Perhaps you’re one of those people who doesn’t follow pop culture, or perhaps you haven’t seen the entertainment news lately. Maybe you’re just living in a hole somewhere. You know, like a storm drain…
…because I’m thinking that would be the only way that you haven’t come across the announcement that Stephen King’s “It” has returned to theaters in a 2017 remake. And, by all accounts, the new-and-improved version is doing quite well.
Is it that Pennywise is an amazing villain that trumps all other villains in scary movies/literature?
Well, despite the fact that clowns can be undeniably frightening, that probably isn’t the reason. I mean, let’s face it: Pennywise mostly preys upon unsuspecting children, pulling them into storm drains and popping out from behind laundry. It’s horrible, but it isn’t exactly “evil genius” territory.
Is it that Pennywise exists across space and time, throughout recorded history (i.e. he’s “immortal”)?
Meh. That’s doubtful too. It’s not that we don’t feel bad for our ancestors, or worry for our kids, it’s just that when something isn’t bearing down on us imminently, it kind of loses it’s edge. I mean, Pennywise only pops up every 27 years, for crying out loud! The guy from “Saw” puts you in a trap and sets a timer. In short, the latter seems a bit more pressing.
Is it that Pennywise seems to be part of a larger curse on the town?
Yeah, I don’t think that’s a problem either. The flashbacks probably get annoying, but I can’t see this detail being the stuff of too many nightmares. Honestly, who hasn’t had a bad memory pop up when they least expect it?
So…what is the enduring allure of “It,” anyway? If Pennywise isn’t the most evil, brutal, or intelligent villain, why is everyone still so riveted?
Because it isn’t Pennywise that’s terrifying. It’s what Pennywise represents. Pennywise is a symbol for all of the fears that haunt us as children. Yes, Pennywise is a clown… but he’s also spiders, the dark, and a dad who yells and hits. He’s the sounds coming from under your bed in the middle of the night and the photograph that seems to change before your eyes. He’s the legend that no adult will justify. In fact, all the adults seem disinterested – or worse – to actively not want to hear about it at all. While all the grown-ups coast through their lives blissfully unaware, its the kids who are left to cope with the strangling terror that threatens to spirit them away to a deep, dark cave at any moment.
And, as a child, who hasn’t had a fear like that?
[Psychologist note: If anyone out there claims they haven’t, they’re lying, by the way.]
Additionally, what “It” touches on is the very real idea that these fears can end up becoming secrets. Sadly, in reality they often do.
As a psychologist, I’ve heard many, many horror stories from adults regarding their childhoods. The “monsters” weren’t otherworldly creatures, but classmates, teachers, parents, babysitters, and others who were supposed to care for and respect them. Instead they ended up perpetrating all manner of horrors upon these victims – and if the victims tried to speak out – often, no adult would listen. It was as if a terrifying ghoul was slashing through town and not one grown-up could take the time to look up from what they were doing to even notice.
So these secrets are carried with the kids – now adults themselves – to other places, other towns. But the memories remain, and pop up at the most unexpected times. They show themselves in dreams, in crying jags, or maybe just when the person returns home to visit relatives they left behind. Even though the dust has long-since settled, Pennywise is still there waiting for them.
What is so devastating (and what Stephen King so brilliantly touched upon), is that this experience is heartbreakingly universal. No matter how lovely a childhood might be, there’s usually at least one skeleton in the proverbial closet.
Luckily, the other theme that King brought out in “It” is what makes the story so timeless and so redeeming.
It’s the idea that together, anything is surmountable.
Even a gang of kids called “the losers” could overcome the town’s greatest scourge by banding together and bringing those secrets out into the open. Together they could banish Pennywise; and everyone – though there were some scars – could be okay. They could press forward into their futures less encumbered, and maybe even free to be happy.
And if a horror film can end like that, count me in for the remake next time too!