It takes years to make a film, so it’s difficult for movies to comment on current events. But occasionally, a story taps into something fundamental about human nature just as it’s erupting again in the culture.
As Stephen King’s It heads into its third weekend, guest columnist Samantha Becker theorizes that this is part of the appeal of the killer clown movie’s blockbuster appeal.
Becker spent a decade as an executive assistant to Steven Spielberg, working closely with him behind the scenes on such films as War of the Worlds, Munich, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies. Most recently, she served as an associate producer on The BFG. She is currently a speechwriter at Fenway Strategies, the communications firm founded by Pod Save America’’s Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor. The views expressed by Becker below are her own.
The first time I saw a dead body was when I was 4 years old. And the only person who ever made me feel better about that was Stephen King. It was 1985 at an open casket wake. I was confused by a wristwatch still ticking on the corpse. Surely this was a mistake. If my relative’s watch was still ticking, he had to be, too. How could they bury him alive?
A few years later, I saw Stand By Me, the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body, about four boys who find a dead body. Their reactions were similar to mine. “Now I’m part of a club,” I thought.
The camaraderie between children in the face of death is a long-running theme for King—and apparently for me. In fact, the small towns and underbrush of Stephen King’s Maine are time capsules of an era when I was exposed to something I was both terrified of and fascinated with.
For me, King is the only writer who has ever successfully communicated what it feels like to be at the beginning of your life while staring at the end of it. It’s a singular talent that not only requires empathy but the ability to forecast how a lack of that empathy in others is often the cause of the anxiety we experience in life. There are monsters, for sure. But sometimes the seemingly ordinary people trapped with us are just as frightening, especially when we see how little humanity they really have.
His stories are how I learned the real world had both Davids and Goliaths, and that we could decide for ourselves to act in a way that was right or wrong. Evil wasn’t always a given; sometimes it was a choice. So was goodness and decency.
When I first watched the new film adaptation of It, I felt similar to the way I did when I saw Stand By Me. Lonely, but not alone in my fears.
This time, it also felt like the stakes were different.
It takes place in fictional Derry, Maine, where a vicious clown named Pennywise resurfaces from his 27-year slumber to kidnap and kill children. Pennywise’s terror spans the 20th century. He shows up in 1908, then again in 1935, and in 1962 during a fire at the African American club, The Black Spot. In this film, we meet him in 1989, when he returns during the Cold War and the midst of riots over racial tensions.
The math is easy.
If we fast forward another 27 years, that puts us at 2016, a year that delivered an exponential rise in hate crimes, xenophobia, bullying, white supremacy, and the most shocking Presidential election of the modern era.
This isn’t a coincidence. Stephen King, himself, is an outspoken critic of the Trump administration, and each of the nearly three-decade hibernation periods for the clown end with big moments of social unrest.
Human beings have a strained periphery when it comes to hatred and the fact that violence and bigotry crop up in cycles is not lost on King. It wasn’t lost on the writers, director, and producers who made this film either. Director Andy Muschietti recently told EW: “Fear is used as a tool these days to divide and control and conquer. And hate is a tool. And that’s something Pennywise does, so that’s something resonating in our society right now.”
If Stand By Me was a harbinger for a previous generation—a stark reminder the damage that can be caused by bullies and close-minded behavior—then this year’s It is the smoke signal and rallying cry for the Resistance.
The pieces were there before, but they fit perfectly. Think about it:
Every one of the kids who make up “The Losers” in the film is an example of someone President Trump or his administration has either mocked or marginalized.
Stanley is a Jew. Let’s not forget that the White House issued a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement without mentioning Jews. And last month, the President defended a group of “very fine people” who chanted “Jews will not replace us” as they carried torches through Charlottesville.
Richie is the son of an alcoholic. Trump called Libertarian VP candidate Bill Weld an alcoholic when he criticized his proposal to deport 11 million people.
Eddie is the weakling, the little one, whose greatest fear is getting sick. Don’t even get me started on repeal and replace.
Mike is black. In the film, Mike is beaten by a group of white teenage racists who tell him to stay out of the center of town. Pointing to a holding stall for sheep, Mike’s farmer grandfather says, “You can be out here like us or in there like them.” This is a reference to the prison industrial complex, one that is worsening under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And what about Trump’s refusal to immediately condemn Nazis and white supremacists in the wake of Charlottesville?
Ben is overweight. Remember when, Trump weight-shamed Miss Universe 1996 Alicia Machado, calling her “Miss Piggy.” It’s a frequent maneuver of his. In fact, during a Republican primary debate, then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly pointed it out, saying, “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals …” Trump answered with a smirk: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” Kelly corrected him, saying, “For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.” He shrugged unapologetically and responded with, “Yes, I’m sure it was.”
Beverly is a girl, raped by her father and called a slut by others in town. But that’s just locker room talk.
Bill stutters. Who can forget candidate Trump at a podium, stuttering to mock a disabled reporter. He’s the ultimate bully.
So what does that mean for today?
Let’s face it. The Losers stand out in Derry the way most of us feel like outliers in Trump’s America. Our President has no tolerance for misfits or weaknesses. He’s said as much. When he doesn’t understand us or finds our differences to be a threat, he literally calls us “losers”.
And with the name calling comes the inevitable casualties. When the Losers leave the Well House traumatized by their encounter with Pennywise, they turn on each other. Richie punches Bill, blaming him for getting them into this mess. Mike says his grandfather was right about being black in this town, telling Bill, “I’m an outsider. Gotta stay that way.”
When Bill tries to convince everyone to go into the sewer to look for the missing kids, a frustrated Eddie snaps and says, “I don’t want to end up like Georgie,” in reference to Bill’s missing and presumed dead younger brother.
In a chilling example of apathy, we hear them (and others) say, “It’s summer!” and that they should be outside enjoying it instead of fighting back. “That’s what kids are supposed to do,” they tell each other.
At one point, only Beverly has the sense to know this fatalism is exactly what Pennywise wants. “It wants to divide us,” she says.
But I’d like to take that one step further. Like a true monster, It had to first distract them in order to divide them. Sound familiar?
When the Losers see a new missing child flier put up for one child, it has literally been papered over the poster for another lost child. The Losers notice the missing kids are overshadowing each other, that with each new disappearance, it’s like the previous kid never existed. People facing a new trauma move on from the last before it’s even resolved.
This is a warning about the flippancy of follow-through in the age of instant information. Derry kids were missing at an exceptionally high rate, much higher than adults who were already missing at six times the national average—but no one was getting to the bottom of it.
In many cases, the adults in town refused to even acknowledge there was a problem. That kind of gaslighting sounds familiar, too.
The flier covering up another flier is no different than the people who stop talking about the victims of Hurricane Harvey or Irma when Trump tweets something inappropriate, or the people who take the red balloon, forgetting about DACA because our President retweets a gif of him violently wounding Hillary Clinton with a golf ball.
In the film, we see the Losers and many others overwhelmed by their circumstances, nearly resigning themselves to what’s trying to divide and conquer (and kill) them in the first place.
This is a glaring example of the choices we’ve seen ourselves make over the last year—deciding whether we should be bystanders or band together to say that an attack on one of us, is an attack on all of us.
Here’s the bottom line. When Stephen King wrote this book in the mid-1980s, he wasn’t predicting the rise of Donald Trump. But he was tapping into something fundamental about human nature, about the allure of authoritarianism, about the shallow sense of safety a person can feel by stoking fear in another person.
King also understood that what scares someone in their childhood could very well be what defines them as adults. He understood that bullies are timeless and they come in all shapes and sizes. And that a lack of empathy can metastasize, spreading through a population. One powerful person behaving cruelly can activate the worst impulses of savagery in the rest of us.
Most of all, King figured this out: Tying our universal fears to the individual anxieties we have as kids is the only way we’ll ever overcome both.
It now holds the record for the biggest horror film opening EVER. I left the theater feeling a little relieved, thinking about all the kids who, whether or not they are aware of it, will be reminded how important it is to stand up to evil.
I’ve described Pennywise as a clown, but that’s not all he is. He’s also a shapeshifting, manipulative fearmonger who ruins the lives of everyone he touches.
In a speech last January at the Women’s March in Sarasota, Florida, King himself opened his remarks by saying: “We just elected Pennywise president.”
That’s not just a clever put-down, it’s an accurate description of a demagogue — someone who encourages violence, lies to the country about immigrants, and then revokes a program that helps 800,000 young people—who are every bit as American as the kids in King’s stories.
King says he created Pennywise because he believed that clowns were the thing that scared children “more than anything else in the world.”
But it’s not his chilling face paint or signature red balloon that makes a clown so terrifying. It’s the terror he ignites and the havoc he wreaks. It’s his laughter that rings out as we tear each other apart.