I was about twelve years old when I first read It. As a kid I did not do well with scary stories (I had to be taken out of Men In Black twice in theatres before I could sit through the whole movie) so I’m not sure why I decided a story about a child-murdering space clown would be something I’d be into, but for whatever reason, my curiosity was piqued. In the subsequent decade or so, I’ve lined my bookshelves with a substantial portion of Stephen King’s prolific work, but none of his villains are as iconic or as memorable as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
Pennywise is probably Stephen King’s most famous monster and his visage, embodied by Tim Curry in a made-for-TV movie adaptation, is also one of the most recognizable clowns in pop culture. This probably comes down to the sheer fact that, as an entity, It really only exists to haunt and brutally murder children. As a supernatural being from another dimension, it resides below the town of Derry, Maine, and awakens every 30 years to feast. In It, a group of kids hunted by the monster spend most of their lives in a desperate fight against fear itself.
At face value, the eponymous monster is scary because it takes advantage of your deepest fears. It knows exactly what makes you shudder and it manifests itself into it, whether to control you, terrify you, drive you insane or just because it thinks kids taste better when they’re scared. Throughout the story It transforms into a werewolf, a leper and an entire reservoir of drowned corpses, in addition to a handful of other custom-tailored gruesome creatures designed specifically for each of its victims. There is a moment late in It when the reader learns that Pennywise is an evil so foreign to our world that its true appearance can’t be processed by the human brain. The characters perceive It as a hulking, spider-like creature, but that’s only the closest approximation they can understand. There’s something so perfectly Lovecraftian about that idea. It also serves as an appropriate endpoint; You constantly feel its presence below the town of Derry, just out of view. If it were to be revealed as anything tangible or concrete, it would take so much away from its ethereal oppression over the town’s residents.
But despite all this, the creepiest form of all is that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. As Pennywise It entices children with his floating balloons. He taunts and insults the Losers’ Club when they return to Derry, flaunting his murders and flashing his teeth. And of all the scares in the entire book, to this day I still shiver when I picture one scene where he stands knee-deep in water staring and smiling at one of the kids. That is why Pennywise is the mascot of the story – he isn’t some subjective horror that can be rationalized away. Adults can see and walk right by the jaunty painted clown while he points and sneers at his next victim.
I don’t know if there ever was a time when clowns were not terrifying, but if Pennywise didn’t start it he certainly does a lot to reinforce the notion. I have read It more times than I can count now, and while I think the 1990 TV movie is so dated and corny it’s almost laughable, even it can’t quite wipe away some of the genuine creepiness of the book. But maybe scariest of this whole story? Supposedly Pennywise’s big red wig was Tim Curry’s real hair.
Check out the other characters on the Countdown HERE.