“It”: The Fight for Your Life

Welcome to the first-ever Halloween post on What the Kids Were Watching. To celebrate the season of Pumpkin Spice Lattes (which I don’t like), maple-flavored things (which I also don’t like), and scary movies (which I mostly hate), I decided to write a few posts about scary movies. I’m not sure how many I can get done before October 31, so I’m starting with the horror franchise that’s impacted my life the most: “It.”

This post will be a little out of order, since I saw the made-for-TV movie first, then read the book, then saw the first theatrical movie. Please note there will be spoilers for every “It” except the second theatrical movie.

Enjoy, and keep on clowning’.

Professor Plum: Well, what are you afraid of? A fate worse than death?
Mrs. Peacock: No, just death. Isn’t that enough?
—Clue

“What’s the word on the second ‘It’ movie?” I asked Raf a while ago. “Is it good?”

“I hear it’s okay,” he replied. “People are saying it doesn’t work. That it’s too funny.”

“It’s such a hard story to wrap up,” I said. Then I stopped talking, because I was wrong and I knew it.

“Actually,” I said slowly, “it’s not that ‘It’ is a hard story to wrap up. There’s so much in there visually and emotionally — it’s almost like there’s too much to include in the conclusion. It’s so emotionally dense, with so many micro-stories; and each story resonates with different people. So we come to the movie looking for specific things, and when those things aren’t there, we get disappointed.”

He opened his mouth to say something; but not unlike a murderous clown, I was on a roll and nothing was going to stop me.

“But that’s exactly why we still care about ‘It,’” I continued. “Because in the story, the monster becomes exactly what scares each of the kids. And in a way, ‘It’ itself becomes exactly what scares each of us. We didn’t grow up in Derry; but at some point, in some way, we all had our own version of a clown in a storm drain haunting us, telling us we’d float, too.”

Say It’s All Right: The Made-for-TV Movie

“I’m everything you ever were afraid of.” —Pennywise

I don’t like scary movies. They weren’t allowed in the house when I was a kid, which was fine, because everything terrified me. Even a few years ago, Raf could barely get me to watch the horror classic (and future What the Kids Were Watching blog post topic) “Fright Night” because the cover of the VHS tape scared the crap out of me as a kid.

The only way I’ve ever agreed to watch anything more frightening than “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure” was if a trusted source said it was all right. And when “It” came out on TV, my older cousin and personal hero Missy said it was all right.

Missy was the fountain from which all of my cool-things knowledge flowed. Hell, she introduced me to Madonna’s music when I was 9. So when she said I should watch “It,” I vowed to watch “It.”

“Um…I just want to make sure it’s not scary, because the TV guide said it was scary,” I asked, trying to be nonchalant when I borrowed her taped copy.

She rolled her eyes. “I guess it’s kind of scary. But it’s about a clown, so it’s really more silly than scary.”

What I learned the hard way was that my cousin’s barometer was WAY different from mine. Her dad — my mom’s oldest brother — was a huge Stephen King fan; the white built-in bookshelves in his study contrasted starkly with the huge, black-and-red King hardcovers lurking on the shelves. My cousins would paw through “Cujo” and “Christine” while I was afraid to even touch the books for fear they would bite. When I was in high school, my uncle convinced my mom that the movie “Arachnophobia” was more silly than scary, so she and I saw it in the theater, our feet off the floor the whole time and unable to eat microwave popcorn for years.

To summarize: ‘Fraidy cat here watched “It” when I was 13. And “It” scared the living shit out of me. Even today, when the movie starts with creepy music and the title turns red, I get chills, knowing I’m about to rewatch what’s basically “The Little Rascals” meets “The Shining.”

If you didn’t see this TV movie when you were young, chances are you’ll laugh at it now, just like Honest Trailers did. The production values are aren’t great. The adults’ acting is adequate, but some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy. The special effects relied heavily on make-up and stop-motion animation, which look jarring today. Plus, the end-of-the-movie giant spider felt like a let-down. Oh, and they drop the n-word a lot in this movie. Apparently you could say it on network frickin’ TV back then. That’s deeply unsettling.

As a low-income, extremely nerdy, and socially awkward 13-year-old trying to survive the tail end of junior high, I didn’t notice the movie’s cheap production or the awkward dialogue. What I did noticed was how Tim Curry — who I had loved in “Clue” for years — was the most frightening thing I’d ever seen onscreen.

[insert scream/lol here]

But “It” stayed in my head not because of fear, but because of hope. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Losers’ Club trying to survive a murderous manifestation of their biggest fears. It was impossible not to root for those dorky kids, especially as the film unfolded and revealed that Pennywise wasn’t the only predator hunting them behind closed doors. They saw things they were too ashamed to talk about. Beverly’s gross awful dad. Bill’s parents, who clearly resented him after Georgie’s death. Eddie’s horrifically codependent mom. Ben’s bullying relatives. And Henry Bowers, the pre-teen Terminator ceaselessly hunting each of them.

When ABC ran “It” a second time, I taped it and rewatched the first half regularly. Witnessing the Losers’ Club get attacked by Pennywise, then find comfort and strength together, made me feel less alone. True story: I couldn’t make friends as a kid. I didn’t connect with other children; they were loud and brusque and untrustworthy (i.e., they were kids). As sad as this sounds, I didn’t have a real friend until I was 9, and that was only because my mom set us up matchmaker-style — and that friend quickly outgrew me. Mom matched me with another friend when I was 10; we mostly talked about our movie star crushes, then grew apart in junior high. But seeing the Losers’ Club and how instantly they bonded, how they were always there for each other, as reliably as water flowing — God, I wanted that in my life. I would’ve willingly faced a murderous clown as a kid if I could’ve made and kept friends like that.

Born in a Dead Man’s Town: The Book

“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends — maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”
— Stephen King, “It”

A couple of years after “It” came out on TV, I was perusing the book section at Sam’s Club when I saw a pile of “It” hardcovers for sale. I picked up a copy and examined it. The book didn’t bite.

“Do you want to buy it?” my mom asked, looking at a different book. She couldn’t see what I was holding.

I placed “It” back on the pile (careful, so I didn’t anger it). “Not really,” I said. “It’s expensive.”

“So’s this one,” she said, placing her own book back and pushing the cart forward. “Well, see if you can find it at the library.”

Reading that library copy of “It” was unlike any other reading experience in my life. First of all, you have to understand that as a kid, I read a LOT. Everything I could get my hands on. My favorite genre was fiction, but I’d read anything any time: over lunch, after school, late into the night, in the car until I got carsick, and even under my desk in elementary school (yes, I got in trouble for that). Once, out of desperation, I even tried to read an encyclopedia like a novel, but got bored a few pages in.

But “It” the book scared me so much that, once the sun set, I stopped reading and slid the book under my bed, where I didn’t touch it until the sun rose again.

I didn’t tell anyone about this secret ritual. Then a friend came over and found the ginormous book under the bed’s dust ruffle. I expected her to laugh at me. Instead, she slid it back and said with a shiver, “I totally get it. I’d do the same thing if I was brave enough to read it.” In college, I told the under-the-bed storage story to a friend of my first love; he responded that he’d had a similar experience with “The Shining,” keeping it in the freezer when he wasn’t reading it. It’s a good thing I didn’t know that in high school; my poor mom would’ve gone looking for frozen hamburger and pulled out a frost-covered hardcover from the McAllen High School library.

Parts of the book haunted me for decades, including (but not limited to) the Easter explosion and the ensuing gruesome deaths. But the standpipe scene terrified and thrilled me, making me wish the TV movie had been longer so I could’ve seen that nightmare with my own eyes.

In 2017, in preparation for the theatrical movie, I reread “It”…and found the book bloated. King knew how to terrify me when I was a teenager; but as a 40-year-old, I found some of the pages overstuffed and rambling. Reading them felt like rummaging through a bin of discounted clothes, looking for the pieces in my size. In addition, the story got me emotionally involved with peripheral characters like Stan’s wife, then frustrated me by abandoning them without resolving their stories.

For what it’s worth, I read “It” in 2017 on a borrowed iPad. Maybe if I’d reread the 1,000-plus-page hardcover, I would’ve been genuinely scared again. Now, though, I don’t have room for that kind of fear in my life. Not in my heart, not in my head, not under the bed, and definitely not in the freezer.

We’re Rough: The First Theatrical Movie

“Go blow your dad, you mullet-wearing asshole.”
—Richie

Look, I’ll save us all some time and say that I’m not going to address whether the first theatrical “It” movie is better or worse than the TV movie. They’ve got completely different tones and approaches to the material. I have an emotional connection to the TV movie, and I admit that; and the theatrical film is really well done. It’s like comparing apples to cartoonish, stop-motion versions of apples.

But some of their specific differences are worth noting, particularly Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise. This It doesn’t have the duality of the Tim Curry character. Skarsgård’s version never tricks you into thinking he’s fun or friendly. He’s just flat-out disturbing. He is never your friend.

What’s fascinating about his performance, and how the film structures it, is that small children still seem charmed by him when he’s wooing them. Are the kids in Derry possessed? I can’t believe small children would enjoy talking to such a creepy clown, especially considering how many kids-screaming-in-the-Easter-Bunny’s-lap photos are on the internet.

As is tradition. (Photo by Rafael Ruiz)

Likewise, the made-for-TV movie relied pretty heavily on music cues to freak you out (and it worked), while the film takes the modern approach of silence, then a noise hurricane. On TV, Georgie’s photo winks as the music screeches and the book oozes blood. In the theater, Georgie smirks in the basement before starting his “You’ll float, too!” scream-speech, rotting away as Pennywise rises from the water like the worst Go Army commercial ever.

Since I don’t watch a lot of horror, this trend of slow stalking, of horror unfolding at a turtle’s pace before EVERYTHINGSUDDENLYSPEEDSUPAAAAHHHHH — it freaks me out. But maybe it’ll age one day too, the way all special effects do sooner or later.

But, as with the made-for-TV movie, I loved the kids. And in this version, they were a lot less “Little Rascals” and a lot more human. As a young adult, the sweet simpleness of the TV Losers’ Club won me over; seeing that onscreen now would taste saccharine. The way these kids cuss, the way they get angry at each other, the way Stan and Eddie barely put up with Richie but stick around because he’s one of the few friends they have — it’s so real. So is the worn-out way Beverly manages her abuse at school, and her petrified caught-in-headlights reaction to her father. So is the reveal of the Bowers family cycle of abuse; it adds even more sick power to the story. (The only kid who doesn’t seem to have a non-Pennywise demon haunting him is Richie, but the second movie reveals the secret he’s afraid of sharing.)

In the TV movie, as the Losers’ Club held each other in the rain, my heart went out to them. I felt the weight of their loss. In the first theatrical movie, watching the Lucky Seven holding hands in sunlight, lens flares circling around as piano music builds, I sobbed for a different reason: It was the perfect metaphor for hope. Those of us who saw the TV movie or read the book know what’s going to happen to Stan and eventually to Eddie; but for this brief and literally shining moment, they’re all together and triumphant. You know everything isn’t going to be all right; but damn it, it looks for all the world like it could be.

Clownin’ Around: Some Final Words to the Pennywise

Since the second movie came out a few weeks ago and I’ve only seen it once , I’m not going to write about it beyond saying I loved the ending. But I do want to share a few thoughts about “It” the franchise, and how much the made-for-TV movie especially continue to impact people my age.

First, check out this fascinating and well-done video about the history of Pennywise.

Everybody scream now.

I love that Pennywise is part of the Stephen King multiverse, and I really love that there are frickin’ Pennywise memes. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Time plus tragedy equals meme.

Awkward.

And I’d be amiss if I didn’t include that SNL sketch.

I’m 42, which is older than the Losers’ Club members were when they finally killed It. But I’m not that dissimilar from them. I haven’t achieved the enormous success those kids earned, but I remain childless (though by choice, not chance). And, without getting too much into it on a public blog, there are memories from childhood that have stayed hidden under the water’s surface for decades, only to bubble up last year. As Lynda Barry once wrote, “Can’t remember, can’t forget.”

After rewatching both the made-for-TV movie and first theatrical movie a few times back-to-back, I realize that my first thesis about “It” isn’t quite the whole story. Yes, I do think a lot of people my age feel a connection to the franchise because it includes a specific incident or reaction that resonates with them. But more than that, I think the reason we keep coming back to “It” is the notion of the unseen horrors each of us have to face alone…and how we can’t talk about them. In the story, it’s an abusive father (Bev), grieving parents who push their surviving child away (Bill), racism (Mike), a codependent hypochondriac mother (Eddie), being overweight and new (Ben), parents’ unrealistic expectations (Stan), or a bully (all of them). For the rest of us, it could be childhood abuse, mental illness, failing your own expectations or others’, debt, addiction, unhealthy relationships, the stress of poverty…this list could go on and on. 

In short, what’s truly frightening about “It” isn’t the possibility of a killer clown — it’s the notion that the adults weren’t going to protect you, because they didn’t believe you saw a monster. That the people you love could be oblivious to the carnage creeping in around you…or, worse yet, claim that it’s not real.

So I think we owe it to each other to be our own Losers’ Club. How you play your role depends on you. Just remember that everyone around you has a Pennywise waiting for them around the corner, and try to be there for them when they need help fighting it.

And, at the very least, know when to let the boat go…or be quick enough to take it back.

Copyright 2019 – 2020, Sarah A. Ruiz & What the Kids Were Watching/Quail School Media. All rights reserved.