Stephen King’s It, Power in Numbers and Definition
It is about a lot of things, not least of which is learning to understand, coming together and conquering your fears.
I’m going to spoil quite a bit of the movie It. Here’s your warning.
Hottest take of 2017: It was a great movie… about exposure therapy… and definition…
Okay maybe that’s the coldest take ever. Doesn’t stop it from being any more true.
Alright so Stephen King’s It has apparently always been about facing your fears, specifically as a kid. Those fears are anchored by a central one, which is growing up to be one of the ignorant adults that populate the small town of Derry, Maine. However, unluckily for these bright-eyed children, doing that means staring that fear, “It”, in the eyes. Yeah, these kids have the misfortune of having a literal evil presence beyond comprehension that shows up in the appearance of a fucking clown (because what’s worse as a kid than fucking clowns) stand in as the rite of passage into enlightened adulthood. My condolences, kids.
Except Pennywise isn’t really a clown is he?
I’m no expert. I’ve not read the book since I watched the adaptation. I’ve never read the book ever as matter of fact. Also neglected watching the apparent miniseries that spawned the hilariously absurd looking Tim Curry rendition. This year’s adaptation of It was my first ever exposure to the material. Thankfully, according to what I’ve heard and read (yes I did do some research), it’s the better of the King adaptations and exorcises some of the questionable material. Very glad to not have to be exposed to that. Which is to say, I don’t know if Pennywise is a clown and I’m inclined to think he isn’t.
Pennywise works as “It” better than he works as Pennywise. You feel me? Pennywise is the vehicle through which King decided to tell this story because after all, It is a story of kids for kids, questionable material aside. But we all know the clown. Due to the fact that It became the cultural touchstone it is now, “It” literally became the clown, not the shape-shifting horror that plagues these kids. Thus, we’re less scared because when “It” pops up, you at least know what’s going to do the popping. Half the impact of a jump scare is not knowing what is going to pop up at you, which I should note is exactly what was wrong with Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, among just so many other things.
Now when “It” shows up as a leper, I’m shook. When “It” spews blood all over Beverly and her bathroom, I’m mortified. When “It” shows up as that painted lady, I leapt out of my seat. Why? Because what greater fear is there than the fear of the unexpected or the unknown. The movie is at it’s most horrific when it’s leaning into this specific aspect of “It”. To hammer that home even more, “It” plays to it’s strength and adopts these forms and more to a) stress its flexibility vs. the childrens lack of it and b) tailor the horror to the kids individually in order to divide them. If the base experience they go through is even fundamentally different, the aspect of teamwork is gone because there’s no unifying force. Teamwork is the binding thing that gets them through this unscathed. It’s their definition.
I spent my last week of class arguing Samuel R. Delany’s short story “Omegahelm” and its message of power in definition. That power is that when you know what a thing is, you can exploit it and cripple the person whom it belongs to. One of the two characters, Vondra, for example knows of the debilitating power of money, so when she controls a world, she abolishes it, retaining it for herself and insuring her hold over her less-likely-to-be-unruly denizens. She spends the story trying to impose a definition of family on her friend and former employee, Gylda, who has decided to retire for a seemingly vagabond existence. This freedom and unwillingness to adhere to anything is inexcusable to Vondra, because now she’s essentially lost control. Once the cracks begin showing, it isn’t long before someone breaks through.
The story needs some resolution. A movie about just scaring kids isn’t and can’t be satisfying. So the movie commits a necessary sin: it overexposes us to him. The cracks begin to show. There’s power in definition, after all. Except it doesn’t swing “It”s way. By consolidating himself into a single appearance, that of a clown, the kids begin to have a very clear idea of who the enemy is. Instead of sticking to conquering and dividing, “It” gets too comfortable and slips up. The kids begin to realize, none of what they’re being shown or have been shown to scare them is real. The only real thing, the only thing that really stands there trying to kill them, the thing that killed Georgie in the beginning of the movie, is a clown and an ugly one at that. Every blow dealt in the ultimate fight becomes an easy one because they aren’t fighting against their fears alone. Also what kid doesn’t want to be the badass who kicks a demonic clowns ass and saves the town?
I said at the top of this piece that It was a movie about exposure therapy, a thing very easy to speak of but harder to put into practice. The idealized version of it pits you against the worst thing you can imagine on your own so that you can claim victory for yourself and feel great about your individuality. The truth couldn’t be farther from that. The truth of it is that it’s just a thing you can’t go through yourself. Everyone needs the safety net. Everyone needs to be able to do the damn thing and not have to sacrifice sanity or stability for it. More than that, everyone needs to be allowed to not be fine because acknowledgment is the first step in getting there. Luckily with a title like The Losers Club, this was par for the course. By the time the final encounter is upon us, not only has The Losers Club become numb to the horror of Pennywise the Clown but so have we. He’s become exactly what his title invokes: a laughing matter, nothing to be taken seriously. And if laughing in the face of clearly defined evil ain’t resolution, I don’t know what is.