“A Monstrous Sacrifice:” ‘IT’ as American Folk Horror
When the film adaptation of Stephen King’s IT was announced in 2012, the inevitable gnashing of teeth ensued in earnest, despite the fact that few fans would deny the inadequacies of 1990’s TV miniseries. Still, the same problem remained: How does one adapt a novel that spans decades, is told through multiple flashbacks by multiple characters, and covers more than 1100 pages of text?
Director Andy Muschietti, working from a script penned by Cary Fukunaga, Chase Palmer, and Gary Dauberman, acquitted himself beautifully with IT, a film which not only received considerable critical acclaim, but smashed through several box office records, becoming the highest-grossing R-rated horror movie ever.
IT is structured to appeal to those who have read King’s text as well as those who have not. Fans of the book will note that many of the touchstones of the novel show up as visual signifiers in the film. Bill Denbrough’s bike Silver and the Paul Bunyan statue make appearances, as do locations such as the Standpipe, Kitchener Ironworks, Freese’s Department Store, and The Tracker Brothers trucking company. They help infuse the movie with an authentic sense of place that is no less significant for their subtle placement within it.
In addition, the detailed geography of Derry---including the Kenduskeag River, the Canal, the Barrens, and that labyrinthine sewer system---have all been compressed to point towards one main locus of evil: the house on Neibolt Street, which contains the well leading to the sewers. This removes the clutter that would have resulted had the film tried to show the connections between every location King describes.
The movie streamlines the information with which the book provides its readers, resulting in a cinematic spectacle that is impressively lean and mean. From the close up shot of a sign outside the school that says “Remember the Curfew 7 p.m.” to a reconfiguration of Patrick Hockstetter’s refrigerator of torture into one from which Pennywise unspools himself, there is not a throwaway line or scene to be found.
That’s all well and good, some might say, but “Is IT scary?” To answer that, I will argue that not only is IT scary, but that it also deserves a place in the American Folk Horror canon.
Folk Horror is a term that recently resumed a place on the pop culture radar thanks to Robert Eggers’ 2015 film The VVitch, but may not be well understood by those outside of hardcore horror film fans. In an article on the Folk Horror Revival site called “From The Forests, Fields and Furrows,” writer Andy Paciorek establishes the timeline of the term itself, noting what he calls “the unholy trinity of Folk Horror cinema, namely, Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973).”
For those unfamiliar, this can be roughly generalized as “British movies of the late 1960s and ’70s that have a rural, earthy association to ancient European pagan and witchcraft traditions or folklore.” Yet Paicorek is quick to point out that Folk Horror can often “leave no universal defining mark of its exact form” and can stretch beyond the borders of not only Britain but also the timeline of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Writer and film historian Adam Scovell, who wrote Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (2017), uses four elements as a guideline to defining the genre: Landscape, Isolation, Skewed Moral Beliefs, and Happening/Summoning. All four of these elements are not only present in IT, but comprise the essence of both the novel and the film adaptation.
As Paciorek remarks, “Below the foundation of every town is ancient past.” The landscape of Derry, Maine is presented as integral to the evil that wreaks havoc on its residents. IT, frequently seen in the form of Pennywise, dwells underneath and within the town, intertwined with not only Derry’s residents but the sewer system which connects the different parts of Derry itself, lending easy association with what Paciorek calls “psychogeography: the hidden landscape of atmospheres, histories, actions and characters which charge environments.”
In fact, the wealth and success that the members of the Losers’ Club enjoy after leaving Derry is inextricably tied to the fact that they left Derry in the first place. “All I’ve ever gotten and all I have now is somehow due to what we did then, and you pay for what you get in this world,” says an adult Ben Hanscom in the book. “You pay for what you get, you own what you pay for . . . and sooner or later whatever you own comes back home to you.”
Although they are united in friendship as the Losers’ Club, the seven main characters in IT---Bill Denbrough, Richie Tozier, Ben Hanscomb, Eddie Kaspbrak, Stanley Uris, Mike Hanlon, and Beverly Marsh---only come together because of their isolation. The parents of these kids are either absent (Richie, Ben), outwardly abusive (Beverly, Eddie), withdrawn (Bill), or simply do not understand their children (Stanley). (More on Mike Hanlon later.) The children are further isolated by things beyond their control, like Bill’s stutter, Beverly’s reputation as a slut, Ben’s weight (and in the film, his status as “the new kid”), Stanley’s Jewish background, Richie’s nearsightedness and glasses, and Eddie’s tendency to sickliness.
Skewed Moral Beliefs
Derry is also the epitome of a town with a skewed moral beliefs system. As a Vice article on folk horror remarks, “Folk horror tests our moral compass. Do we look or run away?” The adults in Derry have made their choice: Whenever something terrible happens, they turn a blind eye. While the novel discusses this explicitly (“Many Derry residents affect not to remember what happened that day… or they will simply look you full in the face and lie to you”), the film exposes this quality visually in its opening segment. When Bill’s brother Georgie Denbrough is taken into the storm drain by Pennywise and subsequently disappears, a neighbor sees what happens, but just goes back into her house and closes the door.
Later, when Henry Bowers slashes Ben’s stomach with a switchblade, a couple in a passing car does not intervene. In an attempt to rally the other members of the Losers’ Club together to defeat Pennywise, Bill verbalizes this lack of moral compass: “Are you just going to pretend it isn’t happening like everyone else in this town?”
Paciorek also adds that “in a wider (and more potentially uncomfortable) context, Folk Horror has obvious potential to comment upon the darker character of nationalism and various other distressing aspects of our society.” In the movie, African-American character Mike Hanlon is posited as an outsider because he is homeschooled and recoils at the practice of slaughtering sheep on his grandfather’s farm. Some have criticized the film’s portrayal of Mike as a “magical Negro,” arguing that he is the most pivotal character in the group” and adds that “it is because of his black experience in a small, racist, white town that he has a connection to the history of violence in the area.”
In the novel, the Losers' Club is formed in the 1950s, before the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, so much of the racist violence that Mike and his family endure feels accurate to real-life history. It would be difficult to fit all of that history into a two-hour film. Furthermore, the movie transports the Losers' Club to the more relatable (and currently trending) time period of 1989, when racial relations in the US were quite different. It can be argued that if Mike were posited as an outsider merely because of his race, he could be viewed as the token black victim. Yet the film does not shy away from racial violence entirely.
The movie makes a subtle connection to The Black Spot, a place Richie describes as “a nightclub that was burned down years ago by that racist cult” and the death of Mike’s parents in a house fire, one that Henry Bowers wishes he started: “Your parents didn't stay out of Derry and look what happened to them.”
It isn’t just kids like Henry Bowers (or his cohort of bullies) who destroy lives; it’s also the entity which returns every 27 years, what Mike calls in the film “the evil thing that feeds off the people of Derry," acting through people like Henry Bowers. This ritual sacrifice is the kind of happening or summoning that denotes much of folk horror cinema. In both the novel and the film, this evil is manifested as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but also appears as the avatars of the things that scare the kids of the Losers’ Club the most: an aggressive leper, a creepy painting, a headless burn victim, a sink that vomits blood, scrabbling hands in a locked doorway of smoke and flames, and the zombiefied version of Bill’s missing brother Georgie.
The film does an outstanding job of bringing these personal, pointed threats to life with incredible special effects and elaborate set pieces. From Eddie's leper to Pennywise's mouthful of sharp teeth, there are scenes which are almost oppressively frightening and much more than simple jump scares. Sequences in which Pennywise erupts from a slide projector gone rogue or dances against a background of flames might not sound creepy on paper, yet they scenes that linger in the mind long after the film ends.
The Folk Horror website notes that “while many stories will initially imply that menacing forces are Satanic, the same forces are often found to pre-date established Christianity.” When Mike and Richie see visions of IT’s ancient origins in the smoke-hole, they realize that are dealing with something that goes well beyond what they previously understood. “I am eternal,” says IT at one point. “I am the Eater of Worlds.” This is visualized in the film when Beverly stares into IT’s gaping maw and see a kind of cosmic void, what is referred to in the novel as “the deadlights.”
One of the concerns about the film adaptation that many fans expressed was whether or not anyone could compete with Tim Curry’s terrifying portrayal of Pennywise in the TV movie, a performance that is iconic not only in the horror canon but also as part of Curry’s career of playing creepy antagonists.
As Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård brings a unique physicality to the role that goes beyond prosthetic makeup and CGI effects. His facial expressions and wandering eye are his own creations, as are many of his athletic and frightening movements. Muschietti had a specific vision of what he wanted the character to look like and the revised, almost Harlequin clown costume allows the audience to view Pennywise as a specific, singular evil apart from any previous attachment to Tim Curry.
In his essay, Paciorek notes that “Folk Horror movies arose when, to paraphrase a line from horror writer Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, ‘The ground became sour’.” Yet despite Pet Sematary’s obvious Folk Horror trappings, IT is the more appropriate example of the genre in King’s bibliography. Perhaps the popularity of this new cinematic adaptation will allow film critics and readers to view IT in a new, distinctly Folk Horror light.
IT was released on Blu-ray on January 9 from Warner Bros. In addition to several outstanding featurettes, the disc also includes eleven deleted scenes.