
Perhaps tied into the theme of using loved ones, Pennywise knows how to lay on the guilt to make the Losers feel terrible about their actions, with the hopes of making them lose their nerve about confronting him.
Again, his main tactic here is to use Georgie, making Bill feel directly responsible for his sibling’s death. Bill was sick when Georgie wanted to play with his paper boat, and that’s why he was out on the street alone when Pennywise chose to strike. It’s a thought that no doubt lingers in Bill’s head often, and Pennywise capitalizes on it by having a vision of Georgie repeat it back to Bill. Twice in the sewers, 30 years apart, Bill has to come face-to-face with a vision of his one-armed brother in his rain gear and remind himself that Georgie’s death was not his fault.
Pennywise also uses the death of Stan to try and rip the group apart as they feel guilty for the part they played in his death. Knowing he died by suicide right after his phonecall with Mike makes it clear why Stan died, and Bill must feel a degree of guilt as well for creating the promise in the first place that triggered the whole gang coming back together. Just when the group is starting to relax and have fun as adults, Stan’s head pops up in the fridge to bring them crashing back down to earth. Pennywise knows how strong the gang is together, and how much their faith in the Losers Club works against him. So he’s very quick to remind the group that Stan is dead, and it’s no longer the case of lucky seven in the hopes of weakening them.
A Parent’s Worst Fear
While Pennywise usually targets children and only goes after the adult version of the Loser’s Club because they pose a threat to him, he still manages to embody a parent’s worst fear.
The opening scene of IT shows a little girl, Laurie, arriving home on her trike as the weather turns stormy. Her mother comes out to collect a load of laundry and beckons Laurie inside. In the time it takes her mother to drop off her washing and come back for more, Laurie is dead, as Pennywise attacks her from behind the drying sheets. Laurie was off on her own, on her bike, and yet Pennywise chooses to strike when her mother thinks she is home and safe. It’s like he draws on the pain he causes to the parents as well as the children he eats.
Pennywise comes for Bill in Georgie’s bedroom, Beverly in her bathroom, and Richie and Eddie at school. He targets the children where their parents think they are safe, where they don’t need to worry about them, and where it would hurt all the more if something happened to them.
The final monstrous form that Pennywise/It takes on is the form of Derry itself. The problem is not just that a killer is lurking in Derry, but that the whole town has been poisoned. The adults have been almost infected to turn a blind eye to everything that happens in the town.
Teachers block out any mentions of the town’s dark history, Beverly’s neighbors turn their back when she’s being attacked by Henry, and even Bill’s parents immediately start to shut out the reality of what happened to Georgie as soon as he’s dead. Anyone over a certain age refuses to acknowledge the darkness that lurks in Derry, and that allows Pennywise to thrive.
Pennywise uses this power to isolate the children from their parents, leaving them weak, alone, and ripe for the picking. While parents tend to not believe children in horror movies anyway, the mental block that the adults have placed in their brains means they literally cannot see the way Pennywise terrorizes the children. We see this with the blood in Beverly’s bathroom and the photo album in Georgie’s room.
“Anyone over a certain age refuses to acknowledge the darkness that lurks in Derry, and that allows Pennywise to thrive.”
This is why the Losers end up forming such a powerful group and proving a real match for Pennywise because they’re the only people in Derry who acknowledge what is going on around them and share their experiences. They find strength in each other, and even discussing Pennywise aloud seems to diminish his power.
And it’s this power that the Loser’s Club holds that made IT such a firm favorite with me growing up, and no doubt many other horror fans as well. It showed that kids were strong and powerful enough to band together to take on the bad guys and win, twice! It showed that we didn’t need our parents to believe us about monsters as long as we had faith in each other, and maybe some silver bullets. And it showed that there’s nothing you can’t do with a great group of friends.
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