Though problematic and overly long, Stephen King’s “IT” stands the test of time thanks to its compelling villain and powerful protagonists.
The first time I saw Pennywise, the evil clown from Stephen King’s IT that ate children, I was about 9 or 10; Tim Curry leered from the screen, and I was fascinated. Clowns, after all, are feared by people who have coulrophobia. My sister never liked clowns or anything with painted faces because she said you couldn’t see their true faces. I never felt that way, but Pennywise made me aware of why others might have those fears.
I became interested in the villainous character through the mini-series, then again in the 2017 remake; right before, I finally read the gigantic 1000+ page tome that is IT to discover more about this terrifying creature.
Summary with Spoilers
We open on a rainy day in the 50s from Derry, Maine, centering around young Bill Denbrough’s trauma: his young brother, Georgie, was murdered by a clown in the sewer that he met that called itself Pennywise who wanted to eat him, tearing off his arm.
Bill Denbrough, Eddie Kaspbrak, Richie Tozier, Stan Uris, Beverly Marsh, Ben Hanscom, and Mike Hanlon form a club: The Losers Club. They band together after circumstances push them all together, as well as the bullying of them all by Henry Bowers (the local racist bully) and his horde of sycophants.
IT begins his assault on The Losers Club before they’re together, one by one, terrifying them by showing them their worst nightmares come to life.
Eventually, the children share their experiences with each other and come to the same realization: this is some entity inherently attached to the fabric of Derry. IT kills people but mostly kids to eat and is responsible for the booming continued wealth of Derry (to be able to feed, IT provides amply to the people of Derry so they’ll produce more children) and also, the worst disasters that kill many.
The kids do a Native American ritual called the Ritual of Chüd with smoke and have a vision of IT crash-landing on Earth, an alien creature from a distant place. They track IT’s movements through history — his rebranding of himself as Bob Gray and Pennywise the Dancing Clown to lure children.
After horrific feedings and disasters, IT retreats into a 27-year-long sleep and then awakens to begin his flesh-hungry rampage once more.
The Losers Club did some damage to IT in the 50s as children with some silver slugs they made. They also do the Ritual of Chüd to face IT in the alternate dimension where it originated, called the Macroverse.
IT is the antithesis of a turtle named Maturin in the Macroverse (this turtle created the universe). The kids learn through Bill, who performed the ritual that IT can be defeated in a battle of wills in IT’s true form, which is a kind of spider-like creature that has lights (called the Deadlights) on it that can drive a human mind insane if they see it.
Henry Bowers had gone after them with his cronies, resulting in his friends being killed by IT, and Henry wanders around the sewers until he’s found. He’s charged and institutionalized for all the child murders in Derry and spends the next 27 years in Juniper Hill, the local asylum.
The Losers Club makes it out of the sewer and swears a blood oath to return if IT isn’t truly dead.
Mike Hanlon, the only one to stay in Derry, contacts everyone in the 80s when he’s sure that IT has awoken again and is killing children once more.
Stan Uris, upon hearing this, commits suicide rather than face IT again. Everyone else in the club shows up, hazy on their memories, with bits and pieces coming back.
IT brings Henry Bowers back to Derry by breaking him out of Juniper Hill so Bowers can attack the Losers Club. Bowers wounds Mike badly and is killed during an altercation with Eddie, who is also wounded. Audra, Bill’s wife, is captured by IT, and Beverly’s husband dies of shock after also being captured by IT; both captives are shown the Deadlights.
The remaining Losers find IT, realize IT is female, and she has laid eggs. Bill is able to finally kill IT by attacking IT’s heart, and Ben destroys the eggs, but Eddie dies from having his arm ripped off.
A horrible storm comes through Derry and destroys much of it; the prosperity and protection (as a breeding ground) IT offered is now gone. The remaining members of the Losers Club also drift away from Derry, and their memories become hazy.
Ben (who had been in love with Beverly since childhood) and Beverly become a couple after their ordeal, leaving the town behind them.
Audra, catatonic after her brush with IT, only awakens after Bill takes her for a ride on his bike he called “Silver” as a boy.
Pennywise as an Icon of Terror
I love this idea of a quasi-extraterrestrial being from another universe crash-landing here, growing pregnant over the centuries, and hiding its identity behind a series of masks.
Pennywise doesn’t just kill you — he uses your worst fears against you. He is a shapeshifter, Fear Itself, and predatory towards the most defenseless humans, children, simply because their fear makes them taste better.
It has been theorized that all the Losers shine a little bit, which, if you’ve read The Shining, you understand as the phenomenon that some people (often kids, but adults, too) display psychic-related ability that makes them “shine” to dark creatures.
Pennywise, or IT as he’s often referred to in the book, seems to desire to scare children because their fear makes them tastier — something that in Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, is seen when children who shine are targeted because while dying, these special shiners emit a steam that feeds evil entities. After just reading The Shining, I can see that the Losers all shine in some way or another, but it is their togetherness, their belief as children that finally defeat IT.
Pennywise may be the antithesis of good from the beginning of time, but even he cannot stand up to the wonders children can imagine and love.
Pennywise is the ultimate villain because he is ancient, bloodthirsty, and cannot be stopped until the Losers Club comes together; it is all of their shine together plus their childhood, driven by the collective trauma they experienced from this evil creature.
Bill, their leader (affected arguably the most because of his brother’s murder), is fittingly the one who destroys Pennywise for good. The eggs were also exterminated, so Pennywise, with her many strangely male faces, died in the sewer, as did Derry once Pennywise was gone.
In exchange for farming young children for Pennywise to eat, Derry experienced only prosperity (though much sorrow with the terrible things that happened because of IT’s proximity).
Derry is largely washed away, now uncloaked by Pennywise’s evil. You can’t live near and benefit from evil without it having a price.
Besides being horrifically long for no apparent reason, IT also has another unfortunate legacy: an explicit sex scene involving children.
Stephen King, unfortunately, continues to defend this disgusting scene as being a loss of innocence, the way that children are no longer children once they have sex. While this is essentially true, there are much better ways to describe a loss of innocence than eleven-year-olds having sex in succession with the one girl in the group; this act also helps them all get out of the sewers.
Thankfully, no iteration of Pennywise media has included this scene because, in 2023, it is seen as traumatic for young actors and revolting for an audience to watch. There is also another scene where a kid performs a sexual act on another kid. Nobody asked for these kinds of scenes.
This book also suffers from ongoing issues in many of Stephen King’s books. In striving for realism for the time periods depicted, King used homophobic, racist, and pedophilic (or at least pedophilic-adjacent) language throughout. None of these terms used should be preserved, and they’ll forever be in print for generations to come.
Audiences, though rightfully dismayed at the literal volume of a book and the problematic content, continue to delight in Pennywise as a character and the Losers’ Club fight against him.
She is a menacing, horrible villain whose evil cannot be fully contemplated, putting on the mask of a clown to delight children so Pennywise can ultimately eat them. The coulrophobics are vindicated as each Pennywise iteration is more terrifying than the last regarding the creature’s representation in film.
In the book, Pennywise lives in our minds and feeds on our fears, and every time we see a red balloon, we’re reminded of that sinister clown with a painted face and razor-sharp teeth.