IT came as a surprise. Literally. Much like Georgie in his yellow raincoat unexpectedly confronting a grimacing clown in a sewer, no one saw the 2017 film adaptation of Stephen King’s hit novel, IT, becoming the highest grossing horror movie of all time. It’s overtaken a huge number of horror classics – including The Exorcist – and has continued to float on the top spot, beating new releases week after week, including new horror movies in Halloween season.
Admittedly, we weren’t treated to the strongest summer for new releases at the cinema. Stats show August was particularly terrible in drawing audiences to the big screen, so perhaps people were hungry for a thrill. But I think there’s something more behind IT and why the movie seems to be sticking with audiences.
Some spoilers may follow.
Horror tends to have resurgences during times of political and social crisis. It allows us to experience terror in a safe environment, whether it be in film, books, or video games. It speaks to our deepest, darkest fears, but allows us to turn on the lights, cover our eyes, and walk away from it once it’s over or if it all gets a bit too much. It’s fair to say that the past eighteen months or so have not been the easiest for the world. Political tensions are rising as Britain prepares to leave the EU, and Trump Tweets threats to a dictator with his finger on a nuclear trigger. Our world is being heavily impacted by natural disasters, which many in power still refuse to believe is happening. Neo-Nazis and the KKK are openly rallying in the United States, emboldening others around the globe. Terrorist attacks are occurring regularly. Civilians are not even safe to go to a country music festival without the threat of being gunned down. We now read the news with a heavy heart on an almost daily basis.
In King’s novel (and I presume the IT sequel, coming September 2019), Pennywise the Dancing Clown is revealed to be an ancient, shape-shifting being from the outer regions of space. This means IT can take on any form it pleases, and given that it feeds upon fear, of course it would change into whatever IT’s prey is most afraid of. Both the novel and the movie do a chillingly brilliant job of portraying the deep-seated fears held by children: the sheltered child being afraid of disease, or the one who suffered a great loss and is haunted by his feeling of negligence. IT also impacts the behaviour of the town’s citizens. Adults become crueller, and bullies even become murderers. It’s no wonder, then, in our current climate, that audiences will fear an evil entity which can morph into whatever shape it pleases, and negatively control the thoughts, actions and attitudes of those who are meant to keep us safe. How else can we explain what’s going on?
Likewise, it’s hard for audiences not to gravitate towards the child heroes of IT. There’s been a great resurgence of ‘kids on bicycles’ in pop culture, inspired by the great movies of the 1980s. The 80s and nostalgia have come back strong in recent years, and as an 80s movie fan myself, this trope brings back fond memories of kids racing off into adventure, and it’s oddly comforting. Brushing against danger, but never enveloped by it, we know our heroes are safe. Goonies never say die, after all. The 80s is a decade we can’t seem to let go of, and I believe it has an odd sense of security that we attach to it. Heroes are now cycling through the pages of Brian K Vaughan’s Paper Girls, speeding through the Upside Down in Stranger Things, and now tackling a monster which can take any form or feeling in IT.
The kids in IT are all average. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about them, but IT is certainly a coming of age story. The monster manifests itself in Beverly’s house as a literal bloodbath, not long after we see her buying period products and hear her abusive father’s repulsive comments about her no longer being his little girl. But they are still children, still naïve and learning about the real dangers of the world, which is what makes their battle with IT so compelling. The Loser’s Club, as they affectionately call themselves, portray innocence, and their confrontation with Pennywise and his apparitions force them to face the true horrors of the world, making it impossible not to root for them.
So, yes. Timing has been critical in IT’s cinematic success, but I don’t mean the release date. We are going through some really terrible and toxic times, and most will likely be looking for a brief escape from the horrors of real life. Instead of a creepy doll terrorising a family; or a graphic art piece about God, earth and humans; we have chosen to latch onto a group of loveable, dorky heroes this autumn. We have chosen the side of innocence fighting against a monster in hope that if they defeat IT, perhaps we can too. And if a spooky clown-fest with the odd jump scare, tender friendships, and great humour can allow audiences a brief moment of respite, I’ll gladly float down there too.