“IT” Was More Than Just a Scary Clown

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As a kid, I was afraid of everything.

That might sound like an exaggeration, but only because you didn’t know me as a kid. So let me clarify: As a kid, I was afraid of everything.

To my younger self, the world was a bed of needles, and I was forever barefoot. I was frozen to the spot, scared by the idea that any nearby shadow would swallow me alive. Frightened that dinner leftovers would try to eat me, or that the THX logo would imprison me in its basement.

Fortunately, it was all just a phase. Eventually, I grew up, and my stomach strengthened (and ever-so-slightly expanded). Nowadays, I’m only scared of things that truly are scary, like steep cliffs or cable news.

Oh, and clowns. I’m still freaking terrified of clowns.

IT taps into our fears by linking the young with the old

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IT was not the first Stephen King novel to be adapted into a TV miniseries (that would be Salem’s Lot, which aired on CBS in 1979), but it’s likely the most famous. Just say “the one with the clown” and people will nod their heads.

Premiering over two nights on ABC in November 1990, IT focuses on a group of former friends who reunite to face a menace which threatens their old hometown. The monster in question is a clown (played by a heavily made-up Tim Curry) who preys on children’s fears and inhibitions – and seemingly on children, period. The story features frequent flashbacks to the friends at childhood, and the first time they faced the demonic Bozo.

IT has some significant flaws – it’s slowly paced, with a jarring number of time-jumps, and features a few miscast actors and underdeveloped plot threads – but it’s fondly remembered for being tense and atmospheric, and for opening the door to several other King miniseries over the rest of the decade. Yet none of the adaptations which followed (including a 1997 remake of The Shining, which King wrote himself as a counter to the Kubrick version) have received the same notoriety or acclaim.

What made IT stand out – and what has helped it maintain its reputation to this day – was more than just its story or characters. Put plainly, IT unsettles its audience by blurring the age gap, letting its adult-age characters be just as frightened as their younger selves. We expect children to be scared of a monster lurking in the sewer, but adults are supposed to have grown out of that phase. By paralleling its characters’ younger and older selves, IT demonstrates how easily it is for people to scare, regardless of age.

And that’s the effect it has on the viewer. IT was not made for kids, of course – but watching the series, it can sometimes be hard to tell. How many children’s stories have featured a group of kids teaming up to solve a mystery, or entering a “haunted” cove with just a few flashlights and a slingshot? It’s a time-tested formula, backed by the popularity of The Hardy Boys and Scooby-Doo – and IT occasionally seems to dabble in that kid-friendly genre. But that’s all done to rattle us whenever the series reveals its truer, darker intentions.

Pennywise is the perfect villain for a story about grown-up children

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Pennywise, the clown at the center of IT, underscores the series as an adult story masquerading as a children’s tale. The main characters retain their childhood mentalities even decades after they outgrow them, and are thus recognize the perverse goings-on in their old hometown when no one else seems to.

But even if you’re not what scientists deem coulrophobic, Pennywise is a perverse manifestation of the form. He preys on lonely children with promises of inclusivity (“You’ll float too!”) and his signature accessory is a blood-red balloon. He is a complete upending of the childhood tropes associated with clowndom, straight down to the way he is noticed by children and ignored by adults. (This contrast also explains why the childhood flashbacks are more effective than the present-day scenes – once the main characters are all grown up, the series resorts to standard shock horror, rather than more grounded psychological scares.)

Tim Curry’s performance is over-the-top at times – there are scenes where his delivery is more humorous than scary. But the alternating comedy and horror produced by the character makes for the perfect mixture of discomfort and derangement – we never quite know what this demented clown is going to do next.

Real-life clowns often produce fear in their attempts to produce laughter, but Pennywise occasionally produces laughter in his attempts to produce fear. The reversal of tropes yields a richly entertaining villain who keeps IT watchable even during the miniseries’ weaker spots.

The IT remake could succeed… provided it remembers why the original did

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I’m not going to pretend like the IT miniseries holds up especially well – it was produced on an early ‘90s network budget, and the special effects look pretty cheap as a result. (The series resorts to stop-motion in a few key scenes, and it yanks you right out of the story.) The music, too, feels retrograde, with the eerie techno giving the series the feel of a bad ‘80s holdover.

So (rarely as I say this) thank heaven for remakes. Hollywood is preparing to introduce an updated IT, complete with a hefty (by horror-film standards) budget and a hard-R rating. The trailer alone looks pretty frightening, hinting at a dark atmosphere beyond anything network TV would allow. And the film is expected to be a box-office hit, hopefully offsetting the lull of August.

Still, it’s important that the new IT remember why the series it’s based on is so fondly remembered. The terror came not from excessive blood or violence, nor from cheap jump-scares accompanied by loud orchestral crashes. It came from invoking the most primal fears of childhood, and then filtering them through an adult lens.

If the new IT recognizes the key to its source material, it should be an entertaining and satisfying film indeed.

Except for me, of course.

I’m still freaking terrified of clowns.

IT (1990) is available on DVD and digital download. IT (2017) hits theaters September 8.

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