– By James Powers –
Spoilers below for both It and It Chapter Two
Many accusations can be leveled against Stephen King as a storyteller, but dullness is not one of them. Despite the very R-rated content of much of his work, there’s a certain childlike exuberance to the way he invents bonkers scenarios to inflict upon his all-too relatable characters. I vividly remember reading a short story of his in high school in which some dumb teenagers swim out to a raft in the middle of a lake and subsequently get attacked by… um… a carnivorous sentient oil slick, basically. The whole thing is absurd and incredibly gory and possibly pointless, but I can nonetheless see King sitting behind whatever clunky word processor he had at the time, pounding the story out over the course of an evening and grinning all the while. A little bit like Calvin making his deranged snowmen.
At over 1,000 pages in length, King’s 1986 novel It might be the single best example of his phantasmagorical imagination going to town within the confines of one story. And director Andy Muschietti’s sprawling, two-part blockbuster adaptation of the book has definitely captured the bigness of King’s style in terms of both volume and spectacle, making for something that stands out decisively from – and has vastly outperformed – other studio horror films. In some ways It is, in fact, the ultimate horror movie.
Which is not to say that it’s the best by any means, especially in this fall’s second installment. Is a running time of almost three hours obscenely, indecently long for a horror film? Yes. Does the movie wear you out with its nearly-endless panoply of jump scares and monsters and splatter (crawling disembodied eyeballs and homicidal Paul Bunyan being just a couple of the highlights)? Also yes. Does the story veer off down weird and unnecessary rabbit holes? Yes, yes, and yes.
But could you really do justice to King’s hulking horror extravaganza any other way? Doubtful. In fact, through its craziness and excess, It serves as a kind of meta-horror, a story about the terrifying spectacles that our own fears play out for us. And it shows us that these spectacles might, in the end, only have as much power over us as we allow them.
In case you’ve been living under a rock recently (or you’re just a normal person who’s not that into horror, idk) It follows a group of friends through two time periods: first when they are all kids growing up in the city of Derry, Maine, and then later when they are adults, reunited in Derry after decades apart. These friends – Bill, Richie, Stan, Eddie, Beverly, Mike and Ben, collectively “the Losers Club” – do battle as kids with a malevolent entity that they know only as “It.” It is a shape-shifter, changing appearance to alternately lure, torment and sometimes devour its victims. Because It has a particular taste for children, however, it especially likes to dress up as a toothsome clown named Pennywise. After twenty-seven years of apparent dormancy, It then reawakens, bringing the now-grown Losers Club back to Derry in an effort to destroy it once and for all.
This narrative structure makes for a lot of juxtaposition of past and present, childhood and adulthood, innocence and brokenness, especially in Chapter Two. All but one of the adult members of the Losers Club have forgotten what happened to them as children, and must remember before they can acknowledge It’s existence, let alone ultimately confront it. Which makes for a really compelling – if uneven – look at how our identities are formed by trauma and memory, fear and forgetfulness.
In the first film, each of the kids gets an unpleasantly personal treatment from It in the form of their particular sadness and anxiety. Billy is wracked by grief and guilt over the recent death of his little brother – so of course that’s who he sees when It comes knocking. Eddie has been smothered into hypochondriasis by his overbearing mother, and so It chases him in the form of a grabby, pus-oozing leper. Thanks to the cruelty of both peers and family, the onset of puberty fills Beverly with shame, which It exploits in the form of… well, you’ll just have to see.
Perhaps It prefers kids because, when we’re young, our fears are more readily distilled into simple, concrete associations, and so it’s easy for It to know which form to take. If I had encountered It as a child, I might have seen (*shudder*) the hairy beast from this terrifying puppet production of Peter and the Wolf that I watched on VHS at my grandparents’ place. Speculation here, but I think that puppet wolf – its beady eyes, huge teeth and lolling tongue appearing between the trees – represented to me the big vague Unknown that lived in the woods surrounding Grandma and Grandpa’s house. In reality those woods barely extended a mile before bumping into more residential developments, but of course I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that the woods were dense and mysterious; although fun to explore, they were also dark.
If “It” is a shape-shifter, though, that begs the question – what is its true form? Does it even have one? Turns out it does, and while the answer to that question is not gracefully executed in the movie, it nonetheless has deep thematic implications – and even gestures at a Christian understanding of the nature of evil. In an almost Luciferian twist, the entity at the heart of It is shown to be a group of glowing orange orbs known as the “Deadlights.” We first see the Deadlights – although we don’t know them as such at the time – in the first film, when Pennywise briefly reveals “its” true form to Beverly. It’s an arresting and truly freaky image that you may just need to see for yourself – but if the thought of a clown unhinging its jaw like a toothy boa constrictor doesn’t sound appealing, then maybe skip it.
The second film explains the Deadlights in greater depth, more or less by means of one of the characters going through a bad acid trip (woo!). According to arcane knowledge imparted by these drug-induced visions, the Deadlights arrived on Earth millions of years ago from another dimension via a meteor landing in what is now Derry. And ever since, they (which is to say, It) has been inflicting terror, madness and death on the people living there, feeding variously on their minds, bodies and perhaps even souls.
In case you’re wondering, this all evokes just as much of a “lol wut?” reaction when it’s revealed onscreen as it does when it’s explained in writing. But apparently the novel also involves a whole cosmology in which the universe was barfed out by a giant turtle, so hey, I guess the screenwriters were relatively restrained. And as goofy as it feels for the story to take this hard left into interdimensional beings and whatnot, something about all the nonsense actually rings deeply true. Because Its power – that of fear – is, in fact, cosmic in scope.
Throughout the story, It is set up as a being of almost unlimited strength. Most of the time the antagonist in a horror story is either natural – i.e. some kind of physical creature that can cause bodily harm – or supernatural – something that causes psychological or spiritual harm, insanity, etc. But It seems to be both. Like a monster or zombie, it can inflict physical harm and clearly has an appetite for human flesh, especially – and most upsettingly – that of children. Yet like a ghost or demon, It doesn’t seem limited by physical space, can assume any form at will, and messes with its victims’ perceptions of reality. In short, It seems unbeatable because it isn’t beholden to any rules.
Except perhaps for one. There is one consistent if very general trend that It follows, revealing its ultimate weakness and that of evil in general. It does not simply hunt its prey and pounce. Rather, it lures and traps them; and, most interestingly, it uses fear as its preferred bait. Where many predators will disguise themselves as something attractive, and thereby draw their prey close, It prefers to paralyze its victims with terror. It knows how they have been hurt, and what they are most afraid of, and uses that to trap them like deer in headlights.
As the film’s climax reveals (albeit clumsily) It has very little power without fear, and in fact can’t really exist apart from it. Having no true substance of itself, It depends entirely on its victims’ perceptions, twisting and manipulating reality while never really making anything happen – at least not without the cooperation of its prey. For every inch of fear or despair that the kids grant to Pennywise, It takes a foot, blowing itself up to twice the size and sprouting four times the teeth, all the better to eat you with, mwahahahaha. But for every inch they withdraw, It shrinks by half, revealing itself to be nothing more than a pitiful, hateful trickster. Most interestingly, it is at its strongest when it gets its victims alone, and weakest when they band together against it. It’s not by coincidence that the hero of the story is a group rather than an individual.
In a very real sense, if not in the same terms, It is about Satan: an ancient, cosmic predator that has for whatever reason fixed its malice on little old us. It is vastly more powerful than its prey, yet paradoxically dependent upon them for its power. It can produce infinite spectacles of awful possibility, convincing us of the absolute worst in ourselves and the world around us, but can ultimately never create anything. And, most importantly, it seeks first to isolate and intimidate, turning its victims in on themselves and making them blind to the saving love of others around them. The members of the Losers Club are each their own variety of hot mess, but nonetheless there is a certain grace that lives among them when they are together that It cannot quite defeat. As one reviewer notes of the novel, “when the Losers enter the sewers beneath Derry, they encounter together nightmares they’ve previously only encountered themselves. They’re Losers, but not Loners, and the difference makes a difference.”
While It is no Dante’s Inferno, the story nonetheless gets to some very fundamental truths amid its exuberantly grotesque antics. Namely: Goodness unites while evil divides. Evil may have the theatrics and fireworks, but it doesn’t ultimately have the victory. And although fear and despair are formidable weapons in our enemy’s arsenal, we can in fact decide how much power to allow them. I imagine that Judas, upon realizing what he had done in betraying the Master he had loved, found himself staring in paralyzed horror at something like the Deadlights. If only he had known how easily they could be snuffed out.
About the Author
James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.