For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
“Come on back, and we’ll see if you remember the simplest thing of all — how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark.”
When you’re a kid, everything has the potential to be scary. Anything could be lurking in the darkest corner if you believe in it hard enough. Whatever it is, it feels very real to you when you’re young — young enough to believe so completely that it feels like that fear has its hooks in you. The monsters are only as real as you make them. Until one day, you forget. You forget to be afraid. As adults, that’s far from the only thing we may realize has been forgotten over time. You can’t go back, but there may always be a part of you that’s still 11 years old and scared of the boogeyman. Or in the case of IT, just a stupid fucking clown.
IT: Chapter One opens, as the book does, with a tragedy. Little Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) goes out in the pouring rain one day to test out the paper sailboat his brother Bill had made him, and he’s never seen again — his arm bitten off before the rest of him is dragged into the storm drain by Pennywise the Clown (a truly terrifying performance all around by Bill Skarsgård). It’s a rough start, and it only gets rougher. Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Martell) can’t accept his brother’s disappearance and enlists the help of his friends in the Losers Club to find him. They spend most of the summer looking for Georgie, but they all get a lot more than they bargained for. That’s just what happens when you’re dealing with a clown that likes to kidnap and feed and children and lives in the sewers underneath your town.
Who are the Losers Club? They’re the town misfits. Bill is the sad kid with a stutter, Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) is the loud mouth harboring a deeply guarded secret and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) is the Black kid in an extremely white, very conservative town. Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the awkward new kid and the butt of too many fat jokes, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) is the girl with an abusive father and the target of much slut shaming in school. Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff) is the unwilling but witty participant in all of the group’s antics and one of Derry’s few Jewish residents, and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) is the hypochondriac with psychosomatic asthma brought on by his overbearing mother. I love a good underdog story, and it’s easy to be charmed by this friend group’s chemistry right from the start.
While Pennywise takes on the shape of every kid’s worst fear, what always struck me about the story is the persistent idea that the scariest thing isn’t necessarily the very scary clown in the sewers. It’s regular people who can and often do the most damage. Good versus evil is not an uncomplicated concept, but it’s one that Stephen King often plays in — the Losers representing all that is good in Derry while Pennywise influences immoral characters like Henry Bowers to be its agents of evil in the cause. Similarly, IT has some influence over Derry’s adult population in making them completely blind to what’s happening in their town, leaving the children to fend for themselves. When Ben is pinned down and carved with a knife by the film’s central bullies, a car drives right by and a passenger even looks back before a red balloon blocks her view. Beverly’s father doesn’t see the bathroom covered in blood after her first brush with IT, but all of the other children do. Nobody ever believes them. “Almost idly, in a kind of side-thought, Eddie discovered one of his childhood’s great truths,” King’s book perceptively quotes. “Grownups are the real monsters.”
It was a smart move on director Andrés Muschietti’s part to shift the timelines in the films later by entire decades. While the book is initially set in the 1950s when they’re still children, the era of McCarthyism is far enough in the past that modern audiences might feel less of a connection to it, unlike the still highly glamorized 1980s. Not only that, but nothing feels more ’80s than a plot surrounding missing and murdered children. The “stranger danger” of the time permeated our society with an explosion of public fear as more and more kids went missing while a different kind of predator started getting more notice. Serial killers became a more widely recognized concept with more diligent news coverage and focused police investigations. Infamous killer John Wayne Gacy was known to dress as a clown for children’s birthday parties, and even if he wasn’t the main source of inspiration for often making Pennywise take the shape of a clown, Gacy’s arrest came six years or so before the novel IT was first published.
When IT takes Beverly, Pennywise can’t feed on her unless she’s scared. What she feared most was her father, but even when IT takes his form, Beverly meets the unwelcome sight with the ferocity of someone who’s faced her worst fear and survived it. In many ways, Beverly has been a victim all of her life, and she’s not going to be one of IT’s victims. Everyone has to come together for the big fight to kill the boss, and afterward they all swear to come back if IT isn’t really dead, sealing the promise with their blood — a much better group bonding activity than the one in the book. It’s hard not to feel something for these kids, with all of the odds against them somehow managing to rise above their deepest fears to unite and defeat IT.
Or at least, so they thought.
The first film has all the charm of a favorite 1980s horror film, and while it says some things about childhood that the book certainly fleshes out much more profoundly, the movie still contains the carefully carved-out echoes of grief and childhood trauma. The uncertainty of being a kid verging on adulthood in a rapidly changing world and the friendships you make when you’re young, blissfully uncomplicated by messy adult lives. What it is, specifically, to be a young girl living in a world that treats you like you’re grown long before you’re ready. The sting of first loves, the cruelty of other children, the lasting effects of violence, all of the things you unknowingly carry with you. The town you grew up in, which is almost never as accepting as you need it to be when you’re still figuring things out for yourself.
IT: Chapter Two opens with the horrific killing of Adrian Mellon, a scene that King wrote after the real life killing of Charlie Howard in King’s hometown of Bangor, Maine in 1984. A master of psychological horror, King had just started to write IT when Howard was murdered for being gay, maybe even in some way influencing the overarching tone of his book. Hate is a product of fear, and fear is what Pennywise feeds on to survive, sowing discord and terror wherever it can so the more youthful residents of Derry are ripe for the picking. Once you get past the creepy murder clown that eats children, there’s a real evil in Derry (and our society) that it feels like King’s exploring here. Pushing the timeline of the movie so the hate crime is committed in 2016 instead of the 1980S supports what feels like a clear statement on the film’s part, deliberate or not. Those things still happen today, especially in smaller American towns where minds are less open, no matter how much progress it seems the cumulative nation has made. The monster isn’t always the monster in the sewers. Sometimes, the real monster is inside us.
“And maybe, Richie thought, that’s the scary part. How you don’t stop being a kid all at once, with a big explosive bang, like one of that clown’s trick balloons. The kid in you just leaked out, like the air out of a tire.”
When we catch up with the Losers Club again, everyone has forgotten about their time in the sewers. Bill (James McAvoy) writes notoriously awful endings to his books, a joke any King fan will appreciate. Eddie (James Ransone) married a woman who might as well be his mother. Richie (Bill Hader) is a closeted comedian and Ben (Jay Ryan) is still hung up on his first crush. It’s the most disheartening to see Beverly (Jessica Chastain) as an adult trapped in an abusive marriage, second only to the fate of Stan Uris (Andy Bean), who kills himself within the first few scenes after he receives the call from Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) — the only one of the Losers who never left Derry. For 27 years he stayed behind, watching for signs that IT had returned. He never forgot. After a wave of new killings and mysterious disappearances, he calls everyone to come back and fulfill the oath they made. None of them are well adjusted adults (are any of us?) and you can see the scared little kids still trapped inside them. They bear the marks of their trauma, even if they can’t remember why.
Haven’t you ever wondered why you can’t seem to remember the things most people should? This is the question Mike poses to Beverly, who realizes she is unable to remember much from her time in Derry. It’s a more common phenomenon than you might realize. For a long time, I wondered how I couldn’t seem to remember much from my own childhood, just bits and pieces, random flashes here and there like a puzzle that doesn’t fit. Memory loss linked as a side effect of depression and trauma, whether regular or clown-based, feels like a disease. Some sort of horrible inevitability of adulthood that people just don’t talk about. Sometimes the most terrifying thing is realizing that you’ve forgotten huge chunks of your life. Without them, who are you?
The more the Losers are back in Derry, the more they’re able to remember, recalling repressed memories that they don’t even remember forgetting. “We were all touched by IT, changed. Deep down, like an infection, or a virus,” Mike says to the rest. “That virus, it’s been growing for 27 years, this whole time, metastasizing.” Left unattended, trauma festers. It spreads to the rest of you, even if you can’t see or feel it. Even if you forget it’s there, it never forgets you. It takes root without us knowing, influencing the decisions we make as adults. Despite getting away from her father, Beverly ends up in an abusive marriage because she never really deals with what happened to her as a child. Everyone is stuck in a cycle of their own traumatic experiences, and in the absence of their memories, it informs the choices they made as adults.
So much of IT is about memory and embracing who you are without fear. Eddie still clings to his inhaler like the fragile kid his mother raised. Despite all of his personal progress, Ben still sees himself as the kid he was. Beverly goes back to her father’s place, confronted with memories of his abuse and the coping mechanisms she learned as a young girl that likely pushed her right into the arms of another abuser. Richie visits the arcade and watches his younger self chased out with homophobic slurs, more afraid when Pennywise taunts him about his dirty little secret then the murderous Paul Bunyan statue brought to life in front of him. There’s a new kid living in Bill’s old house, a stark reminder of the loss for which he still blames himself. There will always be a new kid living in your childhood home, but it’s no longer the house you grew up in and you are no longer the person who lived there. You’re not the person you were before the worst thing that happened to you, it’s a part of who you are now. “Sometimes,” Mike narrates at the film’s opening, “we are what we wish we could forget.”
Memory is the thing. Memory is the key to who you were, where you’ve been and who you want to be. Not all memories are good ones, but they’re a part of you. The friends you make when you’re young may fade away with the rest but the houses they build in your heart never really leave. There is simply too much to say about the book in comparison, so I won’t waste much time combing over the errors in these film adaptations or the ways they improved some of the Bigger Yikes from the book. (The child murders are significantly toned down in the films, and then there’s all of the racism, weird sex stuff and treatment of women in the book. As a woman who loves a great many of his works, it is really challenging to be a King fan.). Looking at it as a reimagining instead of a remake makes it easier to forgive its missteps. For me, IT has never been about the perfectly told story. It’s a jumbled, convoluted mess, just like growing up is.
Growing up is trauma.
“You don’t have to look back to see those children; part of your mind will see them forever, live with them forever, love with them forever. They are not necessarily the best part of you, but they were once the repository of all you could become.”
The Losers confront all of the things they didn’t know they were still holding onto, coming together for one last figh. And in the end it’s Eddie, the kid who was afraid of everything, that makes the ultimate sacrifice. After IT is dead for good, the scars on their hands appear to finally have healed fully, the promise they made and carved into their own flesh fulfilled. As they stare at the reflections of their younger selves, it feels like a powerful message about the things you take into adulthood, and the things you leave behind. One moment you’re in the bloom of youth, and in the blink of an eye it’s gone. The scars of childhood fade, and nothing lasts forever.
While I usually prefer Pet Sematary’s brand of existentialism and deeply felt anxieties about leaving a person’s youthful days behind, there are many parts of IT and these films that genuinely touch me when looking at the world through the eyes of a child, and emotional horror is always where I’ll hang my hat. The Losers come out of the sewers free of all the horrors that Pennywise had inflicted and Stan’s words in his posthumous letters —“Be who you want to be, be proud” — are the balm on an otherwise bittersweet ending. Richie at the Kissing Bridge re-carving his and Eddie’s initials into the wood, regret for time lost that he can never get back but no longer hiding from who he is. Bill, finally released from the guilt of Georgie’s death. Mike, after wasting so much of his life in Derry, finally gets to see the world. And if anybody deserves to spend the rest of her days with hot guy Ben on his boat and a dog, it’s Beverly.
IT: Chapter Two feels more like a choose-your-own-adventure style romp while IT: Chapter One is where most of the real scares live, but I’m fond of them both for what they are. Deeply human and therefore flawed. Like King’s writing is often as engrossing as it is frustrating, so are these movies and that feels right, too. Stephen King’s IT has been called the Moby Dick of horror novels. I’m not sure I agree with that. Unlike Melville’s work, I’ve actually succeeded in getting through It once or twice, but it’s a monstrously sized work of fiction and not for the faint of heart. I don’t think it’s possible to make a truly perfect adaptation, and the films are at best two well-cast movies that only sometimes hit the mark while still telling stories in which many of us can find meaning. Most of us have been Losers at one time in our lives, and there’s always room for a story about that. A story where empathy and the power of friendship shine a light into the darkest places, choosing love and courage over fear.
To borrow the immortal words of Stephen King: Be true. Be brave. Stand. All the rest is darkness. (And steer clear of storm drains.)