When Stephen King wrote It in 1986, he took a gamble. He had previously written about vampires, mummies, and werewolves to great success, but these classically scary creatures couldn't push the boundaries of horror for the pages of his next novel. He racked his brain to come up with the one thing that could scare kids more than most monsters, and he landed on a creature that historically is meant to bring children joy: A clown. Pennywise, the red-haired, genderless, shape-shifting entity most commonly known as It, first appeared in the pages of King's novel of the same name, and has been terrifying generations of children (and adults) ever since. With Warner Bros.' 2017 remake of It set to hit theaters Sept. 8, it's safe to say that It is the scariest movie audiences might brave all year.
There are a multitude of reasons why It beats out the rest of 2017's terrifying offerings when it comes to scares. First of all, and perhaps most obviously, clowns are, to many people, outright horrifying. There's no way to calculate how many people in the world have Coulrophobia — the fear of clowns — but to many, there is something about their almost inhuman features — a permanent smile that appears entirely unnerving. This eerie effect is called the "uncanny," as Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Steven Schlozman explained to Vulture. "The uncanny [is] where you look at something and it's not quite right — like a human face that's decomposing. It's recognizable, but just far enough away from normal to scare you."
And of course, clowns become even scarier when examining the real life killers who have assumed a clown's identity during their crimes. In 1836, a clown named Jean-Gaspard Deburau killed a boy who booed him by striking him with a walking stick. In 1980, just six years before It was published, John Wayne Gacy — otherwise known as "The Killer Clown" — was sentenced to death for the murders of 33 boys and men. Gacy worked part time as a clown at children's fundraiser events. In 2016, a series of "clown incidents," featuring teenagers and adults dressed as clowns — carrying weapons and scaring children — swept the United States and Britain.
Whether they are simply provoking laughter or something else more sinister, there is something unsettling about grown men who dress up and taunt children. For example, the clown in It is played by 27-year-old actor Bill Skarsgard, who, without the prosthetics, makeup, and wardrobe, is entirely approachable. But as a clown, Skarsgard has managed to be terrify audiences with the film's first trailer alone.
And part of what makes this clown in particular so scary is Skarsgard's unique physical performance. According to an interview with Dazed magazine, Skarsgard has a rare eye disorder that actually made the "uncanny" element of Pennywise come to life in an unexpected way — no CGI needed. "I have a bit of a lazy eye on my left side, so if I relax the muscle in the eye, my left eye goes out," he said. "We thought that would be cool to use in the character, so throughout the film his eyes are pointing in two different directions."
To up the scare factor further, director Andrés Muschietti had Skarsgard meet The Losers Club (that is, the unpopular kids who battle Pennywise in the film) for the first time in full costume. "As soon as they said ‘cut’, some kids were very shaken up about," he said in the same Dazed interview. "I tried to be like, ‘Oh, I’m just an actor, this is just pretend,’ and they kind of looked at me very suspiciously."
If Skarsgard has that effect on actors who are in the film, surely audiences could have an intensified reaction to Skarsgard's perverse performance.
But Pennywise alone isn't what makes It so damn chilling. In fact, it's the idea that It is not only a clown, but anything and everything that scares you. As a shape-shifting being who takes the form of whatever its victim fears most, It is your worst nightmare come to fruition. For Beverly, it's her abusive father; For Stanley, it's the creepy woman from the painting in his rabbi's office; For Eddie, it's a disease-infested, zombie-like leper.
The film makes you consider your own biggest fears, and what form they would take if It came to claim you. Pennywise is the walking embodiment of evil, a creature who feeds off of children's fears and taking their lives in the process. Nothing is scarier than watching a monster devour a child — not only because they are often innocent and helpless, but because we've all experienced that time of life. Audiences know what it's like to feel fear through a kid's eyes — immediate and intensified.
As a film, this translates perfectly. It means you never know what form It will take, where it will appear, or how It will strike its victims. The sheer unpredictability of this monster creates a whole other layer of terror. Plus, It cannot be satisfied. It kills and kills to seemingly no end.
To make matters much worse, the kids are the only ones who can see Pennywise's ominous handiwork. When a fountain of blood erupts from Beverly's bathroom, covering every square inch — including herself — in a gooey red substance, her father is unable to see it. He scolds her for screaming, and she realizes she is utterly alone in her suffering.
But not all of the scares of It come from this malefic creature. In perhaps one of the most horrifying scenes from the film (and book), the town's resident bully, Henry, captures one of the Loser's Club kids, Ben, and carves an "H" into his stomach with a knife. If Henry's act wasn't interrupted, it's unclear whether or not he would have attempted to harm Ben further. It's a scene that proves It not only frightens the audience with sinister creatures, but by reminding us that real-life monsters live among us.
King broke the mold when he wrote It, and with the forthcoming big screen adaptation, audiences should brace themselves to face their worst nightmares, killer clowns included.