The source of humanity’s irrational fear of clowns is being remade. On September 8th, Stephen King’s classic coming-of-age/psycho-murderer-clown tale will hit the silver screen. And I, despite hating remakes and unnecessary sequels, couldn’t be more excited. The original, mini-series version was enough to haunt my childhood (and adulthood) and with modern film making capabilities, and the talented screenwriting of Cary Fukanaga (True Detective) (season 1) (not the convoluted, disastrous season 2) it’s going to be a nightmare. In the best kind of way.
It takes a special kind of film to be legitimately scary. A decent horror movie will have you shaken in the theater, like The Conjuring” A good horror movie will linger under your bed and in the darkest shadows of your room, like The Witch. A great horror movie will bury itself under your skin. It will eat away at you, and make you fear not just the film, but fear itself. Then there’s the films that go beyond that.
But what is it about “It” that transcends the genre and positions itself with the likes of films like Rosemary’s Baby, and The Step Father? To be sure, It’s not the jump scares and the obscene violence. It’s the razor-sharp allegory that the story tells in the most horrifying and spectacular way. While those other films were so deeply unsettling, that they had me fearing members of my own family and looking over my shoulder in broad daylight, It does something that even they couldn’t do.
Sure, It will get under your skin and have you whimpering at the sight of a red balloon, or a sewer grate, but what separates It from the bunch is that the story is an overtly positive allegory wrapped in a terrific, blood-soaked package.
I submit that underneath the violence, the macabre, and the sheer horror of the narrative, It is a masterful anti-bullying allegory. But, before you accept or reject my theory out of hand, let’s take a closer look.
First, let’s look at the bullies themselves. Bullying, in real life, is typically used as a means of establishing power. By beating others into the literal, or figurative, ground, the bully’s social status climbs. It makes them scarier in many ways to the victims and even the observers. And fear is an effective, maybe the most effective, form of power. Bullies prey on fear. The scarier a bully seems to a victim, the more power they have over them.
Now, let’s look at Pennywise, the killer-clown from the story. Pennywise is simply the manifestation of the fear that bullying creates. He preys on children, and not just any children, the one’s in the self-proclaimed “losers club”. These kids are already fearful, and lack self-esteem and, just like a real-live bully, he feasts on this fear for his own power. He finds out what each child is most afraid of and can literally become the living version of that fear. And as the children’s fear grows, Pennywise grows stronger.
But that’s not all. Much like real-life bullying, the murders and attacks in the story happen, practically, in plain view of adults and bystanders, who are either oblivious, or refuse to help. In the story, dozens of children go missing over the years, and no one seems to be doing anything. In real-life bullying, countless children are victimized, and yet no one seems to be doing anything. One big reason is that bullying has a slippery definition. It takes many shapes and sizes. Kind of like, oh I don’t know, a shape-shifting killer clown?
But if you’re still not convinced of my interpretation, let’s look at the victims some more.
In real life, the easiest targets for bullies are perceived as weak, or have some characteristic that makes them different and isolates them from the group. A bully will find what the person dislikes most about themselves and use it against them. The more obvious the insecurity, the easier the prey. In the story, It is able to identify the greatest fears of each of his victims and become the physical form that fear takes.
Now, let’s look at the children in the story. The Losers Club. In the club, there’s a stutterer, an asthmatic, a fat kid, a poor girl, and the minorities: the black kid and the Jewish kid. Each of these kids is isolated in the community and each is a victim of the literal town-bully, Henry Bowers, who, predictably, has an abusive alcoholic father. They are all traumatically bullied by Henry and his gang of followers, and it’s here that the fear It preys on finds its way in.
The victims, of course, represent the people in real-life who share their feelings of isolation. In real-life, these people are picked on by individual bullies, entire groups, and even systematically cast out of society. In the film, the characters are picked on by a metaphorical killer-clown.
So, we found parallels between It and the characteristics and methodology of real-life bullies. The instinct to prey on the weak or downtrodden. The use of fear as a source of power. The fluid and indefinable form that the bullying takes.
Then, we found parallels between the characteristics of the victims of It in the story, and the victims of bullies in real life. But again, if that’s still not enough to validate the metaphor, let’s look at some similarities between the long-term effects of bullying and the long-term effects of being tormented by a shapeshifting demon-clown.
Victims of severe childhood bullying, suffer the repercussions well into adulthood. With their self-esteem tragically stunted, some find themselves in abusive relationships, some turn to substance abuse, and some even turn to suicide as a means of coping. It’s also common for them to project their own history of abuse and bullying onto their kids, or people that they perceive as weaker. (See Henry Bowers, the town bully with the abusive father)
These aspects of bullying are covered in the story by the timeline shift to the children’s adulthood. In the story, some have turned to suicide, like Stan who despite being the most skeptical, kills himself out of fear of returning to his home town. Others find themselves in their own abusive relationships, like Bev, who is married to the physically and sexually abusive, Tom Rogen. But It also touches on a totally different, and more difficult to define, repercussion of childhood bullying.
Most of the grown children pretend that It never happened, or that it wasn’t as bad as they remember. This seems crazy at first glance, because I think most people would vividly remember, and appropriately weigh the seriousness of their brother getting his arm ripped off by a sewer-dwelling clown. But, taken as an allegory for bullying, it doesn’t seem so ridiculous. Victims of extreme physical abuse and rape will sometimes repress their memories and look back on them thinking they had overreacted or misinterpreted the situation.
This conversation is one-way, so I get to assume you see the metaphor now, even if you don’t.
But, I said this was a positive movie. So, what solution does the story offer us? What is the real message? What is the positive?
There are several lessons to be learned from “It” that can be applied to both bullying and demon-clown sightings.
The first is that it’s important to act immediately. Since bullies both create, and feed on fear, it’s important to stop it before it starts. Before the bully gets too strong, and the bullied too weak. In the story, the children have all been haunted individually by Pennywise for years, but do nothing to stop it until it’s too late. Luckily, we get to learn from their misfortune. However, applying this in real life is difficult. The problem is that, as I previously stated, bullying is hard to identify and define. In the story, it isn’t until the children meet and realize that they are all suffering from the same thing, that they are even able to give It a name. Identifying and labeling the problem is the hardest part. But once they do, the characters are able to move on to the next step, or lesson, that we learn from the story. And the next step in defeating a bully.
Showing strength. There is, of course, strength in numbers. And once the kids realize they are not alone, they are able to assert themselves and stand up to their bully. They realize that the less afraid they are, the less power It has over them. There is a smaller hole for the fear to creep in which makes them a harder target. They are no longer weak, which makes It no longer strong.
On the surface, It is a creepy bloodbath of a clown-slasher-film. But when we look deeper. When we look beneath the surface and into the sewer system of the film (if you will) we see something greater. We see a brave and powerful message to bullies. We see a huge step forward in the awareness of bullying and the dangers of ignoring it. We see the true strength and courage that exists in all of us when we work together, rather than stepping on the weak.
Or maybe you just like horror movies.
Either way, go check out Andrés Muschietti’s remake of It. In theaters September 8th.