What used to terrify you as a child? For me, it was being asked to retrieve anything from my grandmother’s bedroom (which was almost certainly haunted) – and scenes from the 1990 television adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, which tells the tale of a clownlike demon, Pennywise, that stalks the children of a small town in Maine. Like many, I watched IT illicitly at a friend’s house on VHS video. Certain set pieces would haunt me for years: Pennywise’s unnerving grin; his scratchy voice promising that “we all float down here”; and the gloomy Gothic architecture of the Barrens, where he has his lair in the sewers.
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Writing in the New Yorker, Joshua Rothman asserted that the movie “isn’t very scary” and an article for The Ringer acknowledged that “it must be tough to make a movie based on a story that’s seeped so far into so many of our bones”. Certainly, this is a movie made for thirty and forty-something horror fans – basically, people who still have a landline phone and are terrified of clowns. As one reviewer reminisced, the 1980s was “a great time to be afraid”.
The key to IT is this appeal to nostalgia. Nostalgia might seem a cosy impulse, but it is quite often paired with terror, particularly in depictions of childhood.
The Guardian’s Steve Rose suggested that IT tapped into “one of society’s prime fears”: endangered children. Indeed, IT does explore some of the real terrors of childhood, including violent bullying and parental abuse.
Yet, Muschietti’s movie seems less concerned with using horror to provide a metaphor for real-life dangers, than evoking a heady mix of terror and nostalgia. Specifically, the nostalgia for being afraid. This idea traces back to the earliest writings on childhood, a concept nurtured in Western culture through the 18th century Romantics such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Wordsworth.
Charles Lamb’s 1823 essay on Witches and Other Night Fears laments the fading of the terrors and nightmares of childhood, writing that he is “ashamed to say how tame and prosaic my dreams are grown”. For Romantics like Lamb and Wordsworth, the terrors of childhood are also key to its imaginative power.
The original novel and television adaptation of IT explored this Romantic idea, as adult protagonists delve into forgotten childhood fears. They return to the sewer tunnels as grown-ups, but can only defeat “IT” by conjuring up their childhood selves.
Muschietti’s remake, however, removes the present-day frame featuring the children grown into adults – and, with it, the problem of memory and the reconstructed nature of childhood trauma. Instead, the audience is plunged straight into the childhood timeline, relocated from the late 1950s to 1989 – doubtless to resonate with the widespread 1980s revival in popular culture.
Scared and scary children
IT typifies the double nature of the Western concept of childhood, which has long proved a rich subject for horror cinema concerned with “either scared kids or scary kids”. Memorable “scary children” include pig-tailed killer, Rhoda, in The Bad Seed (1956); the extra-terrestial invaders of The Village of the Damned (1960); demon-possessed Regan in The Exorcist (1973); the undead “Gage-thing” from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1989) and a series of duplicitous children in movies like Case 39 (2009) and The Orphan (2009).
Such horror films led Steven Bruhm to declare, “these days, when you leave the theatre after a fright-movie … you’re afraid that your child will kill you”. For Bruhm, the horror film child is what happens when we invest too heavily in ideas of innocence. IT contains both sides of this image in Little Georgie, IT’s first victim. Georgie is simultaneously a Romantic innocent and, later, a gruesome revenant who lures the other children to their doom.
This double figure of the child can be traced from the writings of the Romantics to the early 20th-century theories of Sigmund Freud. Indeed, representations of children and childhood in horror films are founded on a Freudian narrative present in famous case studies such as that of the “Wolf Man”, in which a past child-self returns to haunt the adult in the form of symptoms of repressed neuroses that must be uncovered and treated.
Freud’s other writings on the “Oedipus Complex” and “the uncanny” have exerted a strong influence on the visual language of horror. Indeed, it is through Freud that nostalgia so quickly becomes terror. Muschietti’s IT flirts with this Freudian architecture of fear, locating the horror inwards and downwards – in the basement of an old house, down an ancient well, in our deepest selves.
However, the film ultimately rejects a psychological narrative about fear in favour of a nostalgic indulgence in the pleasures of horror. As well as revelling in its 1980s references, evoking the recent Netflix series Stranger Things (itself a riff on King-esque 1980s horror), IT offers a visual spectacle of gory horror.
Condensing the scares of the original adaptation into a densely packed two-hour film, Muschietti outdoes the scenes that so scared me as a child. Pennywise is more grotesque; buckets of blood abound in that bathroom scene; and there is a whole room full of clown mannequins. This is a film nostalgic for being afraid in a particular way, for the illicit pleasures of the “video nasty” and for television horror. It is also a film that demonstrates the continued power of childhood to delight and terrify in equal measure.