The movie adaptation of Stephen King’s famous horror novel “It” is just about as terrifying as it gets for a Hollywood film. Just when you thought you had gotten over your fear of clowns and put to rest your old childhood traumas, “It” digs them back up and makes you confront your deepest fears. There are several reasons why “It” is so terrifying for both children and adults.
“It” turns the icons of childhood into elements of horror
First and most importantly, the film’s director Andrés Muschietti – following the lead of Stephen King – works to subvert the traditional view of childhood as a time of innocence and purity. Childhood, in short, is no longer a time when we can innocently make paper boats and float them in the water, or laugh along with clowns at birthday parties. Take, for example, the scene of little 6-year-old Georgie, a sweet child walking out in the rain who stumbles upon the predator clown in the most innocent of ways – his paper boat floats into the sewer system where the monster is lurking.
In “It,” the monster is Pennywise the Clown, and that’s what is so terrifying. We can no longer trust anyone or anything – the simple red balloon floating in the air could be a toy, or it could be what lures you to your grisly death. Remember, King’s novel of the same name was published nearly 30 years ago. Since that time, the clown-as-monster trope has entered the cultural mainstream, and nobody is shocked anymore when we hear stories of a child predator lurking in the woods, dressed as a clown.
“It” gives us images that are reminiscent of hallucinatory nightmares
The primary attribute of Pennywise the Clown (played by Bill Skarsgard) is that it can shape-shift and assume whatever form is most frightening to its victim. Thus, we see some graphic and hallucinatory images that seem ripped from our nightmares – human-like forms with spider limbs, deformed heads, and just about anything that will scare the wits out of you.
The one scene that everyone is talking about, of course, involves the long fun-house scene at 29 Neibolt Street. This is a haunted house of horrors beyond your wildest imagination. While some of the images and accompanying frights (and especially the creepy music!) may now be “horror film classics,” they are terrifying nonetheless.
“It” is really a story of innocent children vs. evil adults
What makes the film so terrifying from start to finish is how it creates a milieu in which children are good and adults are evil. Parents and adults, when they do appear in the film, do so only sparingly. And they are typically cruel, manipulative and downright immoral (such as the lecherous father who seems intent on corrupting his own daughter). The story that we learn in the film is that the parents know about the horror that has haunted the town for decades, but have done nothing about it. They have covered it up, and have not confronted it.
In contrast, it is the “Loser’s Club” led by Bill Denbrough (played by Jaeden Lieberher) who must take on the horror. They must travel through the town’s sewer system to find the evil lurking beneath. And it is they who must do so without the help of their parents. As Stephen King famously pointed out in the novel: “Adults are the real monsters.” The trailer for the film makes that point loud and clear – the most terrifying aspect of childhood is realizing that parents cannot protect you from the outside world.
“It” equates childhood traumas with monsters
In many ways, “It” is a coming-of-age story, as it tells the story of the various kids in the town of Derry, Maine. The focal point, of course, is the “Losers’ Club” – a group of kids dealing with their own unique form of trauma. In many ways, they are stereotypes – the lonesome loser who hides in the library, the promiscuous girl who’s dealing with potential sexual abuse, the nerdy hypochondriac, and the shy new kid. And then, of course, there are all the psychotic bullies who make our lives difficult as children. All of these are childhood traumas that we largely outgrow.
The genius of Andrés Muschietti’s movie adaptation is that he equates confronting these childhood traumas with confronting the town monster. As the popular saying goes, you must learn to confront your own personal demons. And those demons can be harder to confront than a real, physical being because they live in your heads. In short, “It” messes with your mind. And that is what makes the evil clown figure so powerful – it is able to adapt its shape to match your inner demons. There is no escape because the scariest monsters are those that we cannot see.
“It” is part of the Stephen King horror milieu
All of the action in “It” takes place in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. This town has been a mainstay location in other Stephen King works – such as “Insomnia,” “Dreamcatcher,” “Fair Extension,” “Bag of Bones” and even some of the “Dark Tower” works. Thus, we as the viewer subconsciously recognize this location, making the geography of terror ever more real.
In short, the movie does not have to work as hard to convince us that a demonic and evil force resides in this town – we know it, as if from memory. “It” dredges up all the collective fears and terrors that we have from other Stephen King works and places them in our subconscious mind, rendering us more vulnerable to the terrors of Pennywise the Clown.
“It” makes us realize what a master of horror Stephen King is
Even if you’re not a huge Stephen King fan, it’s hard not to be impressed by his vast legacy of horror. The same novels that he wrote 30 years ago, when many of us were no older than the kids in this movie, are now turning into nightmarish films right before our eyes. Consider that “Dark Tower” also hit movie screens this summer, uniting the various strands of the Stephen King horror multi-verse.
What’s interesting about “It” the movie is that it transforms the fictional milieu of the book (the idyllic 1950s) into the 1980s. This was a time that many of us thought was the best of times, a time for childhood delights. But King is going to terrify us even now as adults, dredging up all those painful memories and traumas from a generation ago, and in a way so authentic that it is just downright terrifying.