There’s something comforting about the low-budget nature of It, the general shoddiness of the special effects and the score, about the fact that you would never mistake this for anything but an early ’90s TV movie—a very special Stephen King adaptation lasting over several nights and no doubt recorded on VHS by families around the country, commercials artfully snipped by whoever had the remote control. And to be fair, a movie about memory should be told through tacky sets and aging sitcom actors; if It were some kind of grand achievement full of technical wizardry it would grow too big for its themes, which are actually rather small and ordinary when you get right down to it.
Quite simply, a group of twelve year olds—the self-proclaimed “Losers Club”—are called upon to fight a shape-shifting evil that appears every thirty years. More than just a standard horror story, It is also a celebration of desperate people joining together to share something they have in common: the fruits of loneliness. These misfits destroy evil with the power of imagination, something they’ve come to rely upon more than most other children their age, being so isolated in their everyday lives. They fight with the know-how acquired through long nights spent watching Universal monster movies and reading books alone in their bedrooms. They are children steeped in the small, private, and completely controllable worlds that they’ve created in order to survive.
I was like many of those kids in the Losers Club: nerdy, poor, a little fat, a little asthmatic. I, too, longed to connect, to find kids who would understand and embrace me as I already was, others with whom I could read and discuss The Bell Jar or Nine Stories. Books pointed to the possibility of connection with other people. They seemed to imply that, if you suffered enough, someone would notice. And that eventually, somebody would care.
Unfortunately, real life does not work this way. I waited diligently, thinking that someday I would meet another similarly ostracized kid on the bus, someone who also happened to like reading and movies and writing. This did not happen. Maybe I was too picky—the other outcasts all seemed to me to be nose-pickers in stained t-shirts, or kids who punched holes into the art room drywall. So I spent my pre-teen years absorbed in basic middle school survival (head down, hair in my face) and began to think that maybe books hadn’t gotten it quite right.
I saw the famous clown-in-the-drain scene from It, by accident, at the age of nine. I was supposed to be asleep, but I often snuck out of bed at night and turned on my little black and white television with the sound turned way down. I was a bad sleeper, too anxious to fall asleep until fully exhausted, so I often stayed up late, reading with a flashlight under the covers or watching television. I had to time my surreptitious viewing of TV movies and late-night shows just right, because if my mother came into the room immediately after I’d turned the television off, she would notice the still-glowing afterimage lingering on the old-fashioned screen. But I was safe on that fateful night: my parents—who slept in the living room of our little trailer so that we could take the bedroom—were snoring, and so was my sister in the bunk below. Through the particle-board doors, thin as cardboard, I could hear everything.
I turned on the television and saw an almost sweetly innocent image: a little boy chasing a paper boat down an overflowing road on a rainy day. The boat slipped through the gaps in a sewer drain, and the boy followed, trying to reach the boat before it was swept away. And then Pennywise (Tim Curry) appeared, all joy and balloons at first—but then all teeth. I immediately switched off the television when he revealed his mouth full of fangs, and quickly got back into bed. I hid under the covers for a while, but it was too late: I couldn’t sleep. For the first time in my life, I was frightened awake, and I liked it.
Re-watching It recently, I realized that the movie is pure wish fulfillment on a certain level, a personal message from a former isolated nerd to all us other nerds who wanted life to be different than it really was. Stephen King created a world in which the misfits were the ones who had the unique tools needed to defeat the monster. This monumental undertaking forged an unbreakable, almost spiritual bond between them; killing the monster knits them together. And, despite the ways in which their various childhood traumas play out as they age, they manage to emerge thirty years later as relatively successful adults. What more could a former outcast want than a group of permanent friends, and a guarantee that life will get better?
But what is a monster, really, within the world of It? The kids kill Pennywise, but the real monsters remain all around them: bullies who enact their own troubled lives on weaker peers; parents who smother, ignore, or abuse. And then, of course, there’s sexuality—an ever-present danger left unstated directly in the film, but still imbuing seemingly everything.The threat of it—most troublingly embodied in Beverly (the only female in the group), whose storyline revolves around her changing body and the various dangers it presents to her—and the thrill of it. They are at the cusp of sex, experiencing it in glimpses and half-understood jolts of feeling, but it remains mostly murky to them, and terrifying.
So why an actual monster then? Well, it is a horror movie, and it’s hard to pass up an opportunity to exploit our greatest collective fear: the existence of some elemental, basic evil that simply preys upon us. Pennywise is a Lovecraftian cosmic evil, something that lives in a parallel reality, peeking through only to feed and to terrorize. King’s genius here was in making Pennywise a clown, a figure that has both delighted and terrified people for centuries. And Pennywise is quite possibly the single greatest evil clown ever put on a screen—a horror that requires no special effects. There’s something inherently aggressive about clowns—they assault the senses with their bold makeup and bright clothing—but it’s often hard to tell what’s going on beneath the paint. Thus, in It, we’re never quite sure exactly what Pennywise is. He contains opposites: laughter and fear, reality and imagination, excitement and dread. His forced jocularity alone is enough to terrify. He makes it possible for the Losers Club to come together and forge bonds, but he is also a very real and palpable danger to the world they know and love.
It implies that these kids, these lonely losers, are uniquely suited to fight this particular evil—unlike all the other kids—and that finding each other was not simply dumb luck, but a grand design. Isn’t that a comforting idea? That we, the sad ones, the lonely ones, are special in ways that we never could have imagined and that we will, if we wait, be loved and accepted by others just like us? It almost makes the evil clown seem worth it.