Pennywise the Clown [It]

I want to start with a simple premise: Pennywise the Clown scares the shit out of a lot of people.

To expand on this premise, I want to state that I don’t only consider those who jump in their seats when Pennywise lunges towards pre-pubescent appendages, as well as those who now give sewer drains six feet of berth, but also those who are enraptured by the It book or movies (old and new) because that freaking clown and his ridiculous behavior is too freakish to look away. Just because a person enjoys the scaring doesn’t make Pennywise any less scary.

I would also like to add to this case that there is a real fear of clowns in the American consciousness that Pennywise either draws from or feeds into or both. Either way, Pennywise is an archetype that frightens a lot of Americans, as seen in the great clown sightings of 2016. 

So Pennywise and/or this idea of clowns out to do harm, is a frightening concept in our hearts and minds. And I want to write about why. And I want to write about why, because figuring out why Pennywise is scary is a glimpse into Its greatness. 

I also hope, by explaining him, I am able to make him a bit less scary so I can walk by sewer drains again.

Cognitive Dissonance

The most obvious reason why Pennywise is scary is because a clown, a character dedicated to making children happy, should not be ripping off their arms, pulling them into sewers, and terrorizing small-town children with red balloons and incarnations of their worst fears. 

The sight of a clown and then the slow realization of its nefarious intent, creates an ‘oh shit’ moment that puts people on their heels before Pennywise pulls us under towards those floating lights. 

Pennywise’s opening scene in It will never not be powerful because of all the conflicting sensory data our mind have to work through. Child playing with a paper boat in the rain- wholesome… paper boat floats into a sewer drain- upsetting… clown in the sewer drain- what the fuck?… clown in general- delightful… clown is trying to lure child into the sewer drain- please get me out of here. 

What lies beneath

Pennywise’s primary residence positions him in an uncomfortable locale in comparison to the rest of us. Anyone who has lived in one area for a considerable amount of time, especially a small town, becomes familiar with the gross underbelly of any residency. These oral histories of terrible events add a layer of unsavoriness to even the most picturesque of places. 

Meanwhile, Pennywise, very symbolically, resides underneath the town, where people would like him to stay buried, only to pop up and bring the town, or specific unwilling residents, down into It. In doing so, the town, in a way, brings Pennywise back to the surface to terrorize residents with the long-buried history that they all wanted to remain that way.

Pennywise is the racist history behind why the town is so segregated, the poorly kept secret as to why your parents won’t let you play in the abandoned quarry, the biography behind that one guy that everyone just leaves alone. Pennywise is the unnamed history that children comprehend but don’t understand.

Also… anything in a sewer because infinitely more creepy.

You’ll Float Too!

Fuck that line…

Calling Cards

The masters of horror all having calling cards that precede their arrival. The gentle prompt for everyone to get their change of pants ready. And Pennywise has a great one. That red balloon, or the combination of many, in a pseudo-“balloon guy at a fair” collection, is so simple and elegant and yet so awful… able to float into any room or scene out of nowhere, and prone to unwanted and untimely popping just for the unnecessary jump scare before it all actually goes down. Pennywise is scary, but he can also be boiled down into that one simple symbol, which can hold all of our fear and discomfort in its thin elastic shell before… *POP*

Demolishing of Childhood

Clowns represent childhood. They go hand in hand, like peanut butter and jelly, spaghetti and meatballs, paper boats and rainy days. So the corrupting of that meaning in order to represent child murder cuts a bit deeper than even turning Pennywise into his own symbol.

Instead, It embodies an ideal we are familiar with and destroys it. Using pre-existing emotions about the loss of innocence and the fear of adulthood and expectations in order to make people vulnerable before ever using their fear. Pennywise causes fear, but he feeds on something much deeper, which is why he tends to literally consume his victims rather than just kill them. 

Expect the Unexpected

Childhood is never knowing what to expect next. Pennywise exemplifies that fear by making us confront the unexpected. From the moment he peaks his head up through the street drain, viewers (or readers) wonder what the hell is about to happen. 

In a way, we revert to moments as a child when we not only didn’t know what to expect next, but were abandoned by the people who did, like waiting in the grocery store checkout line while your mother went back to grab the milk. As Pennywise’s behavior becomes goofier and erratic, he doubles down on the childhood misunderstanding of social interactions and ever-changing social expectations.

It is a story of children becoming adults and all the suckiness inherent in that process. In that story, Pennywise embodies the fear that is the byproduct of that journey. So Pennywise is scary because he rips children’s arms off and changes into scary monsters and pops up out of nowhere, for sure. But he also has a subtlety to his fear, something that cuts to the core of our experience and dredges up feelings long forgotten that has made him last beyond many movie monsters. 

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If you liked this, you may also like:
[Nightcrawler] Movie Review: An Uncomfortable Relationship
The Closing Scene of [Mindhunter] (Season 2)
Reaction To The Original [Dune] (1984)
The Dance Scene [Pulp Fiction]
Hollywood Cats

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