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Fighting or Feeding Your Demons? It and Facing up ...

Fighting or Feeding Your Demons? It and Facing up to Historical and Intergenerational Trauma

Last night I saw the sequel to It and obviously I have many many thoughts and feelings. You don’t have be familiar with the film or book to read this post because I’m going to use it to make more general points about what to do with our demons: specifically whether fighting them or feeding them is a better idea, and how this links to the themes of historical and intergenerational trauma.

I will be talking about the ending of the film though so have a spoiler alert for that up front. TLDR: It’s better than the giant spider in the book, but not much. However at least there was an ongoing joke though the movie about horror authors who write bad endings.

Historical and Intergenerational Trauma

When I saw the first movie of this Stephen King story I wrote this post about intergenerational trauma because the film did such an excellent job of demonstrating how we pass trauma down through the generations. While I enjoyed the sequel immensely I feel like it lost the powerful message of the first movie, as well as missing an obvious opportunity to say something helpful about how we can face demons and prevent these patterns from repeating themselves.

To recap on my first blog post, the story of the first It movie links historical and intergenerational trauma and demonstrates how these things will just continue down the generations if we don’t address them. The first film focuses on the children facing It – in the form of Pennywise the clown – in the small town of Derry 27 years ago.

In terms of historical trauma there’s a sense that the monster in It came into being around the time of settler colonialism and the genocide of indigenous Americans. In that way It can be seen as a reflection of human evil: holding up a mirror to the violence we do to each other, to other species, and to the land. The monster in It reappears every 27 years and the horrors it perpetrates relate to the human evils that are present at the time. So we see It whipping up racism and white supremacy in the 1930s and homophobic hate crimes in the latest incarnation. There are also scenes relating to violent patriarchal treatment – and sexual and physical abuse – of women. In this way there’s a clear message that historical trauma unfaced will just find new forms and continue. Some bodies and lives will always be valued less than others, subject to oppression and violence. We can see this vividly at the moment in the way that the current trans moral panic echoes the 1980s moral panic against gay men.

In relation to intergenerational trauma, each time It comes back it preys on children, and each time the parents are oblivious to what is happening. In the first movie this is clearly related to the way each generation of parents perpetuate the traumas that happened to them on their own kids: from ignoring school bullying, to physically punishing their kids, to emotional neglect, to over-protectiveness and controlling behaviour, to the sexual abuse of a bereaved father. The message is that if we don’t look at what happened to us – and do our work around it – then we won’t see what’s happening to the next generation. Even worse we may well go from victim to perpetrator: acting out the same abuses ourselves.

Confronting our Demons

In the second movie the kids who battled It in the first film are all grown up. It returns to Derry and they are called back to face it again in the hope of eradicating it entirely this time, rather than just sending it away for another 27 years.

There’s a huge potential in this film, then, to address the question of how we – as adults – might acknowledge historical and intergenerational trauma and their impact. What ways might there be to put a halt to these recurring patterns rather than continuing to act out the very violences that were done to us? The metaphor of the demon who keeps returning presents a powerful opportunity to address what we might do with our own personal and cultural demons.

What the movie does do well is to be clear that we have to go back. Choosing not to engage with the past – and to pretend the pain of the present is not happening – simply isn’t an option. Others will be hurt and – in the end – we will also be hurt a lot more than if we did face our fears. Choosing not to engage is choosing a kind of death, or at least a life of remaining asleep rather than waking up to reality and doing something about it.

The adults in the movie all have to revisit the most frightening moments of their pasts as the first step towards battling Pennywise. Again this is a great message. Unless we can fully face – and feel – the impact of these traumas upon us then we can’t acknowledge how they’ve shaped us: the survival strategies and habits they’ve left us with. Without that understanding we won’t be able to shift those patterns and we’ll simply be doomed to repeat them: hurting ourselves and others in the process.

My sister also pointed out that the movie has a smart metaphor for the mechanisms that often prevent us from facing the past and its impact on the present. The characters have all forgotten the details of what happened to them in childhood. We could see this as a metaphor for the kind of cultural and familial gaslighting which many of us experience: a strong message that it isn’t acceptable to question the power dynamics in play or their impact; that we must protect the status quo, and other people from the painful truths of the situation.

The forgetting, dissociation and confusion experienced by the characters is reminiscent of the impact of receiving that strong cultural/family message that it isn’t safe to question, and that if anybody is suffering due to social structures or family dynamics then it must be their individual fault and responsibility, not a flaw in the society or system. Hence we see Bill blaming himself for Georgie’s death, and other characters being held – and holding themselves – responsible for the bullying and abuse they received.

The Demons within Us

However, where the second film falls down – in my opinion – is that it never gets the other piece of the equation. We see how the adults have to revisit their childhood traumas and look after the victim/survivor sides of themselves back then, acknowledging the impact that it had on them. But the adults in It are all presented is pretty good people, maybe a little flawed. We never get the sense of how they – as adults – have become the generation who are now doing the damage. This was clear in the adults in the first movie, but not in the second.

Also, in the second movie, we learn that It was some kind of alien monster which arrived from another planet to wreak havoc on humans. To me this takes away from the sense of It being something caused by human evil and reflecting it back to us. 

The film quickly becomes a battle between the good guys (our group of loser kids all-grown-up) and the bad guy (Pennywise). All they have to do is to face it and beat it and then all the intergenerational and historical trauma just goes away.

Fighting Our Demons

From this simple good vs. bad perspective the end of the film makes sense. The group confront Pennywise and they fight it using the Ritual of Chüd: an indigenous American ritual which Mike says was used to banish It before (the stereotypical depictions of indigenous Americans, and Black people, in Stephen King books and movies is an issue here, of course). When this doesn’t work entirely they come up with their own plan which is to shrink it down to size by making it feel small: shaming it and denying It any power by showing how they’re not scared of it. Once it has shrunk they can destroy it.

I think this gives a terrible message. It suggests that we can fight our outer or inner demons and just eradicate them. There’s no sense that the characters have to acknowledge humanity’s own role in creating this ancient evil and the damage it’s continuing to do. Nor do they have to acknowledge the demonic within themselves: their own potential for hurting others through their unacknowledged patterns and habits.

Finally – as my friend Anita who I saw the movie with pointed out – the way the Losers fight the demon is to use the very tactics that were used against them: bullying and shaming. This reminded me of this famous Audre Lorde quote :

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.

It seems to me that exactly what the group does here is to use the master’s tools: the abuse, shame, bullying, and violence that were enacted against them, and that have been enacted against oppressed groups historically. In a way it would’ve worked well if they’d used this tactic at the end of the first movie, meaning that It inevitably came back and they had to find another tactic. But the message that this is the tactic that actually worked is a terrible one. They never do have to ‘reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside themselves and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there’. They never have to acknowledge their involvement in historical and intergenerational trauma. They never really have to face their demons.

Feeding Our Demons

I found it fascinating that the ritual in It was called the Ritual of Chüd because it is such a similar name to a Tibetan Buddhist ritual which I’ve been adapting in recent years as part of my own work: Chöd practice, or feeding your demons. Intriguingly, Chöd practice explicitly offers an alternative to fighting – or using the master’s tools – which is perhaps a better way of addressing our cultural and personal demons.

Briefly what you do in Chöd practice is the following:

  • Locate your demon: Tune into whatever you’re feeling, find it in your body, and visualise it.
  • Visualise your demon: Take this visualisation and imagine it as a demon sitting in front of you.
  • Ask your demon: What do you want? What do you need? How will you feel if you get what you need?
  • Embody your demon: Move across to take the position of the demon, feel how it feels, answer the questions as the demon.
  • Feed the demon: Return to your position, imagine yourself dissolving into some kind of nectar – or food – which gives the demon what it needs.
  • Welcome the ally: Observe what happens to the demon. There’s a sense that – on getting what it needs – it may well become an ally to help you instead of the demon that was making things so hard for you.

So I remember one time I did this ritual I felt this horrible tight clenched feeling in my chest. When I felt into it I visualised it as old rusty metal all around my heart. When I turned it into a demon it became a terrifying huge transformer-type robot in front of me with fire burning deep in its dark eyes and massive mouth. When I inhabited it, it felt exhausted and in constant pain. I asked it the questions and the answers were that it wanted to destroy me, that it needed rest because it was so ancient and tired, and that it would feel huge relief if it got that. I imagined dissolving into lubricating oil finally easing the rusted metal. It eventually all collapsed (rather like the house at the end of It) and in its place was a pool (again rather like the lake at the end of It) and some kind of being made of water emerged:  a sense of cool, calm and fluid in the place of hot, tense and brittle.

There’s a sense from this practice that our demons are the kinds of survival strategies we developed as kids. Over time they have become harmful to ourselves and others, but if we can face them and listen to them, they can morph into allies. In this way the practice is similar to embracing our inner critics, something I plan to write about here in more depth soon and touch on in my Plural Selves zine

In the example I gave, I read this as the demon being the survival strategy of armouring over my feelings to protect myself, but there was the sense that this strategy got in the way of intimacy with myself and others, leaving me brittle and controlling in ways that risked damaging – or even destroying – myself and my relationships. The practice suggested an alternative pattern of loosening, or dismantling, the armour over time: becoming more vulnerable and fluid.

It: The Alternative Ending

So how would It have ended if the group had applied Chöd practice instead of the Ritual of Chüd: If they had fed the demon instead of fighting it?

What does It want?

It’s very clear that It wants to frighten people, that it feeds on fear.

What does It need?

But what does It actually need underneath that desire for fear? Again the answer is pretty clear in the film. Several times It – in the form of Pennywise the clown – speaks of being unseen and lonely. It tells a small child that nobody will look it in the face and expresses distress at this. If we remember that It is holding up a mirror to human evil then this makes all kinds of sense. What it wants – from creating all this fear – is for the people of Derry to look at what it’s showing them. Each time they refuse to look this hurts it terribly and it has to retreat into itself, alone, for another 27 years in the hope that the next generation might finally see.

It’s clear that the monster wants the Losers to return to Derry. It goes to great lengths to bring them back, and to scare them – without actually killing them – as children and adults. You could read this as it trying desperately, repeatedly, to get its message across. But even when kids are disappearing and bodies are turning up, nobody pays any attention.

So an alternative to fighting the demon would be for the group to finally turn towards it, looking at it directly (instead of trying never to meet its eyes), and listening to what It has to teach them. This would involve recognising the historical traumas which we’re all implicated in which just continue – and morph into new forms – through each generation instead of ever going away (colonialism, white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, disaster capitalism, ecological crisis, etc.) 

This would also involve the group seeing the perpetrators (or demons) in themselves as well as the victims/survivors. They would need to face up to their own capacity for evil and abuse, as well as being the victims of it. This would involve recognising that the only way not to reenact these abuses and traumas is to acknowledge them, and the strategies they left them with, and to continually work on shifting their patterns.

How would It feel if It got what It needed?

I would love to see an ending to the film where Pennywise could finally morph into an ally. When we face our demons and learn to work with them, instead of battling them, they can stop attacking us so violently in order to get their message across. If the group listened to Pennywise perhaps it would not have to keep retreating for 27 years and returning to cause chaos and agony. Instead perhaps it could rest, safe in the knowledge that this group would do the work of waking up Derry – and beyond – to historical and intergenerational trauma. Or perhaps it could remain within each member of the group as an ally they could keep returning to and talking with.

Interestingly there is a sense of this at the end of another horror movie, The Babadook. In this film the main characters quit trying to fight the demon – who represents grief – and instead make it a home in their cellar and feed it and care for it. They recognise that this demon will always be with them, and only by acknowledging it and looking after it can they stop hurting themselves and each other.

Of course when the first It movie came out, social media decided to ship Pennywise the clown with The Babadook to great effect, so perhaps on some level we all knew that this was the ending we needed.

Pennywise and the Babadook

I can’t think of a better way to end this post than the way I ended the last one on this topic. We need to recognise that the ancient evil hurts us all and that we’re all implicated in it. We need to band together with all the other losers and get down into the sewers to face it. Are you with me?


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. Ben

    15 September

    I love the idea of It being an allegory for intergenerational trauma! There are some things that I disagree with here though, and I’m now going to give my completely unasked-for opinion, because the internet, if that’s ok. Firstly, I actually think the way the losers kill It in this movie is not just bullying and shaming, but a nice metaphor for how when we do face our fears, they are never as bad as they seem when we are running away from them. They can take away some of It’s power by taking a new perspective on him – he’s ‘just’ a clown, or an old lady, or whatever. I think that’s similar to how our traumas can be horrible, sure, but they are always going to seem more horrible when we refuse to acknowledge how horrible they are! Secondly, I actually don’t think the It monster is lonely or cares at all about the humans facing their demons in the story. While this would allow for It to be a more accurate allegory for intergenerational trauma, I think, for the sake of story-telling, It is just a purely evil monster who only says he’s lonely if it helps him lure a child to her death. While this of course doesn’t reflect the grey areas of human morality, the alternative might be for It to be revealed to literally be an embodiment of human prejudice or something, which I think would be a little on the nose possibly? I think even if It is a black-and-white evil monster, the audience can make connections to what kind of metaphors and parallels the movie holds with real life, and reflect on trauma, in spite of the fact that he isn’t written with much nuance. I think It kind of has to be just an evil monster because it makes the most sense in the world of the movie and the story, even if it does reduce it’s potential for showing the human side of intergenerational trauma and oppression and the ways we are implicated in it like you’ve talked about. I might be biased though since I actually like the ending of It and the fact that he’s a space monster, but maybe I’m in the minority there! Anyway, just my two cents. Love this piece plus the previous one on It!

    • Meg-John Barker

      16 September

      Thanks for engaging with this Ben – the unasked for opinion is much appreciated 🙂 I like your reading of this too. I love the idea of taking away the power of the bully, and that message that facing traumas may not be as bad as we imagine – we will survive it and be better for it. Also there’s something soothing to me about there being a big bad who can be vanquished – and perhaps the message is strong enough with them returning to their pasts in order to do that. I do enjoy the book and movies a lot as they stand, and it was interesting for me to play a bit more with the idea of how we might treat our demons. Perhaps it’s about holding multiple possible readings of these kinds of powerful stories. So glad you enjoyed the posts.

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