the terror of “it”
The kids are not all right, can’t you see? Posters are everywhere in the town, so many, that the latest pleas for information cover up the faces that have vanished only a few months ago. There are whispers abound that Derry, Maine, has been cursed by God or by some ancient, supernatural force stretching all the way back to when Derry’s founding fur traders disappeared without a trace. Whatever it is, everyone is afraid. Curfew is at seven. Even in the summer, when kids should be having fun, houses go prematurely dark, or worse, they never even bother to light up.
From the very first scene of It, the latest adaptation of the eponymous Stephen King novel, we’re aware of what, or rather who, is terrorizing the children of Derry. With the streets flooded by a thunderstorm, seven-year-old Georgie loses his toy boat down a drain, where it falls into the waiting hands of Pennywise, a clown who offers the boat (and a balloon) back to the kid if only he will step a little closer, reach a few feet farther. And so Georgie becomes the first victim of the demonic clown, but surely not his last. Pennywise, we learn, reappears in Derry once a generation (every 27 years to be exact), a mystery not so much to be solved as endured. Hopefully, one kid suggests, we’ll be one of the lucky ones. Grow up, leave Derry and do our best to forget all about the other children who just floated away.
Except what kind of Hollywood movie would that be? None of the young teens who anchor It, whether it be Georgie’s stuttering brother Bill, horny and lewd Richie, the uptight Eddie, or the shy, kind, new kid on the block Ben, are allowed to forget Pennywise. They must band together and search abandoned library archives, wells, sewers, and haunted houses to rescue Derry from the demonic clown.
Do the kids succeed? The trick of It, and the entire genre of teen horror movies, is to make this question impossible to answer and mostly incidental to the pleasures and fears of the film. Pennywise, we come to understand, is only the beginning of the evil in Derry. Our band of adolescent heroes are also being hunted by knife-wielding Henry and his sadistic gang of slightly older teens. All of the adults seem lost and angry. At best, they stare at the endless loop of sitcoms on TV and make their children take useless pills. At worst, they sexually abuse or rape them. “None of this makes any sense,” one of the kids realizes. “It’s like a bad dream.”
But what to do, children, when you wake up? It is full of jump-scares, spooky sound effects, and blood but is utterly afraid to critique anything beyond the evil clowns. The film’s engagement with race is a disaster, an example of liberal “political correctness” gone embarrassingly wrong. The film’s lone black boy, Mike, only joins the other boys mid-way through and spends most of his screen time clarifying that he is an “outsider” (he’s homeschooled, while everyone else goes to the public high school) and running for his life from Henry, a character coded as so over-the-top evilly racist, that he hardly needs to tell Mike to “stay the fuck out of my town.”
Any hopes of seeing the nuances of racial difference, violence, and oppression are crushed by the standard Hollywood ethics of confronting evil: Put aside your differences (Mike’s blackness, Bill’s stutter, Ben’s weight problem, etc.) and unite for the good of the team. This moral is an obviously transparent method of hiding the deeper evils of society—it’s the same sort of rhetoric that was trotted out immediately by the racist Republican Party last month to distance themselves from the KKK march in Charlottesville.
It’s blind spot toward race manifests itself in a deeper structural and aesthetic failure as well. Following so many horror movies, It relies on the dichotomy between the light and darkness to condition the spectator on what is known (and thus logical and human) and unknown (the irreducible irrationalism of being “afraid of the dark”). To not be able to see that this binary between natural or artificial light and darkness, or night and day, is intimately connected to embodied whiteness and blackness is to recommit the same sins that the adults make toward Pennywise: blindness and ignorance.
Just as It has a single black character, it also has a single girl: Beverly. Following the pattern of concealing difference, the first meeting between the neighborhood boys and Beverly is staged at the local pharmacy, where she hides a box of tampons behind her back. Later, she’ll cut her hair short, but not too short. Beverly is watched with a mix of awe and terror throughout the film: She haunts the boys in the day the same way Pennywise haunts their nights. Leered on by our heroic boys, hit on by an old man, and labeled a slut by the other girls in school, Beverly emerges the true survivor of this story. Too bad she’s reduced to another fantasy: that of a Sleeping Beauty. Managing to be simultaneously virginal (“I’ve only kissed one boy,” she says. “I never believed the rumors,” Bill tells her) and violated by her father, Beverly is saved from Pennywise in a climactic set-piece ripped from the fairy tales that decades ago were passe.
After the kiss awakens her from a tentative, eternal sleep, Beverly delivers the boys the bad news: She is moving away to Portland. As she talks, the sun is setting on another day, Pennywise is safely back in the ground, and another year of school beckons. But if you listen at all to the end of the movie, you can still hear the sound of the kids who will never grew up, forgotten and trapped forever. Oh, children, 27 years from 1989 is 2016, a nightmare of a year. I guess It’s never really over.