On the cultural and political implications of Pennywise the Dancing Clown
Yellowed, lamp-like eyes. Dusty white skin thickly plastered with caking makeup. Red lips, slimy with a ravenous drool. A sharp-toothed, coldly unnerving grin. “Hi-ya, Georgie! You want your boat back?” Steve Bannon drawls hoarsely from the sewer drain. Ah, I kid. Are we still making Steve Bannon jokes? I might be a little late to the party on that one—just couldn’t resist. Anyway, moving past it: of course, you know who I’m really talking about. Film’s spookiest harlequin: Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Roughly 27 years after the original release of “It” in 1990, Stephen King’s famous horror story resurfaces as a fall blockbuster starring, notably, That One Kid from “Stranger Things.” Reviews of the film have been relatively mixed, though review isn’t really my purpose in this piece. Instead, I’d like to explore some of the deeper implications of the film in its social and political contexts—that is to say, I want to know what Pennywise the Dancing Clown is doing in Trump’s America, and what our intense fear of him could possibly mean.
Some brief theoretical background: there exists a generally accepted theory that horror films reflect the social anxieties of their times. For example, “Them!” a 1954 horror film about radioactively mutated ants attacking Los Angeles, is largely thought to be a manifestation of American fears of nuclear violence during the Cold War. It has been argued, in a similar vein, that “Godzilla” was the Japanese reaction to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What’s more, many vampire movies—especially Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1992), and possibly “Twilight” if one really forced an argument—are thought to be reactions to the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s. Most recently, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, “Get Out,” is a very clear and deliberate expression of the racial tension that pervades modern America. In sum, art imitates life and vice versa—nothing new there.
The question remains: what is Pennywise doing in Trump’s America? What does a creepy clown that returns every 27 years to snack on children mean for our societal fears today? To begin answering that question, it could be helpful to think about why Pennywise scares us so much. He’s a shapeshifter, morphing his being into whatever scares his victims the most. On top of that, he seems to be everywhere. He doesn’t just haunt a house—he can appear anywhere in Derry to torment his prey. Pennywise evokes an idea of inescapable and adaptable terror; he isn’t just scary, he’s fear itself.
The question remains: what is Pennywise doing in Trump’s America?
So maybe it isn’t really Pennywise that’s terrifying, but rather the world of “It”: Derry, Maine. The terror of the story is woven deeply into the setting of “It”—the house on Neibolt street, the Barrens, the sewers, the school where bullies torment our group of plucky protagonists—it’s all chock-full of dread. And isn’t America kind of like that? I mean, I don’t regularly run into deformed clowns trying to kill me on my way home, but I do fear global warming, political instability, economic crisis, the possibility of war, the possibility that my health care might not be covered in the near future. And I’m a middle-class white woman. The “losers” of Derry, our protagonists, are conspicuously underprivileged. Beverly comes from an impoverished home and deals with an abusive father, Stanley faces anti-Semitism as a Jewish boy, Mike is tormented by racists who refer to him as an “outsider.” These kids, plagued with bullies and evils of a grandiose nature, are very similar to those downtrodden in modern America. And just like the kids in the movie know something’s wrong with Derry, these people know something’s wrong with America.
Of course, Pennywise and the kids of “It” don’t form a perfect allegory of modern American society. But that’s not the point. It was never about Pennywise himself, but rather about our fears and what they attach themselves to. What we’re really afraid of is what Pennywise represents: that pervasive, inescapable fear. Pennywise isn’t a perfect reflection of American social anxieties, but an analysis of why he scares us can at the very least be helpful in diagnosing the American problem of which fear is a symptom. Sharp-toothed, white-faced, red-mouthed, shape-shifting, ubiquitous, frustratingly and terrifyingly inescapable: fear. Or Steve Bannon, you decide.