It: Chapter One

by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD

Well, Steven King, abetted by director Andy Muschietti and a
stable of screenwriters, has done it again. His 1986
publication, It, has appeared on screen, and has audiences
lined up waiting to experience horror. The plot is slick. A
group of school kids, each of whom is weighed down by a
social disqualification, struggles with rejection and bullying in
and out of school. The group coalesces, aptly calling
themselves “The Losers.” Their leader stutters badly,
another is an overweight nerd, there is a sexually abused girl
seen as promiscuous, a hypochondriac, a loudmouth, a
Jewish kid being coerced into rabbinic studies, and a black.
As a group and individually, they are the target of vicious
bullying by school mates.

Then worse erupts. The younger brother of one of The
Losers is lured into a sewer by an evil creature who calls
himself Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The film takes us into
The Losers’ battle against victimhood at the hands of real life
bullies and the surreal, cannibalistic, shape shifting It.

Rather than rehearsing the twists, turns and outcome of the
tale, I will remark that the movie’s title is a promise that if you
enjoyed chapter one, you will be titillated by the prospect of
more to come. Beyond that, the film epitomizes the horror flic
genre, and raises the question of what attracts viewers to this
film and its counterparts. Where does horror or terror fit in
the panoply of emotion? Why would one pursue an
opportunity to experience that feeling? How is it that a clown
might be an apt focus for that feeling?

That the experience of fear and terror, independent of an
objective threat, is universal is attested by the phenomenon of
night terrors and nightmares in children and by their beliefs in
boogiemen and toilet monsters. King tips his hat to that latter
by It’s residence in the sewer system and It’s eruption out of
drain pipes. Inadvertently or deliberately, King also gestures
toward Freudian theory in Pennywise and the eponymous
account of his doings by naming Pennywise “It.” Of Freud’s
three mental agencies, Ego, Superego and Id, the last is the
arena of hidden and stormy passions—and Freud knew well,
and so might King, that “Id” is Latin for “It.”

From a psychoanalytic point of view, maternal empathic
soothing and protection in the earliest months of life transmutes
into a sense of safety and self-assurance in dealing with the
world. The obverse of that mothering, early ruptures of that
bastion, is a catastrophic experience. Otto Rank, one of the
early psychoanalysts, posited that the universal and traumatic
experience of ejection from the womb lays down an
inescapable fearful template that is part of the human condition.
Thus each of us, it can be argued, have somewhere within us,
in the darkness of the Id, that template of terror. From a cultural
point of view, the story of the eviction from Eden in Abrahamic
societies can be understood as a literary endorsement of
Rank’s insight.

But why clowns? There was an explosion of concerns about
evil-doing clowns in 2014 and again two years later. The
concerns were amplified by social media and were of
questionable authenticity. But they parallel the persistent
rumors of poison and razor blades in Halloween treats. Clowns
are intended to give us something to laugh about. But there is
also something eerie and artificial about them. Something
might be hidden under that mask of grease paint, that carmined
rictus.

Life and living involve dire risks on which we do not like to
dwell, lest they trigger an eruption of a well of terror that swirls,
deep and hidden in our minds. Horror films provide an
opportunity to play with those fears, to entertain them—briefly
and under our control.

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