There’s something about fear that makes us kids again. Not in a nostalgic sense; we go back to being naïve, gullible, especially to a smirking clown in a storm drain beckoning us to come close. It may as well be a mysterious noise in the basement, or an ominous figure lurking down the hallway. We know we shouldn’t, but against our better instincts we venture into the frightening unknown. It’s a cliché, to be sure, one so familiar in horror that it’s apt to annoy rather than enthrall viewers. But how can we know any better? We’re just kids.
Which is what makes IT so terrifying. It’s not on the hunt for a worthy adversary; it preys on hapless children, kids on the cusp of adolescence having finally gotten over the fear of monsters under their beds, only to learn that they exist after all. Poor unsuspecting Georgie and his paper boat (needless to say, it’s an ill-fated voyage). He knows better than to talk to strangers, but the clown himself seems perfectly reasonable: “My name is Pennywise. There, now we aren’t strangers.” They chat about cotton candy, hot dogs, and popcorn, but only Pennywise’s mouth is drooling.
IT is less a horror movie than it is a monster movie (Bill Skaarsgard is quite expressive physically, but chillingly, his eyes never move). Pennywise appears in fragments, which is crucial towards his representation. He is the manifestation of a child’s imaginative and irrational terrors. There is something genuinely unnerving about the way It operates. It’s an evil that exists on the periphery. It does not wait for you to catch your breath or gather your strength. It strikes when it wants to, how it wants to, all too often when his prey is at their most vulnerable.
Everyone has something to fear, which Pennywise is counting on. Ben fears being the new kid in town (whom also has an inspired affinity for New Kids on the Block); Stan timidly faces his overwhelming religious duty; Eddie, a hypochondriac deathly afraid of germs; Richie, the class clown fearful of you guessed it; Mike, the wary social outcast with good reason; and Bill, still haunted by his younger brother’s disappearance. Pennywise exploits their anxieties, taking the form of their biggest phobias.
Yet none of the Losers are as tormented as Beverly. She has almost no respite from her suffering. At school, she bears the moniker of the class slut despite being a virgin, and has nowhere else to go but home to a sexually abusive father (his lingering gaze is enough to know). Her burgeoning womanhood is her greatest fear, one she forcefully tries to reject because she knows her father, like the other leering men in town, will only take advantage of that.
She clips her hair in a desperate attempt to forge a new identity, but society never lets her forget what it thinks of her. Eddie’s mother judges Beverly solely on the rumors going around town, thus society’s cruel conscience finds its way back to her and any attempt to free herself is rejected again and again. Of course, this is when It comes to haunt her, shooting her own hair out of the sink and, in a not-at-all subtle metaphor, showers the entire bathroom in blood.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to neglect one. The town of Derry is in many ways the villain because it’s apathy doesn’t dispel their fear but adds to the pile like kindling, which in turn fuels Pennywise. Derry is a mirror; we recognize everything about this town – the torrential bullies, the uncaring townsfolk, the abject parents. The adults either care too much (Eddie’s mother) or don’t care at all (Bill’s father). The Losers have no support from their community, one that overlooks or passes them and their plights right on by. They are part of the reason, if not the reason why this evil has found itself a home in Derry.
As a horror movie, IT is as conventional as they come, but the film is a far more compelling coming-of-age story where our heroes discover that the horror isn’t caused by external forces nearly as much as it comes from within. Derry serves as a poignant allegory for societal indifference and its effect on the ostracized youth. We may not have Pennywise terrorizing our communities (not that I know of anyway), but we are frequently plagued with mass shootings, domestic terrorism, corruption, etc. Our everyday callousness has allowed such things to take root in our society. The fact that Pennywise comes about every 27 years hammers in a harrowing truth: evil is generational.
So it doesn’t come as a surprise that the Losers don’t quite defeat Pennywise in the end. He is destined to come back (and, based on the box office receipts of this weekend, he most certainly will). If Bill’s persistent grief or Beverly’s inherent suffering are any indication, it’s that memories tend to bring trauma in tow, and the fear along with it. But that won’t be til they’re much older, as Beverly teases in her vision. For now, an ending, and a bold promise. “Swear,” Bill says, the Losers joining hands, “if it ever comes back, we’ll come back, too.”