In 1987, Stephen King released one of his most iconic horror novels, the thousand-paged epic, "It." The story follows a cast of characters dubbed the Loser's Club as they face off against the child-eating monster that plagues their hometown of Derry every 27 years. King’s narrative effortlessly weaves between the Losers' lives both as children and adults. Since its publication, the story has remained a staple in pop culture horror thanks to its terrifying central villain, Pennywise the clown. Today, "It" has once again established its significance in the horror zeitgeist with It (2017) and its sequel, It Chapter 2 (2019).
King's horror adaptations have always been a mixed bag, in part due to the very thing that makes it so popular: horror. When adapting Stephen King, films love to focus solely on the fear factor, promising the latest in chills and thrills for the audience. In reality, Stephen King is the master of hybrid horror: a blend of supernatural horror underscored by a darker connection to reality. Beneath each story lies deeper, more real topics such as addiction, alcoholism, abuse or bigotry. The supernatural is merely a plot device.
The "It" franchise is one of the few to capture King’s essence, providing an exciting story that remains terrifyingly relevant. At the surface level, It follows a rag-tag group of heroes as they fight off a scary clown monster. In actuality, Pennywise is not the real villain. The town is just as culpable, if not more so, in villainy. Perversion, neglect and bigotry run rampant in the town of Derry and all Pennywise needs to do is manipulate it for his own purposes. He nurtures the already-present evils that lurk within humanity.
Take the opening sequence in It Chapter 2. Don Hagarty and his boyfriend Adrian are enjoying a night at a carnival when they are attacked by a group of homophobic locals. Adrian is beaten unconscious and thrown over the bridge and into the clutches of Pennywise. Many viewers (and several critics) assumed the opening scene was a commentary on the current violence against the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, Adrian Mellon’s death was ripped straight from the headlines back when King first wrote the novel. The scene was inspired by the 1984 murder of a young gay man in Bangor, Maine who was attacked in a nearly identical manner. It is a commentary from the 1980's that remains depressingly relevant in 2019.
Even the fears that haunt the Losers are grounded in reality. Bill is tormented by survivor’s guilt and blames himself for his brother’s death. Mike finds himself trapped in the town, never able to escape his past. Stanley fears disappointing his deeply religious parents. Ben is attacked for his weight and convinced he is unworthy of love or friendship. Beverly is targeted as a “dirty girl,” nearly molested by her father and finds herself trapped in a cycle of abuse as an adult. Eddie is abused by his mother, brainwashed into believing that he suffers from severe medical ailments. Richie lives in fear that any moment his sexuality could be outed.
If the first It film establishes the evils we face in humanity, It Chapter 2 provides a chance for closure. As they grew up and left Derry, each of the Losers remain haunted by the fears buried deep within their subconscious. It Chapter 2 isn’t about returning home and finishing off a monster for good; it’s about confronting their childhood trauma. It’s about finding the courage to face their demons and reclaim their pasts so that they can move on with their lives. Bill finds closure with his brother, Mike finally leaves Derry, Ben finds the courage to be vulnerable with Bev and she is able to open up right back.
The most bittersweet arc is saved for Richie Tozier. As a young gay kid in a small town, Richie hid his deepest insecurities behind wisecracks, bad impressions and a foul mouth. The only person he is ever vulnerable around is his best friend, Eddie. The two are inseparable, the trash mouth and the hypochondriac bickering like an old married couple, even as Eddie lays dying in Richie’s arms. The remaining Losers have to physically drag Richie away as he desperately clings to his friend’s body, unable to cope with the fact that Eddie is gone, that he never got to tell Eddie how he really felt all those years ago. If it hadn’t been for his friends, Richie would have died too. As heartbreaking as it might seem, his friends’ support gives Richie the push he needs to overcome his own personal trauma. As Richie leaves town, he makes one last stop at the town’s kissing bridge to visit the initials he carved alone many years ago: R + E. As he strokes the letters one last time, Stan has one last message for him: “Be who you want to be. Be proud.”
Special kudos to Bill Hader for an incredible performance. Hollywood has rarely done justice to its LGBTQ+ characters. Even today, major studios claim representation yet only throw in a five-second, blink and you’ll miss it cameo. It would have been far easier for It to leave out Richie’s sexuality as it was mostly unintended subtext in the novel. Instead, Hader insisted that there be no possibility for misinterpretation. “You’ve got to go the full way or don’t even allude to it,” Hader said in an interview with the New York Times. “Just say what it is.”
Why does It work as well as it does? It makes us care about its characters because it is easy for audience members to see themselves reflected on the screen. We develop attachments to these characters on a personal level because most of us were these kids. It brought back long-buried memories of a buck-toothed, bespectacled little nerd whose best self-defense was her foul mouth.
Each of us has something that makes us different. We all have those vulnerabilities and fears, the horrible things people say or do to try and make us small. But it’s possible to overcome these fears, to find strength from those who see our insecurities and love us because of them, not in spite of them. There will always be people in the world who will do their best to cut you down. However, for every monster lurking in the shadows, there’s a group of people who will always be by your side no matter what.
Lead Image Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.