“When you’re a kid, you think that you’ll always be… protected, and cared for. Then, one day, you realize that’s not true. If you open your eyes, you will see what we’re going through. ‘Cause when you’re alone as a kid, the monsters see you as weaker. You don’t even know they’re getting closer. Until it’s too late.” – Stanley Uris (“IT” 2017)
Time and time again we see different variations of clowns throughout the centuries, dating back from the early 1800’s to modern times, we watch as this cartoonish figure is recreated from something silly and fun to something dark and horrific. Andy Muschietti’s 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s IT has movie-goers both thrilled and terrified at seeing the classic, monstrous clown “Pennywise” turn the simplest of everyday things into something you may start to avoid, such as gutters and even something as ridiculous as red balloons. For one reason or another, in today’s culture we have an affinity towards being scared. We pay to go to haunted houses and amusement parks to have people scare us and go to see these terrifying monsters in 3D so they would pop out of the huge movie screen and make it feel like we are the ones who are about to die. What made these modern-day monsters so fascinating that we turn them into movies? Thankfully, there is a method to this madness and it all comes down to Jeffery Cohen’s Monster Culture (Seven Theses). The monstrous “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” is the complete epitome of modern-day horror and embodies Jeffrey Cohen’s Monster Culture Thesis 1: “The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body,” thesis 3: “The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis,” and thesis 6: “Fear of the Monster Is Really a Kind of Desire.” Whether we were ever scared of clowns or not, they have always made us harbor some sort of hesitation. Are they really just some kid’s party entertainer, or is there something a little more sinister lurking underneath the cheap face-paint and obnoxious red nose?
If we take a peak in the past, it may be relatively easy to conclude as to why clowns have made us apprehensive and may have given rise to the monstrous versions we know today. While Pennywise is a well-represented iconic pop-culture character in the monster-horror genre of Hollywood’s big movie industry, looking back through history we may find that while clowns were initially meant to entertain for more innocent intentions, whether for a child’s exuberant birthday party, or even a lively fantastical circus, there have been nonfictional individuals using the same Pennywise tactic of acquiring the cheerful looking image to kill a multitude of people and create the fearful connection between clowns and horrors. One of the more popular and well-known serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, used the cartoonish image of a clown to murder over 33 teenage boys and young men between the years 1972 and 1978, and hiding them away in the crawl space underneath his house or dumping them into a river (Gacy), forming, or strengthening, the nightmarish images of clowns we have accumulated throughout the years. In 2017, Hollywood has used these images quite beyond our imaginings to create the scary and monstrous Pennywise. This is the perfect example of Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s Monster Culture thesis 1. As our cultures change, so the monsters, and whether they go from nonfictional to fiction, it makes no difference in seeing how terrifying they can adapt as the years go by.
In a 2017 interview, Stephen King stated that he had come up with the idea of Pennywise after thinking about what scared children most. “Then I thought to myself, “there outa be one, sort of binding, horrible, nasty, gross creature, the kinda thing that just – oh, you just don’t wanna see that.” It makes you scream just to see it, and I thought to myself, “What scares children more than anything else in the world?” And the answer was clowns, and then I came up with Pennywise the clown.” (Yellow 0:27). Pennywise may look like a clown, but it is obvious that underneath the faux disguise, is actually something we may consider very alien. He has been referred to as ‘Pennywise the Shapeshifting Clown,” and for good reason too. With the ability to shift into various forms grotesque versions of himself, Pennywise has a hard time conforming to one category. After watching the scene where Pennywise showcases his extended jaws to reveal row after row of serrated shark-like teeth to bite a young boy named Georgie’s arm off, I was certain it would fuel my nightmares for the next few years. As if that was not bad enough, Muschietti did an incredible job throughout the film of enabling Pennywise to turn himself into what the children fear. He showed each of them outlandish visuals of what would have any sane person running for the hills. A prime example of which would be the scene where a young boy named Ben runs from a headless humanoid figure that proceeds to chase him through the basement of a library. Another characteristic of this unique monster that does not fall into any categorization is that any living being, animal or human, has to eat meat or vegetation, but Pennywise’s motive for these atrocious acts of horror is that he feeds off of their fear. With a fascinating, yet wicked appearance and abilities Pennywise is the ideal example of Thesis 3 in Jeffery Cohen’s Monster Culture (Seven Theses).
David Schmid, an associate professor in the department of English at the University of Buffalo NY, stated, “Monster tales tell us the truth about things-evil is afoot, you can’t trust what you see, the future is grim, you’re going to die. In a narrative, that permits resolution or catharsis” (Schmid). This brings us to thesis 6 of Jeffery Cohen’s Monster Culture. Rather than create characters that were all adults and have the generic story of the brave and noble, handsome and beautiful actors and actresses defeating the so called “monster,” IT provided young, naïve adolescents who were already dealing with normal troubles such as bullies, and put them through fears and anxieties we may have had at one point in our lives. We have all been kids at one point, and since Pennywise can shift into something a child may fear, we see the things we may have been through. Pennywise is the personification of those terrible feelings, and it is a desire of ours to see those fears and turmoil represented as something reasonable. The issues and life-threatening circumstances that Pennywise had put these kids through bring forth feelings and topics we can relate to and may bring us a sort of comfort to see them going through what we might have and how they overcame it.
In conclusion, with uniquely freakish, but fascinating elements, Stephen King’s hellish creature Pennywise is both compelling and repulsive in every aspect of the word “monster.” When it comes to discussions on these figures that we have come to fascinate ourselves with, both fictional and nonfictional alike, everybody’s opinion is going to be different, but Muschietti’s 2017 IT has brought an old, but no less scary, creature into the modern-day cinema spotlight and has now become an iconic pop-culture figure some people has come to love. Monster enthusiasts and those who hold an affinity to the horror genre of Hollywood’s big screen movies both love the thrill of being scared, and despite the sweet, yes sweet if you can believe it, moments of this film, Pennywise is sure to bring the skin crawling and spine-tingling thrill of fright throughout his quest to feed before he sleeps for another 27 years.
1. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Culture (Seven Theses). University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
This article explains the seven theses that define a monster. It provides samples from various historical, biblical, and fictional events as well as explanations to define how and what makes a monster. This article can provide academic evidence as to why we may apply certain attributes to the monsters we create. It can also provide a few quotes that may give slight backing to the points made in the essay. This is a reliable source published for the purpose of academics.
2. “Gacy: The Crawl Space – Trailer.” Produced by Millennium Entertainment. YouTube, 4 Aug. 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmNDNCCTkRg
This video is the trailer of a film based on the true story of an American serial killer. A trail of missing young men leads back to a guy who volunteers at a children’s hospital dressed as a clown. This video provides a real encounter with a killer clown to compare to my fictional monster. It may give a solid reason as to why I think events like this in the past have influenced most modern-day monsters. This is a reliable source from a producing company that legally releases films to the big screens.
3. Muschietti, Andres, director. IT. 2017. Produced by Barbara Muschietti, Seth Grahame-Smith, and Roy Lee, Widescreen, New Line Cinema.
One summer in Derry, Maine seven young kids considered to be “outcasts” face a menace who lives in the gutter, terrorizing the town. This clown-like monster awakens every 27 years to prey on the town’s children since it feeds off of their personal fears. As a reimagined version of Steven King’s classic monster, Pennywise, 2017 “IT” has become an iconic figure within pop culture, providing movie goers, with a particular taste for horror, their fill of mystery, suspense, and crawling skin.
4. Schmid, David. “Defining “The Monster.”” University at Buffalo, https://www.buffalo.edu/home/feature_story/monster-culture.html.
This website posts a few articles written by Professors at the University of Buffalo, and authors of various works regarding Monster Culture. In this particular article, author David Schmid explains how we identify monsters. This article provides a quote that could be useful in figuring out why people become fascinated with certain fictional monsters. It could also help me with backing up a the claim of how monsters can inflict certain emotions we relate to. This is a reliable source from academic researchers and writers at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York.
5. “Stephen King On How He Created Pennywise The Clown From Horror It Movie.” Produced by Yellow King Film Boy. YouTube 24 Aug. 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x597-VRbOYM
In this video Stephen King interacts with fans and answering their questions. He mostly explains how he came up with Pennywise as well as the rest of the characters for IT. I quoted a piece of what he said to show how Stephen King made Pennywise into a unique character that does not fit into one specific category. It also shows how he came up with the idea of Pennywise. This is a reliable source containing a piece of an actual interview with Stephen King.