I first read the gargantuan Stephen King horror epic IT when I was a freshman in high school. At the time, I was fairly comfortable with myself and my ability to relate to those around me. In middle school, I had established a relatively stable core group of friends with whom I conversed on a daily basis. I could pretend that I was fitting in despite my inherent inclination towards isolation and taciturn contemplation. I had always experienced some trouble relating to other kids my own age, and had always gravitated towards conversing with my elders, whether it be my own parents and relatives, or the twenty-something after school counselors and camp advisors that selflessly empathized with my social awkwardness.
I had a few really close friends dating back to elementary school, but all of them drifted away by the time I entered high school as a freshman. All of them had moved to other school districts, though the geographic distance between us served to add further definition to an emotional divide that had already begun to develop. There were a few other people that I had met along the way and with whom I was on speaking terms, but my connections to them were often tenuous at best.
I don’t remember why I sought out IT specifically, but I viscerally remember reading it for the first time. Hunched over my desk in a study hall teeming with loud-mouthed adolescents, I remember finding some solace in tracing the lurid horror story that helped me escape my immediate environment. I was bullied directly and indirectly for not fitting in, and some of the monsters that roamed the halls served as metaphoric stand-ins for Henry Bowers and his posse of bruising oppressors.
I remember identifying immediately with Ben Hanscom. Like Ben, I was a romantic idealist carrying a few extra pounds who pined after a seemingly out-of-reach co-ed with a flair for free-spirited self-expression. Her ability to present herself to others in a manner entirely untethered from self-doubt and cynicism made her shine all the brighter. There was something special about her to me in the same way there was something special about Beverly Marsh to Ben, though each of us were no doubt blindsided by our respective inabilities to see very far beyond juvenile immaturity.
In IT, Pennywise the Dancing Clown enters into the narrative as a mystical personification of everything that most frightens and alienates young teens. Upon first reading the book, a lot of the metaphors flew over my head, but the realization that the killer clown from King’s novel was not really a literal monster was never lost on me. His ability to influence the thoughts and personal lives of the Losers Club in menacing and detrimental ways was a lesson that continues to reverberate well into adulthood.
When Andy Muschietti’s blockbuster adaptation of King’s novel saw release early this month, I returned to a childhood of horrors by way of the big screen that immediately sent me reeling over memories that continue to haunt and inform me to this day. Before I knew it, I was back in the shoes of Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), tactfully avoiding eye contact in the halls like Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), and helplessly aware of my bookish imperfections cinematically donned by Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher). I was also reminded of the ways in which I am the loner Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), the hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrack (Jack Dylan Grazer), the scholar Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), and the innocent Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis).
As Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård plays the part of the movie monster in IT with a relish that serves to mirror the Losers Club’s real world tormentors Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), Belch Huggins (Jake Sim), Victor Criss (Logan Thompson), and Patrick Hockstetter (Owen Teague). Together, it’s easy to defeat the fickle cruelty of any high school tormentor. Alone, a person like Bowers can easily take on the otherworldly dimensions of a primordial evil.
In my memory, there is only one bully that really stands out from the rest. The fact that he was a frequent tormentor in both middle and high school only served to build up the degree to which he became a menacing figure. His bullish persistence and tactless mockery thankfully amounted to little more than emotional abuse, but in my mind’s eye he could very easily have been a six foot clown with gnashing teeth, razor sharp claws, and demonic yellow eyes.
Returning to IT several years after the fact—both on the pages of my battered first edition, hardbound Stephen King novel, and Muschietti’s wildly imaginative feature length adaptation—has reminded me of the extent to which loneliness and abuse suffered in childhood never really goes away in adulthood. We’re still the scared kids we once were, even if we’ve managed to find some kind of peace and sense of self in the real world beyond the realm of secondary education.
I often wonder what happened to many of the people I went to high school with. I’m still in contact and friendly with a number of them, but in revisiting some of those relationships the sands of time have served to bury and heal a lot of the old wounds and scars that once burned with a scalding red heat that brought us together in the first place. As for my Beverly Marsh, I still hope to see her again someday, if only to tell her that I was always taken with her, and sincerely appreciated the kindness that she showed me during a time that was especially trying.
As for my Henry Bowers, he doesn’t scare me anymore. I doubt that he’d be holding any red balloons if I saw him today, and more likely than not I wouldn’t even recognize him. Removed from the temporal context of adolescence, and supplanted to the real world, we would meet as two adults with presumably little to nothing in common with one another, and no juvenile insecurities that would force any antagonistic collision to occur. And looking back on it all now, my Henry Bowers had his own horrors to endure at home where he had his own Pennywise to contend with in much the same way that the fictional character from King’s novel did.
Loneliness is something that continues to plague me. In rereading IT, I’m still struck by the degree to which Ben Hanscom’s personal plight mirrors my own. During the first section of King’s five part opus, there is a shudder that passes through me when I imagine the horror-stricken eyes of Ben as he downs a full beer stein’s worth of Wild Turkey before returning to Derry, Maine to put an end to an evil he thought he had dealt with some twenty-seven years before. The abuses suffered as a child cling to us all as adults, and IT continues to resonate across generations in its honest interrogation of that terrifying truth.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures