Last night I went to see the new (2017) movie version of Stephen King’s It. I have a long history with this story so I almost didn’t go. I was nervous that it might take away from something that was precious to me, as film adaptations sometimes can. The opposite was the case. Watching the novel that I’ve read so many times brought to life so perfectly enabled the penny to finally drop for me (pun intended). I finally got what this story’s all about, and why it’s resonated with me so much over the years. This is my attempt to explain It.
Disclaimer 1: Obviously this is just my reading. Many other readings are possible.
Disclaimer 2: All the themes present in It are also present in this piece, so don’t read it if you don’t want to be spoilered, or find those topics too troubling right now (bullying; family physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; bereavement; violence and murder; structural and systemic oppression including racism, misogyny, and homophobia).
Disclaimer 3: There are also some images of scary clowns of course.
TLDR: I love Stephen King and I think It is about intergenerational trauma.
Libraries were a focal point of my childhood, just as they are in It. A key moment for me was when I graduated from the kid’s corner of the library to the whole wild open expanse of the adult books. One section in particular drew me to it as surely as if it’d been marked out by the presence of a floating balloon.
I remember the thrill of browsing the covers of the horror books. Some of the images were enough to haunt my dreams without me even cracking the pages. There was a rebellion too in picking these books: disapproving glances from the librarian; bafflement from friends; a shake of the head from my English teacher when I chose to review pulp horror rather than literary fiction. I never understood why these books were somehow regarded as of lesser value. I just knew they were immensely valuable to me, although I doubt I could’ve explained why at the time.
Eventually I got a part-time job at the library. One of the perks was that I got first dibs on the books they were selling off for 10 or 20p. I soon amassed by own horror collection with laminated covers and the library pockets still stuck to their front pages. For my favourite authors I saved my pocket money for the glossy new paperbacks at the big WHSmith in town.
A non-horror fan looking at that section of the library probably wouldn’t be able to discern much difference between the books. They’d just see shelf after shelf of equivalent paperbacks with nightmare titles and dark covers embossed with gruesome images: as identical to one another as the Mills and Boons over by the door.
For me though they were very different. I knew that I was more drawn to the current authors than the classic ones, although I later developed a fondness for M. R. James. I also filtered out most of the books based on movies or supposedly true stories as not particularly inspiring. Finally I learnt to distinguish the writers whose work seemed to be about something more than simply frightening the reader with the nastiest things they could imagine. The latter books did nothing for me apart from disturbing my mind, but the former got my attention and eventually my devotion.
An enduring memory from my teenage years is of sitting on the floor of my sloping attic bedroom, my back propped against the radiator for warmth. There’s a packet of plain digestive biscuits by my side and a mug of hot chocolate. Erasure and George Michael are playing on the stereo. The walls are covered with hand-drawn pictures and posters of my favourite film and TV characters. There’s probably an incense stick burning. I’m wearing a baggy sweater and jeans. In my hand is a thick Dean R. Koontz, or a James Herbert, or a Stephen King. The spine is cracked. I’m lost in the story as the sky darkens outside. I know I won’t go to sleep till I’ve finished the book. Somehow that would be letting the characters down: letting the evil win.
King is the only author from that period who I still read. Returning to these authors as an adult Herbert is a bit too inconsistent: meaningful stories interspersed with just plain nasties. Koontz can get too sappy for me, although I retain my copies of Watchers and Phantoms because those are proper good.
But I’ve come back to King again and again. Certainly there are periods of his writing that don’t inspire me, and occasional books that are complete misses to my mind. But overall there’s so much to love, and his recent stuff is just as good as his early works. He’s a master of the short story, and I regularly return to those collections as well as to the handful of novels that seem to give more on each re-read.
It is one of those books for me. I remember the first version of the paperback that I got out of the library. It had a black cover with the grating of a storm drain on the front and a set of glowing eyes down there. I made it a couple of chapters in and couldn’t get any further. It was too scary.
I got it out again, a year or so later, and the same thing happened. The book called to me, but it was too much. I wasn’t ready.
Then my Dad went to the US for a conference. He brought me back a present, probably without knowing my history with the book: a copy of It. Quite the departure for my Dad who usually focused on trying to get me to crack the books that he believed everyone should read such as Moby Dick or Metals in the Service of Man! This was a more appropriate gift. The TV mini-series must’ve just come out in the States because the cover had a picture of Tim Curry’s version of Pennywise the clown on it.
My memory is that I finally managed to read the whole book when I went into hospital for one of the minor surgeries on my ears that punctuated my childhood and adolescence. That copy of It was the only book I took into hospital with me. If I wanted distracting from the scary situation I was in, that was all I had. I read it till they came to wheel me to the operating room. It was there on the bedside table when I came around from the anaesthetic. Back home it saw me through my recovery, taking me away from the pain of my sore and bleeding ears.
A couple of years back I made a decision to revisit It as I went in for surgery for the first time as an adult. It was a meaningful choice as the operation in question was top surgery to flatten my chest. Here I was in my forties making the decision to reshape my body in the way I longed for as a pre-teen. The nostalgic reading material made a lot of sense. It intrigues me now that my two main memories of reading It come from around the same ages as the child and adult versions of the characters in the novel.
During my recovery I also re-read several of King’s other novels. The main thing that struck me, which I hadn’t noticed earlier in my life, was what a legend this guy was. Right back in the 1970s and 1980s he was writing books where convincing women were the main characters, while so many male authors had no female characters, or ones that were poorly drawn and only served as victims or convenient motivations for the heroes. He was similarly awesome on class. Also the horror in these King novels frequently took the form of things like domestic violence, sexual abuse in families, marital rape, or bullying. If supernatural forces were in there at all, they only served to highlight the real human horror of such things.
The one novel that I didn’t re-read because I still can’t get past the first chapter was Carrie. That one is still too frighteningly accurate in its depiction of the horrors of girls’ bullying and what periods are like for somebody who hasn’t been prepared for them. I’m eternally grateful to King though for understanding and expressing the horror of those experiences.
Going back to It, somehow I didn’t put this novel in the same category as those other books (Carrie, Rose Madder, Dolores Claiborne, Gerald’s Game, etc.). Sure It had something to say about childhood and bullying, but mostly it was a more standard horror book about the ancient evil haunting the town of Derry.
I figured I was drawn to It because it told the truth that childhood is a horrifying time for many of us, and because I was wistfully drawn to its depiction of a group of loser kids who bonded together and found friendship with each other. I longed as a kid for a world where losers recognised each other and found friendship together. In my experience they either shunned each other for fear of being bullied more, or hurt each other if they did ever become close because they were too bruised or broken to handle the intimacy. I would totally have braved a sewer and an evil clown if it meant the possibility of getting a group of friends like Bill, Mike, Ben, Bev, Richie, Stan, and Eddie.
I was blown away watching the movie adaptation because it enabled me to see something in the story that I just hadn’t spotted before. I’m not sure whether it was the way this film captured the feel of the novel so perfectly, and/or the fact that I’ve finally understood these themes in my own life, but finally I got It. Several times during the film I found myself in tears. It felt like I was cracked open and someone – or something – was seeing into my soul. At the end I wandered out of the cinema in a daze. I walked along the Thames trying to make sense of it. Finally the phrase ‘intergenerational trauma’ came to mind. At that point I hopped a tube to get home quickly to my journal. I’ll try to explain what I wrote here. I’ll focus on the movie version of the story because that’s freshest in my mind right now.
Pennywise or not?
So the monster in It is an ancient evil force that lies dormant under Derry. Every 27 years it awakes and terrorises the town, taking the form of Pennywise the dancing clown. It entices kids down into the sewers and feeds on their fear. Pennywise will win as long as it keeps the kids separate and scared. If they band together and face their fears then they can beat it.
But Pennywise isn’t the real monster here. If we took Pennywise out of the picture entirely this would still be a terrifying movie. Before It even comes into their lives, the kids are already going through some deeply scary shit.
Ben is the new kid in school, alienated for his weight and his newness. He’s the target of the town bullies who threaten to ‘cut his tits off’. Mike has lost his parents in a traumatic fire. His uncle attempts to ‘make a man of him’ by teaching him how to kill farm animals, and tells him that if he doesn’t become a man he’ll end up being one of the sheep in life and get shot. Bev is living with a father who is either sexually abusing her, or is poised to start doing so, and she is shunned by all her peers who spread rumours that she’s a slut. Eddie’s mother keeps him trapped and anxious with all of the health-related fears that she projects onto him, gaslighting him into believing they’re real. Stan’s dad makes it clear how disappointed he is in a son who seems unable to follow in his footsteps. When It does come into the picture, Bill’s parents can only deal with their grief over his brother’s death by disappearing into themselves and attacking Bill when he tries to express his grief. We don’t get to see the reasons behind Richie’s ‘trashmouth’ but in the novel we find that similarly tough things are going on for him at home. Like Eddie and Bill, he’s also a target for the local bullies due to his disability.
I don’t know about you, but thinking about the kids I knew growing up I could point to at least one who was going through the equivalent of each of these things, and more. And that’s from a time when most of this stuff was kept well hidden. The childhoods that the people who I’m friends with now had make the home and school-lives of the kids in It look pretty average.
Let’s think about the 27 year period that It hibernates for. 27 years is about the time it would take for the children who were targeted by Pennywise in one generation to become adults and be having kids themselves. So the parents, guardians and teachers of the main characters would’ve been the children themselves 27 years ago. And their parents, guardians and teachers would be the kids of the previous 27 year Pennywise moment, going all the way back to the founding of Derry.
My theory is that Pennywise is a metaphor for intergenerational trauma. If the kids in one generation don’t face their demons, when they go on to have kids themselves those kids are doomed to be confronted by the very same demons. In this case the demons are both the evil clown who they literally have to face and fight, and the trauma, abuse and neglect that they experience at the hands of their parents, guardians and teachers, and the other children around them who’ve been damaged by their own parents, guardians and teachers. For example, we see in the movie how the main male bully, Henry, is constantly punished and put down by his father, and how one of the female bullies has a father who’s creepy around teenage girls.
So it’s the intergenerational trauma inherent in both family and school systems that’s the real monster here. Not only do parents, guardians, teachers, and other adults hurt kids with their actions and inactions, they also create the bullies who terrorise the kids. Vitally they also refuse to see the pain the kids are going through. No adult intervenes to help even when the kids are clearly distressed. The avoidance of the adults is captured in the scene where a couple drives past Ben as the bullies surround him. The couple deliberately refuse to look at Ben. Later Bev’s father can’t even see the blood all of the bathroom: adults are so oblivious to what is going on.
And of course the trauma is intergenerational because the adults only behave in these ways towards the kids because the adults in their lives behaved in similar ways towards them, right back to the start.
The legacy of survival strategies
What broke my heart watching the film is how understandable it all is. As vulnerable children we just want to put our heads down and survive the horror. If somebody else is getting targeted we’re relieved that it takes the heat off us for a while. The last thing we feel capable of doing is standing alongside that person and putting ourselves back in the line of fire.
And as adults we don’t want to confront the demons of our childhoods. In fact, as we see in the novel of It (and presumably the sequel to the movie), it becomes way more hard to confront our demons as adults than it was when we were kids. We push all the memories and feelings down and pretend that it wasn’t that bad. That often means that we’re oblivious to what the kids in our own lives are going through. This is because we’ve taught ourselves not to see those demons, because it seems normal and no worse than our own childhoods, and because it’s so intolerably hard to accept that we might be implicated in their horror ourselves.
Our short term strategies of survival (as kids) and denial (as adults) seem like the best ones to keep us alive and sane. But like so many short term strategies they’re the one that put us – and the people around us – at greater risk. If we employ these survival strategies as kids we grow up traumatised and capable of hurting others because of the patterns we develop in our attempts to avoid further trauma. If we employ these denial strategies as adults then we keep repeating the patterns, and we risk losing our connection with the next generation in one way or another. If we want to ensure that the intergenerational trauma doesn’t keep coming back we have to face our demons.
Why we love a bogeyman
It also demonstrates how we create bogeymen to help us to deny our own capacity for hurting others. We see this playing out on a cultural level all the time. We’re obsessed by extremely rare criminals like serial killers and rapists, and stranger child abusers. We consume a vast amount of fiction about such criminals as entertainment. And real stories about them are considered to be the most newsworthy, with crimes that don’t fit that preferred narrative rarely hitting the headlines. Statistically though, people are far, far more likely to be killed, raped or abused by someone they know.
The greatest risks to kids in terms of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are within the home and the school. Way more kids die at their own hands as a result of bullying and other abuses than ever die at the hands of stranger murderers. Many more make it through to adulthood with parts of themselves deeply damaged by such experiences. People clamour for lists of paedophiles to protect their kids from, while telling them that the abuse they experience at school is just a normal part of childhood, or even a positive thing to prepare them for adult life. Interestingly the very first article I ever had published was about exactly this point!
So Pennywise can be read as a very helpful bogeyman for Derry. It keeps everyone’s attention on the evil outsider abducting their kids so they don’t have to think too carefully about what those same kids are going through in their homes or schools.
Normativity as intergenerational trauma
The role of cultural norms in all of this is also clear in It. The ‘losers’ who attract the torment of their peers – and the punishment, disapproval or smothering of their parents or guardians – are the ones who are ‘different’ or marginalised: they’re all disabled, fat, black, Jewish, or female. Tellingly they also all challenge normative cultural gender roles. The boys are frequently called ‘faggots’ for being weak or showing feelings, and punished for any perceived femininity or lack of manliness. The one girl in the group is attacked for being too sluttish and for being too boyish.
Again we’re all implicated in the intergenerational trauma of passing on the systems which oppress and marginalise ‘others’ like this: ableism, fatphobia, racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, etc. For example, there’s a huge investment in maintaining restrictive gender rules down the generations, despite it hurting both those who try to fit it and those who’re alienated by it. Many TV shows and books demonstrate the damage this does to people in general, and many statistics point to the appalling suicide rates of gender ‘non-conforming’ kids. However people still respond to attempts to loosen the rigid gender system in schools and families with cries that it constitutes ‘child abuse’ and ‘social engineering’ and goes against science (it doesn’t).
Look beneath the surface of It and it’s pretty clear that the roots of the intergenerational trauma that run through Derry lie in settler colonialism, structural racism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity. Each time It awakes, it simply whips up the human forms of hatred and fear that are most prevalent at the time. Thus the disappearance of the first white inhabitants of Derry is blamed on indigenous people. In the 1930s the Black Spot nightclub is burnt down in a racist attack by white supremacists. In the novel, the homophobia of the AIDS crisis is the form of hatred and fear that It particularly draws on during the 1980s.
It’s trying to divide us
The moment in the film which brought me to tears was the point where the kids fought over whether they were going to face Pennywise or not. Bill wanted them to follow him to confront It but many of the others were too scared, blaming Bill for the danger they’d already been placed in. Then one of them said ‘It’s trying to divide us. That’s what It wants.’
Replace ‘It’ in this sentence with any or all of the systems of power and oppression that I just listed and that statement is a punch in the gut. Over the last month I’ve seen LGBT+ activists burnt out by battles with each other, feminists physically attacking each other over divisions between them, a black woman fired for describing the realities of living under structural racism. Meanwhile… Well I don’t really need to recap what’s been happening meanwhile, suffice to say that capitalist, colonialist, white supremacist hetero-patriarchy (or whatever you want to call it) seems relatively un-dented.
Facing our demons together
So what does It teach us that we need to do if we want an end to this intergenerational trauma? We need to stop hiding behind bogeymen and actually face our demons.
We need to recognise what happened to us growing up and the impact that had instead of conveniently forgetting, denying, or glossing over it. We need to acknowledge the systems, structures, and dynamics that hurt us – and those around us – and commit to not simply reproducing them for the next generation.
We need to look at the demons we inevitably have inside ourselves as a result of being part of these systems and structures. We need to face the damage that we – and the systems we’re implicated in – have done, and commit to start doing things differently. It’s terrifying work for sure, but the alternative is that we continue to be the monster. Pennywise is just our own reflection in the mirror.
The other message of It is that we can’t do it alone. It’s too much. It’s impossible. We have to band together despite our differences. We have to resist the tendency to divide into ‘us’ and ‘them’, shunning ‘them’ until there’s only ourselves left, alone and exposed.
We need to recognise that this ancient evil hurts us all and that we’re all implicated in it. And then we need to band together with all the other losers and get down into those sewers to face it. Are you with me?
Find out more:
- Here’s Stephen King writing about why he thinks we crave horror movies.
- I’ll be writing so much more about this kind of thing in my long-term book project Everyday Horrors (a mash-up of fic, memoir, and self-help). There’s another post that links to that project here.