With the release of the It reboot—the Stephen King story about a murderous clown on a rampage—we are once again confronting our biggest fears: circus performers, the 1980s, and what happens when one of those things begins eating children.
Which shouldn’t be as comforting a premise as it is. The story may end with the promise “PENNYWISE LIVES” (spoiler alert: you’ve had over 30 years to get there), but the clown is still contained to Stephen King’s narrative. And in the midst of a year that refuses to follow one, the rules of horror are a blessed reprieve.
When it comes to our nightmares-turned-movies, there’s a subgenre for everyone. The Shining explores the psychological effects of extreme isolation and how it can morph man into monster. Franchises like Scream and Halloween challenge the rules of slasher films by giving its female leads more than just creative ways of getting killed. And It purposes a villain who uses the guise of innocence to lure his victims. (Similar to real-life killer John Wayne Gacy, who also sometimes dressed up as a clown.)
But the thing is, regardless of horror sect, what’s bad is contained. A villain may be resurrected or they may disappear (alluding to a continued existence through sequels), but they still live only within a particular story. Which means that once the credits roll, you’re free. And you are also usually reminded that everything could, in theory, be worse.
Which is a valuable coping mechanism. While we know that serial killers walk among us and that there are no definitives in terms of paranormal (shout-out to anyone else who believes in ghosts), most horror films hinge on premises that sensationalize real life. In It, Pennywise isn’t the guy next door who dresses up as a clown as part of a murderous M.O., he is a literal monster; a fanged-toothed creature who feeds on people and is everywhere, nowhere, and all places in-between. And that follows in the steps of characters like Jack in The Shining: he is a man with connections to a past life and the spirits that existed there. There’s a break between Jack’s realities, bridged by the energy collected at The Stanley Hotel. What we see in The Shining or It can only ever happen in those worlds.
So we get to project the rest. As adults who grew up under the umbrella of It, we know that for the two hours we’re watching the movie, we’re in charge of our reactions. We can lose our shit upon the appearance of Pennywise or bury our heads in our jackets when it gets too gory. Or we can spend the entirety of the film curled up in a ball, riding the wave of adrenaline. Ultimately, we can act and react in a way we can’t in real life because the movie is a safe outlet for our most extreme feelings. So we emerge from it a little less charged.
And an escape like that is valuable. Using a movie to diffuse our emotions can prevent us from melting down elsewhere or burning out after pushing down the fear, anxiety, anger and sadness that’s been even more prevalent this year thanks to President Trump, recent natural disasters, and the fact that it feels like we’re all inching closer and closer to our certain doom. It isn’t a long-term solution, nor one that can replace therapy, conversation, discourse or action. But it is a life raft; it is a window in which the most pressing matter is the presence of a monster-clown played by a very handsome actor.
At least that’s what I’ve found horror movies to be: a coping mechanism. By losing myself in a controlled world where everything is terrible, I can exist in a headspace that I avoid day-to-day. I allow myself be vulnerable by opening up to the fact that I’ll be audibly scared in a room full of people. I direct my day-to-day anxiety towards the characters I’m watching maneuver through their storylines. I exist in a state of readiness, prepared to face whatever’s set to rear its head. And then the lights come on, the story’s over, and I go home, ever-so-slightly better equipped to cope with the real horrors of the day.