September marks the 30th anniversary of IT, Stephen King’s infamous 1986 novel. IT sold a million copies in its first run and spent weeks on the bestseller lists. Like so many of King’s horrific tales, IT has broken past the confines of the own story, spreading chills and scares through our nation’s pop culture and terrorizing children and adults alike. People who have never read the book or seen the movie still know who Pennywise the Clown is.
Case in point: when I was a child, all the kids at school knew about the killer clown from the sewer who murdered children. We’d all seen that black book with the blood red letters sitting on a parent’s bookshelf, just out of reach. Some of us had even seen parts of the movie. Many of us had no idea what the actual story was; it didn’t stop us. We whispered and teased each other about Pennywise, and no one really wanted a clown at their birthday party. Such was the strength of that symbol.
Most people don’t suffer from full-blown coulrophobia, i.e. the fear of clowns, but lots of people associate clowns with creepiness. It’s not a new association. Murderous clowns have long been part of popular culture—look at DC supervillain the Joker, or the 1988 cult-classic Killer Clowns from Outer Space, or even the appalling story of John Wayne Gacy. More recently, a string of strange clown sightings has terrified children and adults alike in South Carolina. (King even commented on it!)
King didn’t create the killer clown, but he left his undeniable stamp on the horror genre by making his murderous clown an enduring horror archetype, laden with meaning. Yet IT’s legacy cannot be credited solely to Pennywise the Child-Murdering Clown. IT explores timeless themes in an insightful way. Time and time again, King had his finger on the pulse of the popular consciousness.
With this novel, King gave our individual and shared fears recognizable shape and substance. His clown has become a cultural touchstone, sort of pop culture shorthand for the experience of fear at all ages. This novel is much more than a popular book. Despite the novel’s flaws, I believe there is enough genuine art to explain and justify its place among horror classics.
In case you haven’t read IT, the novel centers around a group of childhood friends as they battle both human and inhuman monsters. The novel is divided into two main time periods, set twenty-seven years apart. In 1957, a malevolent force awakens within the sewers of the small town of Derry. IT blinds the adults to its presence and terrorizes the children. IT loves to appear as a clown to lure unsuspecting children into its clutches. Or, it shapeshifts into IT’s victim worst fear and literally feeds on that intense fear. Several children are gruesomely murdered before our heroes, a group of preadolescent misfits, figure out what is happening. “The Losers Club,” as they call themselves, resolves to defeat the monster. They do just that, or so they believe. That is, until 1984, when another rash of savage murders and clown sightings bring the Losers home to Derry.
IT is startling and horrifying in the expected ways—the scares, the gore, and the violence are all standard Stephen King. Like he does in many of his novels, King examines his own version of Lovecraftian horror intruding upon normal life. Here we find King’s familiar and almost-Lynchian obsession with the seedy underbelly of the “respectable” 1950s small town. In the age of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, people weren’t about to cop to their nasty secrets and prejudices. Derry is no different. IT is not the only danger lurking in Derry, especially with all the racism, sexism, harassment, abuse, and plain neglect. King’s condemnation of the idea of the idyllic-1950s-America-that-never-existed is unsurprising, but worthy of note as the backdrop for the Losers’ private and shared struggles.
The novel goes deep into the psyches of the main characters, creating an altogether compelling and disturbing effect on the reader. Each of the Losers deal with awful life problems no child should experience—childhood obesity, abusive parents, a severe and mocked stutter, Munchausen’s by proxy, racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, poverty, and, on top of it all, some of the most vicious bullies in literature. King’s commitment to each Losers’ isolated battle is unexpected in the horror genre. If one isn’t careful, it’s easy to fall into the trap of books and movies plagued with shallow, unrelatable characters. IT sets itself apart by fleshing out its characters, which serves to intensify the unfolding horror.
IT is a novel about childhood. Do you remember that keen sense of helplessness you carried around as a child, knowing you were dependent on adults or everything? Food? Shelter? Safety? Acceptance? Love? And how even though you clung to every bit of your agency, you were still vulnerable? No matter how old you are now or how much of a competent adult you are, you were once at the mercy of those around you. No one ever forgets that feeling. Each Loser is a product of a painful childhood, the repercussions of which are all to evident when the return to Derry as adults. As King once said, “the things we experience in childhood are like seeds that blossom later on.”
Consequently, IT is about adulthood. As adults, we face the same challenges children face. We may have more experience and control, but we are not infallible. We make mistakes, big ones. We have paralyzing fears we cannot bear to face. It’s an illusion that we are mature, competent, and confident simply because of age. Adulthood does not protect you. You are still vulnerable. You are the sum of your childhood fears and everything that came after. Even if the Losers attempt to forget IT, they fail. Their memories never really faded.
IT is also about adults who fail to protect children. Almost every child in the book has suffered intense harm, either physical or psychological, at the hands of adults or by the influence of adults. Bill’s parents unjustly blame him for the death of his brother. Eddie’s mother uses his asthma as an excuse to keep tight control over him. Mike faces merciless harassment because of racial prejudice. Stan experiences brutal treatment due to anti-Semitism. Ben’s obesity makes him an easy and favorite target of the neighborhood bullies. Beverly, the only girl in the Losers Club, faces her father’s abuse and Henry’s disgusting sexual harassment. Even Henry, that son of a bitch bully, is abused by his sadistic father. And there are numerous examples where the adults of Derry “cannot see” IT because IT’s influence has grown strong enough to manipulate the entire town. Fear literally blinded the adults of Derry, and they don’t seem too concerned about it.
King wants to show us the impact of fear. It comes in all shapes and sizes. It touches everyone. Some can resist it; others cannot through no fault of their own. Others give into it because they too feed off the power of fear. Enabled bullies who pick on the “misfits.” Adults who abuse and manipulate their children. Whole towns who turn away.
Are grownups the real monsters? Do we end up as slaves to our fears? Can we ever escape? That’s for each of us to decide. King writes about how fear is unavoidable and how we can overcome. In true King fashion, friendship and acceptance will save us all. Loneliness isolates us and opens us to fear’s influence. Children can grow into adults like Mike, who recognizes danger and gathers the Losers to face certain terror. Or they can grow into adults like Henry, an insane bully who become a slave to fear.
People know this. The critics who publicly wondered what happened in King’s childhood to inspire his novel knew it deep down. King has explained over and over that nothing happened. There was no deep, long flustering wound tormenting him. As the New York Times pointed out, King was simply “interested in [fear]: the frantic bleats in a protagonist’s mind more than the monster causing them.”
This is why IT has such a wide, lasting appeal. Every person has experienced fear and its tools. Fear may isolate us but it can also bring us together. I think Adrian Daub said it best when he wrote that the horrors of IT are “Designed first to shock us and then to produce a kind of queasy self-recognition. It doesn’t always work, it doesn’t work for everyone – how could it? – but each phobia, each obsession is a tentative gesture of reaching out: you too?”
This message has been distilled into a single symbol; a hideous clown, a mimicry and mockery of a human face. In becoming so widespread, our private fears become communal. Like the Losers, we can find bravery in each other, even if we don’t quite recognize it. Novels like IT are the fictions we use to tell larger truths.