I don't like horror films. They're too much like real life with its mass shootings, hurricanes, and the policies of that clown in the White House. So I demurred when friends invited me to see the film version of Stephen King's IT.
In the end, however, I was somehow persuaded. After all, as a box-office phenomenon, IT remains the highest grossing "R"-rated film in history. Its subconscious cultural content, I suspected, might somehow explain that huge box-office success. So I accompanied my friends to our local Miramax determined to find that content.
Before I get to that however, a word about the film itself... To put it succinctly, IT was quite boring. In terms of horror, it didn't even succeed in the (otherwise quite easy) task of scaring me!
Think about the movie's unlikely premise: a group of 7 pre-teens meet a terrifying clown who lives submerged in the sewer underworld of Derry, a small town in Maine. The kids are all outsiders; they even call their group "The Losers' Club." One is black, another Jewish, and the remainders a tomboy, a stutterer, a frail hypochondriac, an overweight intellectual, and a wise-cracking smart-aleck.
The Losers' adversary appears every 27 years to maim, kill and disappear children in Derry. No one but the kids can see the motley spirit who appears all-powerful. Nonetheless, in the end (spoiler alert), the children improbably, but only apparently kill the clown. (Readers of King's book know Pennywise will return in 30 years or so -- thus setting up the dreaded sequel.)
None of this is to say that IT wasn't terrifying. However, its truly scary characters were the story's adults -- especially the Losers' parents. They were variously fat and lazy, sexually abusive, violent in the extreme, deceptive, authoritarian, possessive and stultifying.
What united them all was their mirror-perfect depiction of our country's adult refusal to recognize an extreme violence threatening our own children, even when it's staring us in the face. Nothing mobilized the adults; not disappearances, shootings, torn limbs, decapitations, bleed-outs, bullying, racism, child abuse, and even a room covered with blood. They just couldn't see any of it, and got angry when the children suggested that something was wrong.
Of course, all of this reflects our culture's normalization of terror in a country described by that other Mr. King (Martin) as the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world." We're blind, for instance, to the horror of our economic system that today allows the preventable deaths of 30,000 children each day -- without most of us taking any more note of the tragedy than the adults in Derry's Maine-stream.
With the clown, we leave the terrifying adult world, and enter an ironically less-threatening spirit world. But the spirit of what? The clown's name "Pennywise" might offer a clue. (After all, Stephen King did choose to call him that?) Pennywise's puzzling designation implies a connection between terror and money. Could he be the embodiment of an economic spirit that saves pennies, while being pound-foolish -- the implied second half of the clown's name? There's got to be some meaning there.
In any case, and regardless of Stephen King's intentions, our culture's short-term focus on saving pennies (e.g., by defunding public schools, and healthcare) destroys children's lives as surely as bites from the movie-clown's yellowed incisors.
So, my premonitions may have been spot-on. Despite its artistic demerits, IT does hold lessons for those determined to probe its cultural context. They include: