After seeing IT I came up with a number of culture commentary pieces that I could write. However, without getting paid for them, I don’t have the time to really dive into them deep enough to do them justice.
Still, they are too good just to not put into the world at all.
My solution? Speed round!
What follows are my IT takes, one right after the other, with a small amount of defense after each hinting at the larger world that I could unfurl. If you know pop culture sites that might want a piece of this action, give them a head’s up. Maybe one of them will pay me to develop one of these in more depth.
Until then, however, enjoy these tasty appetizers.
IT and the Twilight of the Blue Collar Middle Class
With the update of IT, moving the book from its 50’s setting to 1988-1989, the story unfolds at the very end of the Reagan administration through the first 9 months of the first Bush presidency. As a result, we are seeing an America where the bill for so-called “trickle-down economics.” The 80’s are arguably the largest gut punch post-50’s middle class prosperity had taken until that point and certainly started the process of undercutting the blue collar middle class that has led to such large income disparities today and the ever-shrinking “true” middle class.
In the town of Derry that erosion is evident all over the place.
Take, for instance, the homes of the “Losers” we get to see in detail, Bev and Billy’s. Bev is being raised by a single dad who appears to be a car mechanic in the movie given his monocolor jumpsuit and the look of the stains upon it.
I attempted to find an average salary rate for a mechanic in 1968 vs. 1988 but also came up empty. However, for the sake of argument, I looked it up for today and found it was about ¾ of the average income. So working backwards, that would make Marsh’s annual income in 1968 5,775 dollars or $481.25 a month. A mortgage for an average home around that time would have been about 45 dollars a week which is just a touch less than 10% of the monthly income. Today’s recommendation is that your mortgage cost you no more than 28% of your monthly income. Therefore, the Marshes could be homeowners rather easily.
In 1988, however, Alvin’s income would be something more like 25,779 dollars or about $2148.25 a month. By contrast, the average monthly mortgage was nearly 4000 dollars. Thus, while the Marshes could have been homeowners 20 years earlier, the Marshes of the film live in a small apartment on a rather isolated side of Derry.
It is worth noting that Alvin Marsh’s stereo equipment appears rather up to date for the time, which would also fit with America’s increased emphasis on consumption over saving in the 80s and the idea that part of being middle class was not just salary and long-term assets but short-term ones.
Billy’s parents, on the other hand, seem to be in better financial straits. Their house is fairly large and spacious. However, we see evidence that it is not exactly well maintained. The roof drips and does so often that the family has a closet of designated drip buckets. The light to the basement seems perpetually broken. They afforded the house but seem to be struggling to keep it in good condition.
Other homes that we glimpse, like the Bowers farmhouse, seem to betray similar problems. Derry is populated predominantly by the blue collar middle class and they seem to be losing their hold on that position before our very eyes.
IT and the Empty Sanctuary of Religion
Anyone familiar with Stephen King knows that the “Master of Horror” has a somewhat adversarial relationship with religion. While a believer in a higher power by his own report, his books often call out religious figures as hypocrites, zealots, and individuals with feet of clay.
IT, the novel, if memory serves, however has little by way of religious content. The movie, similarly, has very few mentions.
However, when faith does make an appearance, it is not as a place of comfort. While not actively dangerous—as it is portayed in, say, THE MIST—it is also no place of sanctuary.
Take Stan’s journey into manhood via his bar mitzvah as an example. For one thing, it seems clear that Stan receives no particular joy or comfort from his supposed faith. The prayer he is admonished by his father—the rabbi, portrayed as remote, literally and figuratively, and scolding in his only lines—for failing to know is not even a Torah portion. It is the prayer one needs to make before they even open the Torah. So Stan appears to be very far off from being ready for the ceremony.
More obviously, the first time Stan is attacked by IT—via the creepy flutist of the painting—is in his father’s office. While I am not entirely clear the geography of the synagogue building, the office appears to be just above and off of the sanctuary which is where the religious services take place and the Torah is stored. Thus, Stan is very close to arguably the most holy area in the entire building and is still not safe.
To stay with Stan for a final example, we see him complete his bar mitzvah during a montage sequence. Once again, however, he seems to receive no sense of peace or strength from this moment. Point of fact, he looks miserable, as does the lone Loser who attends, Richie.
The only other time religion is explicitly represent is when Eddie is walking home on the route that will lead to his first encounter with the leper and Pennywise. We see him pass a church and briefly hear the choir inside practicing. However, just down the road, Eddie will encounter Derry’s ultimate evil, nearly in the shadow of that church and receive no protection from it nor will anyone in that church come to his aid. Granted, who knows if he could be heard from that distance with the organ playing but the juxtaposition of the church and the attack seems unlikely to be an accident.
The lack of religious symbols or an active religious community is its own sort of commentary as well. In a town the size of Derry located in Maine in the late 80s, the landscape would likely be dotted with active churches with nearly every resident being a member of one of the religious institutions. Yet we never see any gatherings for services—again except Stan’s—and we never see any church active in the search for the town’s missing children or holding prayer vigils, something a religious institution would most certainly do.
Derry is a town where religion does not show up and the rare times it does it provides no strength, no support, no sanctuary.
IT and the Irresistible Attraction of Fear
One of the more fascinating aspects of IT’s appearances in the film is how the children seem almost compelled to go to whatever manifestation of IT is targeting them despite all the warnings they acknowledge to do anything but follow.
The first example is, of course, Georgie. When he cannot stop his boat from going down into the sewer, he glances into the storm drain and encounter Pennywise as a clown. Not once but twice during their conversation Georgie’s face betrays that he has clocked he is in danger and the clown is bad news. And yet, when offered the boat, he reaches for it, terrified but unable to say no, despite it being obvious the clown could reach further out to hand Georgie it.
Of course, one could argue Georgie is younger and more likely to listen to an adult over his sense of fear. I’m not sure I agree but taking that argument at face value, we look to the Losers.
Mike’s encounter with IT is not something he is drawn to and you can argue he is too panicked to move once he sees the hands. So I can’t/won’t count that one.
Stan is the next to encounter ITand his, on the other hand, very much fits the pattern. It’s clear that Stan already dislikes the odd painting in his father’s office given how he avoids trying to look at it. However, he nonetheless interacts with, first straightening it, then picking it up off the floor when it falls when either time he could have ignored it, returned the book, and gotten the hell out of there. Instead he seems compelled to make himself Pennywise’s target
Next is Ben and once more, Ben ignores his obvious concerns to follow first a balloon that no one else sees, then a series of burning eggs—significant given he just read about the Easter Egg Hunt fire—to encounter the headless ash boy and Pennywise. This is even more of an obvious example because we know Ben has been targeted by Howard Bowers’ gang and is actively avoiding them. Even if he did not suspect Pennywise, he still would be on guard for a trap from those teens. And yet, he cannot help himself.
Eddie—he runs towards the Neibolt house lawn rather than back towards the center of town—Bev—continues to investigate her drain even after the voices become obviously threatening and call out by name that they are the missing kids—and Bill—obviously afraid of his brother’s seeming return not happy, relieved, or surprised—all have similar reactions to the Pennywise traps.
Now obviously part of this is probably IT’s own mystical abilities. He compels them in some way that makes it hard to resist their more natural inclinations. I buy that.
But I also think it is revealing a fundamental truth about human beings, especially teens. We are drawn in by what we fear. It is, in essence, a metatextual commentary on horror movies. People go to horror movies expecting to be scared. Often, horror movies are criticized on the basis of not being scary enough. But to pursue something with the specific intention of being scared is a fundamentally irrational choice. It is, from an evolutionary standpoint, unhealthy and dangerous. And yet we do it. We drive too fast, we engage in extreme sports, we attend horror movies. We indulge our fears, rather than avoid them, even when, often, there is no gain to interacting with them. And so it is for the Losers. Every part of them is screaming to go somewhere else, not to follow up on the voices, on the brother, on the painting. And yet, every time, they do.
IT and the Ultimate Fear: Maturity
The fears of the Losers are largely obvious and understandable: fear of clowns, fear of lepers, fear of mummies, fear of scary painting monsters.
However, their surface fears belie their deeper and more dangerous fears.
To start with the most obvious one, Beverly’s fears are based in her development, in sexuality. This is why her first encounter takes the form of hair (she cut hers in a gesture towards reducing her father’s control over her moments after he fondled her locks in a less than fatherly way) and blood (symbolizing her period which we know she is relatively newly experiencing given her tampons purchase and her father’s reaction to the box). Like many survivors of sexual abuse, she is largely rejecting her sexual characteristics—she cuts her hair, she doesn’t wear makeup, she largely eschews any kind of clothes than the ones she has always worn rather than ones that might account differently for her changing body, and so on. Her biggest fear is her own changing body, her own developing sexuality.
Eddie’s is arguably next most obvious because his stated fear—sickness—and his real fear—aging and degeneration—are basically neighbors. Eddie is not afraid of being sick, not really, that’s his mom’s fear he is mirroring for her because of their co-dependent relationship. What is actually scared of is the pain and loss of control that come with aging. That’s why the leper is scary. It is his state of degeneration, not his disease. By the late 1980s leprosy was curable. Heck, in the 50s it seemed to be as well (we would eventually start to see leprosy develop a resistance to that first drug but Eddie would not have heard about that when he met the leper). So getting sick is not what he’s scared of, he’s afraid of what can happen to your body, it breaking, it breaking down, it becoming infected, it failing, as you grow older.
Mike fears what a lot of us fear, becoming his parents. Literally—that is to say dying in a fire—as evidenced by his first IT encounter, but also in terms of being a sheep farmer and staying rooted in Derry. We see this in rejection of using the bolt guy in his first scene and his direct protest that he is not his father and, later, when is using the gun to kill sheep during the montage in which all the Losers are succumbing to the pressure placed on them by the adults in their lives.
Stan’s is a little more tricky. Initially, it seems clear that it is about becoming a man, given the reluncatance with which he approaches his bar mitzvah. His true fear, however, is revealed in the sewers after his friends barely save him from losing his face. He screams at them for leaving him all alone. This is what Stan is scared of, isolation. Like Mike, he does not want to become his dad who, as noted above, is distant and isolated. He does not want to become a man in the Jewish faith because that while isolate him from his friends as the only Jewish member. He is already Jewish but one can see that he believes the transition will make that distinction stronger. Finally, he fears adulthood because of the isolation it brings with it, a message Derry has clearly taught him (which will explore more in the next section below).
For Richie, responsibility is the name of the game. His initial fear, clowns, does little to reveal this except, perhaps, if you argue that it represents his interest—being funny—becoming a responsibility as a job—being a clown. However, his other actions reveal this. He only wants to spend the summer playing Street Fighter, a task that could not be more devoid of responsibility. Unlike the rest of the gang, he seems to have no accountability to his family. Mike has to work on the farm and deliver meat, Billy has to not remind his parents of his brother, Bev has to be her dad’s girl, Eddie has to let his mom protect him, and Stan has to become a man. Only Ben, seemingly, has as free a life but he’s chosen to fill it with educational pursuits, something Richie outright scoffs at. The real clincher though is Richie’s speech before Pennywise where he lists off the things Bill has “done to him” and concludes it with having to “kill this fucking clown,” the first time in the movie Richie does something actively.
Ben, arguably the most adult presenting of the Losers, is also the one with the least developed fear of adulthood. His seems to be legacy, that is how the mistakes we make echo on through time and continue to compound. This explains why IT first comes to him as the headless ash boy and Ben’s seeming obsession with the town’s dark history not just its scary present.
Bill, lastly, gets the doozy. He fears outlasting the ones he loves, especially as he has already done it. Thus, his brother being his object of fear even as he wants so desperately to find him. He knows Georgie is gone, deep down, and fears having that confirmed because then he will be forced to know that this will not be the last time someone he loves will die while he goes on.
IT and the Isolation of Adulthood
In all of IT, there is only one moment where two adults talk to each other. Henry Bowers’ dad appears to be talking to a fellow officer in the background of a scene and just finishing as the camera cuts to him staring down his about to do bullying son.
That’s the only moment of adult interaction.
We never see a neighbor offer condolences to either of Bill’s parents. Hell, we never see them even talk to one another.
When we encounter Betty Ripson’s mom in front of the school, it seems she may be with the police but none of them speak to her nor does a teacher or fellow parent.
No one is working with the woman putting up poster announcing the bully Patrick’s disappearance.
When Eddie breaks his arm, no parents of any of the other kids are there to talk to Eddie’s mom when she arrives.
When Mike is dressed down by his grandfather, there are adults present but he never engages them in conversation.
Even on television where the woman intones in pleasant tones the fun to be had playing with clowns and/or in the sewer, she is speaking to the children around her but no adults are ever on those risers with her.
Of course, we do know the adults talk. Bev’s dad alludes to hearing local gossip about Bev’s promiscuity, for one, but we only hear that from him, never see him get that news directly.
This is not an accident. This is not just because the story focuses on the Losers, not adults. This is a choice the film makes. In Derry, adults are utterly cut off from the world and each other. Derry is not a community. They do not turn to one another in these terrible times, they suffer stoically alone, ignoring the darkness and white knuckling it until the sun breaks through.
That’s why the Losers are such a threat to IT. They are the only ones who seem to have a connection to anyone beyond themselves, the only ones who communicate with one another, the one people with a sense of community who look out for one another.
To be an adult in Derry is to ignore everything but yourself and to suffer in silence. And as long as the adults do that, IT can hunt with near impunity.
Guilt and Shame’s Role in the Appearance of IT
Pennywise is, of course, a creature of fear. IT causes fear, IT feeds off it. However, the film suggests that often what IT is attracted to is not outright terror but rather guilt and shame. The fear may salt the meat, to steal a paraphrase from the book, but it is guilt and shame that signals it is time to add the seasoning.
At this point, six takes in, you have a good idea what happened to what Loser and when so I will just go speed round with this.
When Georgie encounters IT he is feeling guilty for losing the boat his brother made for him. He does not literally believe Bill will kill him for losing it in the sewers but he does feel badly about letting it happen.
Mike has survivor’s guilt from living through the fire that took his parents. This one is screamingly obvious given that it is also the form of Mike’s IT encounter.
Ben feels shame about being friendless in his new home, a shame that is sparked by the librarian’s well-intentioned but kind of thoughtless redirect that he should be out with friends to which she cannot help but add, “Don’t you have any friends?”
Stan feels guilty about his ambivalence regarding his faith and shame for failing, yet again, to do the work he should have for Hebrew/Torah practice.
Eddie feels guilty about lying to his mom and engaging in activities he knows she disapproves and would cause her incredible worry.
Bev feels shame about the development of her body and how it makes her dad treat her. She may also feel guilt about the thoughts or actions it inspires in her father, a not all-together unusual emotion for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Bill feels guilt over the disappearance of Georgie as he was the one who made the boat and sent him off on his own. He also feels guilty about possibly becoming like his parents and the town at large and “forgetting” Georgie.
Richie, silly id monster that he is, seems to be the only one who is not carrying around much by way of guilt and shame. It is perhaps not surprising then that he is the last to encounter it and only does so for the first when he arrives at house at Niebolt, the above ground portion of IT’s living space. Patrick, similarly, seems free of guilt or shame and only suffers his fate when he cockily strolls into IT’s lair.
Therefore, it is fear that fills up IT’s belly but it seems that the monster selects his targets not by their capacity to fear but by a state of guilt and/or shame they are in before him attack.