Not Clowning Around: a Catholic Take on IT

I’m not someone who generally seeks out horror movies; when I went to see the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel IT, I was doing going to see a movie with friends. I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for, but I figured it would hopefully be a worthwhile experience. I was expecting an evil clown and some scary scenes. I came out of the movie with a fair amount of lingering fear and a bit of something else.

The Quick Overview

IT is a horror movie about a group of high schoolers in the 1980s who come face-to-face with a primordial evil. Which chooses to appear as a carnivorous clown. As “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” terrorizes them with its tricks and menace, each of them winds up pitted against their deepest fears. Ultimately, the film is about facing your fears and growing up, and that’s what I loved so much about IT.

There’s a lot of darkness in this movie, and every bit is directed to a singular purpose: the theme of fear. IT hyperstimulates us by presenting us with an evil beyond our ken. In beholding the monstrous eponymous “IT”, we develop our sense of the reality of evil, even when that evil is difficult to glimpse. And then, well–there’s this quote that some of you might find familiar, and I can’t find a better epithet for IT. This is an implicit theme of the entire movie, as summed up by everyone’s favorite British Catholic. You heard it here, folks: IT is a fairy tale.

IT and the Presence of Evil

The theme of evil runs side-by-side with the theme of fear, and what’s most interesting is the ways that the movie depicts them both. Bill Skarsgård portrays IT with a savagery and unabated malice that excites primal terror, while also portraying a twisted childishness. Aside from Bill’s own brilliant performance, the movie’s director depicts a gauntlet of nightmares conjured up by IT, scenes designed to burn themselves into your brain for at least a week or so. This is dramatic, sensational evil, to the point where you you can feel IT in your bones.

At the same time, there’s another type of evil afoot in the movie: the evil of the mundane. The movie is set in a small town filled with secrets and dark pasts, and the adolescent protagonists are grappling with some pretty serious issues. The movie continues to remind us that some of the darkest evils reside within the human heart, and even though IT’s menace is more overt, we should never overlook human evil. It’s a theme that runs powerfully through the movie, and the story works exactly like a fairy tale, at least according to Chesterton’s thought. This is a story where fantastical evil leads us to the truth of real evil: insidious, ever with us, and demanding battle.

What’s more, the climax of the movie feels very Christian. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is a brilliant reflection, whether intended or not, of the menace of Satan, preying on fear and isolation in order to devour innocent souls. IT’s presence speaks to the spiritual truths we hold. While not necessarily written as such, IT works as a parable for evil, even. (This is not to say that this is an allegory: IT most emphatically is not, and stands powerfully on its own. Rather, you can find very Christian meaning in the movie.) The specter of Pennywise, ever leering, hiding just around the corner, prowling like a lion, is unforgettable.

IT: My Overview

There’s so much I could say about IT. The actors are incredible, even the children (Sophia Lillis in particular is outstanding in the role of Beverly Marsh). The costume and set design for Pennywise is phenomenal and evocative, presenting us with a musty antique-store feel that still carries an aura of evil. There’s a few standout effects-laden scenes that drive home the terror faced by the children. There’s even some lighthearted scenes that mostly fit perfectly into the tone of the film, with one glaring exception that just felt incredibly out of place to me–a small blemish on an otherwise marvelous film.

IT is a movie about growing up and making friends, a movie about conquering your past by trusting in others and refusing to be trapped alone. There’s intense cathartic moments (Beverly’s arc in particular is incredibly empowering) that speak to trauma and suffering, and sinister reminders that Pennywise lives inside of ordinary human life just as much as in the nightmare world. IT was the biggest and most delightful movie surprise of the past few years, for me.

Content Advisory: blood and violence (mostly against children), one scene of attempted rape, significant vulgarity and profanity, intense terror

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