I first discovered that some people are scared of clowns when I was about five or six years old. It was the mid 1980s, and I was in the basement with my two older sisters, and sitting in the corner, on the basement floor, sat a clown doll. It had very long arms and legs with Velcro on the hands and feet so a kid could wrap it around their body like a koala.
My oldest sister threw the thing in the closet, and said, "That thing's creepy." I asked what she meant, and she explained to me that some clown dolls are possessed and might strangle a person. After all, why else would the doll have such long arms and legs?
I don't have any memories of that clown doll before or after that moment, which seems weird to me, but the moment itself is very vivid.
Stephen King's novel It came out in 1986, and, unlike me, my sister read a lot as a kid, so it's possible that her apprehension toward the clown doll came from reading that book. Whatever the case, clowns have never creeped me out, but when I think about that particular clown doll sitting on the floor of our basement, it does sort of give me the heebie jeebies. I just did a few different searches and looked at several hundred pictures on Google, but couldn't find the clown doll that I remember. Come to think of it, I wouldn't be a damn bit surprised if the thing is still in that closet, even though we moved out of that house more than 30 years ago.
Whenever I hear someone mention that they're scared of clowns, I never know if they mean it, or if they're just scared of them because they think they should be scared of them. And the lack of differentiation is odd to me.
I just don't see how Bozo T. Clown (the T stands for the!) is as scary as John Wayne Gacy dressed up as a clown. They're not the same. And Ronald McDonald? That dude's not going to kill anyone. At least not quickly, in a bloody massacre. He'll do it over the course of decades by clogging your arteries.
So when the most recent film based on King's It came out last year the frenzy over scary clowns didn't surprise me, but I didn't buy into it. I read the book, and honestly, the clown didn't make too much of an impact on me. Although I didn't see the film when it came out, it wasn't that I was so scared I had to avoid it. I just didn't see it.
Most of the time when I watch a movie I'm able to suspend my disbelief long enough to become absorbed in what I'm watching. However, I never really forget that I'm watching something pretend. I think this helps insulate me from being too scared.
It's sort of odd that it protects me from fear, because it doesn't protect me from other emotions. I get choked up rather easily while watching movies (Toy Story 3, A League of Their Own, for example), but while most horror movies may make me cringe-especially if something's happening to someone's fingers-they don't scare me.
The friendship theme in It made more of an impact on me than the clown. It's similar to Stand by Me, in that the kids exist in a world essentially without adults, or at least adults who can or will help them. They realize before we do that they can only rely on each other, and if they don't stick together they're all screwed.
I won't recap the plot except to say that kids are going missing in Derry, Maine, and a group of kids, led by Bill, the older brother of one of the missing kids, George, decide to search for George, and, in turn, the killer. Whether you've seen the movie or not, you probably know the killer is a clown called Pennywise. That's not a spoiler.
And there are some scenes of graphic violence. Pennywise has a mouth like a snake. It opens much wider than it should, and reveals dozens of sharp teeth that he uses to rip apart his victims. Maybe I'm a barbarian, but seeing him rip people apart and chew them up didn't get to me. It didn't feel like something that would induce nightmares.
The most uneasy part of the film, the part that will stay with me longer than anything else, is a scene at the beginning when Georgie is kneeling next to a curb, talking through a storm drain to Pennywise, who's hiding in the sewer. We know what's about to happen. We want to warn Georgie. We want him to stand up and walk away rather than reach into the storm drain to get his boat. And at that moment, it doesn't matter what's in the sewer. It could be Pennywise, or Freddy Krueger, or Barney the purple dinosaur (come on, that guy's killed people before!). It doesn't matter who it is. It's not the entity in the sewer that's making us uneasy, it's our instinct to protect Georgie. There are fewer things scarier than anticipation, as we learned from watching Jaws. And the anticipation and dread of that moment is horrific.
No adults help the kids. They can't even see Pennywise or the other entities of evil. In one scene an entire room is covered in blood, and a disgusting creep of a father doesn't see a thing. So they have to help each other. It's this reliance on each other, this friendship, that gives the movie its character. It seemed more reminiscent of Stand by Me than Friday the 13th, or Nightmare on Elm Street, or any other horror movie.
The other important theme of the film is discovery. By focusing on children, the film also lets us experience their discoveries. One kid discovers that his mother has been lying to him and made him into something he's not. Another kid discovers she can fight her way out of a hellish situation. Another kid discovers the sad unfairness sometimes associated with love. And, of course, they all discover more than they ever wanted to know about the evil confronting their town.
The true irony of the film is the idea that no one has to be afraid. Most people see the clown, and they see the terror, and they think the film is about being scared. But it's also telling us that we don't need to be afraid. I don't want to spoil anything, so maybe it's best to quote Franklin Roosevelt's proclamation during the Depression: The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.
But don't be surprised if your fear has face paint, colored hair, and huge shoes.
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