While the rest of the Christian world is celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Happy Easter, everybody!), we’re still celebrating the darker side of life. Today’s villain du jour is Pennywise, the child-killing clown from It.
I don’t know a single soul that has read the book—it’s longer than the Bible. But I know a whole bunch of people who saw the miniseries. If you weren’t one of them, it’s the story of a giant inter-dimensional spider-thing that terrorizes a small town in Massachusetts or Rhode Island or any one of the other 78 states in New England. The spider-thing takes the form of a clown, Pennywise, to lure kids into the sewers to dine on them.
I have a couple confessions to make: first, I didn’t see It until I was an adult in my 30s so the terror was lost on me—the dated hairstyles and poor special effects made me think it was just an extra long episode of Cheers; second, I actually didn’t think It was that good, I just remember what my friends kept saying:
“Dude, the clown…the clown really freaked me out.”
The problem with this is it was college students talking. I’d graduated from high school the summer before and was working on my first attempt at a college degree at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. For whatever reason, I didn’t see it. I don’t know, I didn’t have a TV, the ratio of women to men was 14 to 1 and there were better things to watch, or I was sleep. I missed it.
But the thing is, all those other people didn’t.
These were grown men sleeping with the lights on, lamenting about this damn clown and, even though I hadn’t seen it, I was genuinely interested in this character. Or rather, in his impact. In light of what we’ve learned so far, what makes Pennywise so effective, so frightening is that he is something so malevolent in such innocuous trappings. Pennywise is a clown, with fanged teeth, but a clown nonetheless. And until It graced our television screens, the creepiest things about clowns was that they hung out with nondescript purple guys named Grimace, known Hamburglars, and traveled in those itty-bitty cars.
We used to look forward to clowns. How many of us grew up watching Bozo the Clown before school? We’ve all had Happy Meals. And I know hundreds of my peers watched the clowns at the Shrine Circus. They were good, clean fun. And that’s the thing, that’s the rub. Clowns are supposed to be harmless (John Wayne Gacy aside) and Pennywise uses that inherent trust to kill children. Remember when I said Cruella DeVille was just mean? You gotta admit, posing as a clown to catch a snack is pretty f’d up.
I added Pennywise to the list as a fantastic villain because of his MO: he takes something that generally engenders happy feelings and uses it as bait for something sinister. And, in the process, changes the way we look at clowns.
I could talk about that this is a common trait among Stephen King’s villains, about how he finds something to fear in those things we hold dear: our faithful companions become ravenous hellhounds in Cujo; our pretty little girls become telekinetic she-devils in Carrie or walking flamethrowers in Firestarter; a car literally becomes a deathtrap in Christine and Maximum Overdrive. Pennywise is simply another example of a villain made incredible in the hands of a master.
UPDATE: I do know a soul who has read It–My Wife! She publicly informed me of this little tidbit. She actually read it 3 times. 3! I can’t decide how concerned I should be…
The A to Z Blog Challenge starts up again tomorrow with letter H. We’ll be talking about something truly terrifying: the House from the Amityville Horror.