Was Pennywise Ever A Real Person? ‘It Chapter Two’ Hints At A Human Backstory
The nightmarish, otherworldly entity known as It stands as one of Stephen King's most timeless visions of fear, and after It Chapter Two premieres in theaters on Sept. 6, that entity is sure to inspire even more nightmares. Throughout its existence, It has taken on many forms, and as a creature that insists on scaring its prey (namely children) before consuming them, each of those forms has been the source of a multitude of nightmares all on their own. But its most iconic form is that of a dancing clown. Some scenes in the sequel's trailers seem to suggest that Pennywise was an actual person, but the mythology behind it is much more complicated than that.
In 2017's It, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) form the Losers Club of Derry, Maine — a group of friends united in their shared experience of having difficult lives and of having been haunted by It. The conclusion of the film sees them standing together, having overcome their fear of It, which proves to be the creature's weakness, allowing them to beat it back into the darkness to hibernate for another few decades. But all throughout the film, the kids have good reason to fear It, as it often takes the form of whatever it was they feared the most. Eddie, for example, is deathly afraid of germs and infections, and consequently, It took the form of a leper.
But its "default" form, or the form it seems to utilize the most throughout the movie, is Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård). There are clues that point to Pennywise having actually existed as a person the world of the story, the most concrete being a wagon Sophia finds deep inside the well where It makes its home. Having been separated from the rest of the Losers Club, she explores the network of tunnels, eventually coming upon the center, where the bodies of It's victims float (as It often promised) into a seemingly endless cavern. At its base is Pennywise's wagon, which is emblazoned with a twisted caricature of the clown. The side of it explodes outward, and It (in Pennywise form) performs a creepy, if absurd, dance.
That same wagon makes an appearance in the first teaser for It Chapter Two, which shows a grown-up Beverly (Jessica Chastain) visiting her childhood home in Derry, which is now occupied by an old woman named Mrs. Kersh (Joan Gregson).
The visit starts off innocently enough, but the clip takes a turn into the creepy after Kersh reveals that her father performed in the circus. At that same moment, Beverly is looking at a photo on the wall, which depicts a young girl next to an older man with very Pennywise-like features, standing in front of that very same wagon. Kersh begins to move creepily in the shadows behind Beverly, and the trailer cuts to another scene just as she's attacked by this seemingly possessed Kersh. It's an homage to a moment from the 1990 Stephen King's It miniseries, where Beverly (Annette O'Toole) experiences the same scare.
In the book, this scene plays out a little differently, as it's a slow burn, with Kersh slowly changing into a witch while chatting with Beverly, who dismisses the changes as they come, only to come to a horrifying realization later. Most importantly, however, their conversation serves as a bit of exposition as we're led to believe that Mrs. Kersh is Pennywise's daughter. She says, "My father ... His name was Robert Gray, better known as Bob Gray, better known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown." This is also the name It uses to introduce itself to Georgie, Bill's brother, in the novel.
The surname Gray has appeared before in other King novels, notably Dreamcatcher, published in 2001. There, a group of aliens invades Earth, near the very same town It takes place: Derry, Maine. One of the aliens is a parasite, and after taking over a host body, introduces himself as "Mr. Gray." There's a bit of a parallel reference, as the entity behind Pennywise, known as It, is also an alien entity.
Since Mrs. Kersh eventually reveals herself to be It, it's hard to tell if any of the story she shared was actually the truth or if it's all just words that It uses to lure Beverly further into a trap. That said, in a chat with Metro in 2017, Skarsgård did say that It Chapter Two is "a different story, but I’m excited to delve in deeper to the character as there’s more exploration for who Pennywise is." So at the very least, audiences will get to learn more about the clown himself.
On top of that, the final trailer offers up another clue: Pennywise with some his makeup smudged away, and without his iconic red hair. It's a side of Pennywise that hasn't been shown on screen just yet — a more human Pennywise, albeit one that's in the throes of a breakdown so violent that one of his eyes drifts listlessly to the side as he starts to scream.
In a blog post about his inspirations behind the novel, King presented a simple metaphor: "I thought of the fairy tale called 'The Three Billy-Goats Gruff' and wondered what I would do if a troll called out from beneath me, 'Who is trip-trapping upon my bridge?' All of a sudden I wanted to write a novel about a real troll under a real bridge." He continued, "I decided that the bridge could be some sort of symbol — a point of passing ... In Stratford there was a library where the adult section and the children's section was connected by a short corridor. I decided that the corridor was also a bridge, one across which every goat of a child must risk trip-trapping to become an adult."
Taking that into consideration, the most terrifying thing about Pennywise is not whether he's real or fake within the fiction of the story. Rather, it's what It the entity symbolizes: the elusive, subjective nature of fear, and, more specifically, the role fear plays in our own coming-of-age. In It, we see the Losers Club grow up over the course of a few hours as they faced their own mortality and worst fears. As It calls them all back to Derry in It Chapter Two, it will be exciting to see what kinds of horrifying lessons are in store for the adult Losers.