What makes Stephen King’s ‘IT’ scary?

Why is 'It' so infamous? What makes it truly terrifying? Mat looks at King's famous text, read on... if you dare!

In 1957, 5-year-old Georgie Denbrough looks for his paper boat that has fallen inside of a storm drain in a street in the town of Derry, Maine. Inside the dark, he is faced with a pair of shining yellow eyes, a face covered in circus makeup, one hand holding a balloon, the other: the paper boat. Little did Georgie, or any of the other kids know, that Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the man behind the kind smile and the arsenal of jokes, was something much darker, and much more frightening than just an unusual stranger…

Georgie was taken on that rainy day. His arm ripped clean off. And thus we, the readers, are immediately hooked into the horror spectacle that is Stephen King´s It.

The basic premise of It revolves around the town of Derry itself. For some unknown reason, every 27 years an evil destructive force arrives and ruthlessly murders Derry’s children. King utilizes two time narratives to tackle the plot: the first from 1957, when Bill Denbrough and his Losers´ Club of friends unite to fight the thing that attacked his little brother. The second from 1984, when the now adult members of the Club, grown apart with time, have to return to the cursed town to battle the return of this monstrosity.

“´It´ is a physical, unforgiving embodiment of fear and hurt”

King uses the scope of the book much more as a character analysis, and we grow extremely attached to each of the protagonists, following their own individual struggles and fears. These are all reflected in how ´It´ affects them. It is this literary choice that allows King to have created one of the scariest and most unsettling antagonists of any book ever written.

´It´ is a physical, unforgiving embodiment of fear and hurt. The most notorious shape it takes (as seen heavily in the movie adaptation) is of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Pennywise lures and torments the characters of the story throughout, his hysterical mannerisms and over-the-top friendly nature marred by the horrifying content of his rhetoric and true intent. The juxtaposition of this symbol of fun-loving freedom and its murderous lunacy is chilling to read.

However, this is just one of ´Its´ forms. The reader is kept on the edge of their seat, unsure what evil they will be exposed to next.

“The only complete faith the characters have in the book is in each other”

For Mike, whose family has experienced a history of racism, ´It´ can take the form of a giant bird, menacing as it reflects the tales of arson and torture of his ancestors in rural America, engulfed by the giant wings of a fire. For Beverly, it embodies her abusive father, and any source of help from her suffering becomes questioned for it might be linked to this evil. For Eddie, raised as a hypochondriac by his over-protective mother, it takes form of a perverted leper, forever trying to take hold of him.

The only complete faith the characters have in the book is in each other. It is through this narrative choice that King paints the picture of Derry and the adult world as the true antagonist of the book, with its surreal occurrences and oblivious bystanders.

What King constructs is an evil force that is so unpredictable that it never becomes familiar or expected. There´s a lot the reader doesn’t know about whilst reading this book. What is ´It´? Why is it attacking these people? The true fear from the book comes in these unknowns.

By leaving us in the dark, King is treating us like the kids in the book, and we can reflect back on the confusion and terrors within our own childhood. Though often harkened back to as ´a simpler time´, childhood, as the book explores, came with its own unique list of challenges. In the small and somewhat mundane world of being a kid, imagination takes hold as the key to adventure, an escape from our worries and our fears of being young, dependent, and lost in this world.

“The true fear from the book comes in these unknowns”

King exploits this to create the ultimate horror antagonist in It: a force which blurs our lines of reality and fantasy, blending the pain of the real world with the twisted exaggeration of its nightmarish twin. ‘It’ returns for the characters during adulthood, for the connections and experiences we make in our tender ages define aspects of our character and journey for life.

Now, I´m not trying to sell Stephen King´s It off as a purely emotional tale of childhood and growing up, because that wouldn´t be right. There is real death in the book, real suffering, real torment, and it can be overwhelming to read at several disturbing points.

What I am trying to do is note that the reason It is considered one of the scariest books ever written is not because of a scary clown, but because King manages to capture fear into words better than anyone seems to. Not only this, but the book explores the inextricable link between this fear, growing up, and the eternal unknown.

You don´t know what ´It´ is, you don´t know what ´It´ wants, but you know it won’t leave until it has you. And you won’t be able to put the book down for a moment, because there has never been and will never be a character, a being, a force, quite as terrifying as Stephen King’s ´It´.

Mateus de Sá

Featured image and article images courtesy of New Line Cinema via IMDb.

Image use licence here.

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