Before we get started: this blog post will contain some pretty hefty spoilers for 2017's version of IT, and will seriously mess with your ability to be as scared of it as you should be. If you haven't seen it, I'd suggest watching before you read this. The first image is also a touch graphic.
I HATE horror movies. Seriously, whether it’s because I have an overactive imagination or am overly sensitive to the noise and sudenness that comprises jump-scares, even horror trailers (and writing this blog post) mess with my sleep schedule for days. IT, though, is different... at least in part. while I spent the first hour or so in a permanent state of goosebumps-inducing terror, practically screaming at every jump-scare and recoiling from every horror, I found myself less and less scared as the movie rolled on. In fact, as the credits rolled I found myself feeling more uplifted than I had at the end of almost any movie I’d watched over the past year, and I remain convinced that this was no accident. I didn’t become less scared because the movie was poorly made or because I had simply grown immune to its charms, I became less scared because the film wanted me to. In fact, every aspect of this film is very consciously designed to terrify you at first glance, and then slowly terrify you less and less as the movie goes on, horror giving way to hope.
Let’s start with the antagonist himself, Pennywise the demon(? monster? just badly in need of a dentist?) clown. Everything about him is designed to be incredibly scary at first encounter, but less and less so as time goes on. Take, for example, his killing of Georgie Denbrough, which comprises the first scene of the movie. The beginning of this scene, which consists of Pennywise convincing, Georgie to reach down into the sewer in the hopes of retrieving his paper boat, is already the famously scary basis for the movie's trailers. What's left out, though, in order to make audiences actually come see the film, is just how that scene ends: Pennywise unhinges his jaw to reveal an absolutely hideous set of teeth and bites off Georgie's arm before killing him:
This is, undeniably, about as terrifying as the film could go in its opening scene. Watching this hitherto human-seeming clown morph into a savage beast to literally bite a child's arm off is downright, jump-out-of-your seat terror inducing. However, it's important to note that in doing so, the film plays its hand rather early about Pennywise being a viscerally physical monster. You see, there's something undeniable about monsters: they become less and less scary the more you know about them, and we know quite a bit about our monstrous clown in the very opening scene. As such, his monstrous qualities, while they utterly horrify us at first, terrify us less and less each time they are revealed. By the fourth or fifth time Pennywise reveals his pearly whites it's less scary than it is almost funny, the dental version of a clown car. His more terrifying apparitions as well, that one a headless young boy and a hideous flute player, appear toward the beginning of the film, one never to be seen again and another to be seen only once more. For a creature who can take any shape, Pennywise certainly confines himself to a limited number of guises, allowing us to become familiar enough with them that they no longer scare us. Pennywise is most certainly a monster, but the film takes away his teeth over time, paradoxically enough, by showing them off just a bit too much.
Another terrifying and central aspect of this movie is how its human antagonists are represented as surrogates for Pennywise's evil, whether it's done through subtle staging and facial acting to create a sense of dread, as it is when Eddie Kaspbrak's mother tries to prevent him from joining his friends to confront Pennywise one final time:
Or by hinting at sexual and physical abuse, as is the case for Beverly Marsh's father:
Or, most obviously, in Pennywise's manipulating Henry Bowers, the boy who's been mercilessly bullying the loser's club all film long, into killing his own father and trying to do the same to all of them as well.
That these characters are so bone-chillingly perfect manifestations of evils great and small is one of the biggest reasons why this movie works so incredibly well as a horror flick. This is how evil most often works in real life, acting through the people around us, and this element of realism helps make the more fantastic evil in the film feel all the more real as well. However, it's also a huge part of what makes the movie so uplifting. After all, humans can be confronted and overcome, as all three of the examples I just provided are. Eddie defies his overprotective mother and joins to rest of his friends in their final assault, Beverly smashes a sink into her father's face as he tries to hurt her in a moment that had me literally cheering, and Mike Hanlon, the black boy who's taken the brunt of Henry's racist bullying throughout the movie, shoves his tormentor down a well in self-defense. That all three of these occurrences happen as part of the leadup to the loser's club final victorious confrontation with Pennywise, AND that the tormentors defeated therein are vanquished not by outside help but by the very people they torment, is absolutely and utterly central to the film's message and tone. In other words, IT tells us two things: first, that evil can be found all around us, in other people as easily as demons and monsters, and that it's just as scary, if not more so, in the people. Second, though, and more importantly, IT tells us not only that evil people can be confronted and defeated, but that confronting and defeating them is the first step in a journey that leads inevitably to confronting and defeating evil itself.
Finally, I want to examine a moment toward the end of the film that, for me, cemented it as an incredibly hopeful affair. Our female protagonist, Beverly, has been captured by Pennywise and brought to his lair, where she remains transfixed by his power, dead to the world, when she's discovered by the other members of the “loser’s club” like this:
They pull her down to the ground but she remains transfixed, unable to see or hear anything at all, despite their frantic attempts to get through to her. Eventually, the youngest of the group, who’s harbored a secret crush on her since just about the first moment he laid eyes on her kisses her in an act of utter and complete desperation, hoping it will somehow break the sway Pennywise has over her. It’s a childish, desperate act. something ripped from the pages of a fairy-tale by a child young enough to still believe they might apply to the real world, something only the cheesiest of stories would subscribe to as a genuine tactic for defeating villains. But here’s the thing. In IT, it actually works. Beverly is woken out of her trance, the two share a tender moment, and we proceed to watch a group of seven children kick the absolute shit out of their ancient, mystical, and powerful antagonist to win the day. It’s a moment that only plays out in fairytales, and it plays out in IT. How could we not read that as profoundly uplifting?
Now, of course, we come to the moment in which we must see whether my analysis holds up as the conscious intention of the filmmakers when examined in the context of the work as a whole, and here I’ll turn to the experience the child protagonists of the story that we see play out on-screen. Much like us, they’re all utterly terrified of Pennywise when they first encounter him. They don’t stay so for long, though, quickly coming together to confront the demon in their neighborhood’s haunted house and, eventually, Pennywise's subterranean lair beneath that house. As this story progresses, we watch their fear melt away, to be replaced by anger and determination. Indeed, each individual child gets a moment to both recognize that Pennyswise's power over them exists only as long as they fear him, as well as refute or exert their control over that fear. By the time they confront him in the film's finale, they've conquered their fear, and conquering the monster is almost a foregone conclusion as a result. They’ve seen the monster of evil and learned to hate it rather than fear it, and we have alongside them. Our experience of the horror they face mirrors their own, and this, more than anything, is a sign to me that this movie is designed, from its skin all the way down to the core, as a profoundly uplifting tale. How’s that for a plot twist?
With excitement and optimism,