While praising the cast of Andy Muschietti’s 2017 adaptation of IT, A. O. Scott repeats a comment my friends keep saying about the film: it’s old horror hat gone wild. Scott, in his New York Times review, specifically argues that with the advent of CGI in modern horror films comes artistic repetition:
“Movie monsters resemble one another more and more, and movies of distinct genres feel increasingly trapped within the expected.”
Yet, beneath the expected jump scares, the uptick in gore-filled moments, and what some call the over-exposure of the titular monster, IT brings the horror mode under critique. Unlike Scott, I argue that Muschietti is engaging in a rather nuanced play on the stock elements of horror that so bothered reviewers. In short, that feeling of being “trapped within the expected” is exactly the intent of the overt and arguably overused horror in this adaptation. Muschietti’s film turns the conventional images of horror against the audience, forcing us to work through our own expectations operating within the genre. In this way, IT becomes more concerned with how horrific imagery can be used to hide and deflect from the reality it represents.
IT challenges us to view a confluence of collected atrocities hidden behind the façade of the clichéd image of a haunted house. Now, this is not to argue that the home is not often displayed as terrifying—a place of sanctuary is often turned into a place of struggle (Night of the Living Dead, Poltergeist, The Blair Witch Project, Hush, Don’t Breathe, Psycho to name a few). However, 29 Neibolt, far from being the literal well-spring of terror in the film, entraps the Losers and the viewers in the banal image of the haunted house—forcing us to return three different times to that same creepy property. Which should make us question the choice to take King’s original nondescript and abandoned home and morph it into a constructed cliché. And it is the innocence of the horror object—that ugly run-down, overused image of the house seemingly out of a Hawthorne tale—that implicates the viewers of modern horror; we are too concerned with the spectacle of horror and not the critique, or events it represents. In short: we, not the horror, are so trapped by our own expectations that we lose grasp of how horror helps us interpret and process real tragedy and atrocity.
To understand how the clichéd image challenges us, we must tease out what it means to dwell in a space. Dwelling, taken as a verb, theoretically implies self-creation—turning the physical space into a place that reinforces and manifests the image of the self. I go home to my small apartment to remind myself that, contrary to the difference I encounter in the world, I am, indeed, familiar to myself. If home is a place that helps the inhabitant construct who they are, then the traditional horrific home haunted by ghosts, witches, zombies, and murderous psychopaths is more concerned with a process of de-constructing that personhood, making the familiar terrifying and uncanny.
Yet it is this type of self-reinforcement that the exterior shots of 29 Neibolt encourage. In each shot, the house screams out from boarded windows and rusted “No Trespassing” signs, “You know me! You’ve seen me!” As horror fans we recognize the image, we remember it and expect the horror that follows. By recognizing the cliché, our status as scare-enthusiasts is reinforced—we dwell in horror and it is comfortable.
In the end, though, the film colors this comfort as a trap that deforms the actual horror operating in Derry. We place the racial injustice, the industrial accident at the ironworks, and the domestic terror of controlling families on hold as we eagerly wait for the encounter with the monster haunting the house.
So what does this mean in the context of horror audiences and this current adaptation? The old-hat horror that IT morphs into—Pennywise the clown, the leper, the monstrous painting, the phantasm of guilt surrounding a dead sibling—must be deconstructed, the mythological image needs to be challenged and in doing so, the spectator, the dweller, must alter their relationship to it. Muschietti’s adaptation, like Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, wants us to look beyond the presentation of the surface-level horror, forcing us to dig deep into the common symbols of terror. Doing so, IT presents us with the chance to see past cheap scares and interrogate the role fantastical horror plays at covering up the terror of the reality that inspires it.
Perhaps this is why this interpretation of King’s IT really establishes the myth of Derry (something that the nineties miniseries sorely lacked). We watch as twenty-seven-year-old layers stack up on top of each other like mythic palimpsests and get distorted by Pennywise’s tricks. And this is why those mythmaking scenes in Muschietti’s film are strongly played up—the repetition of the same page of Derry’s history, the same slide, being forced on the viewer again and again. We are being assaulted with the images of a past demanding to be read in the present.
Maybe I’m reading more than Muschietti deserves, but I can’t help remembering one of the most terrifying self-aware moments for me in the film. When Pennywise corners Eddie in the gang’s first assault on the home, he turns to Bill and mockingly asks: “This isn’t real enough for ya, Billy? I’m not real enough for you?”, challenging Bill’s assurance to Richie just moments before that everything in the home is a trick that is trying to shift attention away from solving the mystery of the events surrounding Derry.
As we take the viewpoint of Bill and Richie, we are faced with Pennywise interrogating us. Are those stock images of horror, the mythic and distorted terror, enough for us? Do we just accept the house, the blood in the sink, the hands crawling out from the butcher’s freezer, the headless ghost-boy as terrifying signifiers, or do we look past them to confront what they represent: the “crackhouse” left desolate, the sickness of a sordid father-daughter relationship, the burning down of an African American club house by white supremacists? Muschietti’s IT longs for us to no longer take comfort in the spectacle of horror, but to dig through to those social and environmental effects that help build that image. If we are comfortable in the horror, no longer scared but constantly trapped in our expectation, then the power for horror to help us interrogate our reality is lost.
Kyle Brett is a PhD student at Lehigh University studying 19th C. American fiction. He is also an avid horror fan, specifically Lovecraftian mythos and the American horror tradition. You can follow him on Twitter @burntcheerios.