Stephen King’s IT Explores Trauma in Terrifying Ways
Stephen King's It is known mostly by those who have passing familiarity with the iconic devilish clown, portrayed in the television mini-series by Tim Curry. But the book itself (which weighs in at 1,138 pages) is a wonderful, detailed piece of fiction. It's the tale of a group of seven childhood friends and the traumatic experience they share when they face an enigmatic and fearsome entity. That experience bonds them together, and calls them back home 27 years later when the evil force known to them as It resurfaces, threatening to begin its ugly feeding cycle all over again. Those friends, called back to the small town of Derry, Maine by librarian and friend Mike Hanlon, are compelled to keep the promise they made as children -- if It ever returns, so will they, and they will defeat It once and for all.
It features heavy thematic layers about trauma -- particularly shared trauma -- and not only coping with, but overcoming and fighting oppressive forces that seek to weaken, destroy and devour us. The book is littered with metaphors regarding the cyclical and cathartic nature of our lives -- young Eddie, for instance, lives with an obese, single mother who insists that he's sick to make her child forever dependent upon her so she never has to be alone. As a grown-up, Eddie still takes his asthma "medicine" even though he knows it's fake, and marries an obese woman who similarly mothers and manipulates him. His friend, Beverly, was raised by an abusive father, and as an adult she marries a violent, controlling man -- a man who also endured physical abuse at the hands of his own mother. Cycles repeat, but they are in some ways therapeutic to an extent. For these kids, they crave the comfort of the familiar, even if the familiar is almost too painful to bear. The thing about abuse, whether it's from an overbearing mother like Eddie's or a violent father like Beverly's, is that the abuser creates an environment in which this is the only life they know -- it may not feel good, but repetition breeds familiarity; abuse instills paralyzing fear. The abuse becomes a form of comfort, especially when the abuser is a parent, someone whom these kids implicitly understand to love them unconditionally. There would be no hurt if not for love.
Each of these seven kids has known some form of struggle -- from Stan's obsession with cleanliness and the way he's mocked for being Jewish, to Bill's stutter and Richie's general awkward nerdiness. Mike is black in a small, 1950s town full of white people, Ben is overweight and encouraged by his blue collar single mother to clean his plate, lest all her hard work be for naught. And perhaps it's because they're already experts at coping that they're able to cope with this insatiable monster that feeds on children.
It itself preys on imagination, and who has a better capacity for creative thinking than a child, unencumbered by the realities of checkbooks and the monotony of adulthood? Its modus operandi is sort of Freudian in nature, and I refer back to Freud's essay on "The Uncanny," which I referenced in my piece on Only God Forgives -- in that essay, Freud posited that that which is most familiar to us is most terrifying. And so It functions not as a corridor into terror, but as a mirror, reflecting back at the children what is most terrifying to them. He most often appears as Pennywise the circus clown, his face smeared with grease paint, offering balloons to witless children. Freud also discussed in that essay the idea that the uncanny, while incredibly familiar in appearance, features something that's not quite right. That je ne sais quois, implacable quality; the kind of thing that's just on the tip of your mind's tongue. It's not until closer examination that the true horror reveals itself. Other times, It appears as something as basically fearsome as a werewolf, a leper, or the voices and faces of those It's killed -- It peers into your mind and plucks out these kids' most common fears, and it's the stuff that you're afraid of that you familiarize yourself with the most. You might say you're scared of vampires, but you've probably seen at least a dozen vampire films. That which scares us is also remarkably alluring; and so even with the way It presents itself to the kids, we can understand why Beverly would marry someone like her father.
There's a moment about halfway through the novel, when Stan sort of hits the nail on the head -- he explains that It is so terrifying because Its existence is offensive and insane. This entity challenges the very fabric of what is normal; not necessarily what is expected, but what we know to just simply be correct. The notion of being sane doesn't exclude flaws. You can live life as a perfectly sane person and still have flaws, still find discomfort and conflict. But It defies logic so greatly that the entity itself is the opposite of sane. Stan's explanation of why this monster, this unknowable, mysterious and deranged entity (if It can even be deranged, since its mental faculties are so alien from our own) is horrifying is in itself a horrifying passage. The eloquent way this buttoned-up kid expresses his terror is perhaps scarier than, say, the moment when It turns into a leper, taunting Eddie about blow jobs.
And while the book has much ado about childhood trauma and shared experience, it also poetically elaborates on the transformative nature of trauma. While some kids grown up and find catharsis in reliving their past hurts by recreating those familiar circumstances, as if they cannot live without that pain -- a pain that becomes almost delicious, no matter how much it tears up your throat -- they are also transformed by it. There's a duplicity to these characters; though they defeated the monster as children and it imbued them with a certain level of fearlessness, they still struggle to let go of their childhood. As they've grown up, they've forgotten exactly what took place in the sewers below Derry, when they came face to face with It, but that experience still resonates even when the memories are gone. Eddie and Beverly cling to the residue of fear by recycling their past. Meanwhile, Bill was able to overcome his stutter thanks to the experience, and although he remembers nothing -- not even his kid brother who was murdered by It -- he writes horror stories colored by his childhood trauma. Richie, who was terrible at doing voices and impressions, found his voice and parlayed it into a career as a radio DJ, often using evolved versions of the same voices he used as a kid. All of these kids carry with them some residual mark from this experience; it's not the details that matter, but the feelings that linger and often hide, disguising themselves in the monotony of every day life.
What matters is not the how and why, but who you become because of it. King's novel frequently returns to notions of love and desire. In the epilogue, Bill contemplates disquiet and desire, and how the two are merely different sides of the same coin, "what you want and what you're scared to try for," and again we return to fear and how it has the ability to both limit and propel. It's not about what happened to you, it's not about what someone did to you; life is about what you do next.
For all of King's contemplative, layered work throughout much of the novel, there are, of course, flaws. Where much of the novel is filled with metaphor, the climax becomes dizzying and manic with ideas. There's something about a turtle that may or may not be God and unwittingly vomited out our universe, therefore implying that It represents, in some capacity, the inverse of God or, in its most basic terms, the devil. But there's also this idea of an "other" that exists outside of our universe, and outside of the realm known to It and the turtle as the "macroverse." This "other" is hinted at sparingly, but the fleeting notion is enough to contradict the turtle-It/God-devil metaphor; in other words, in a story about an entity that is literally insane, King tests the reader's own sanity. You have to step back and wonder if King is even trying to be metaphorical at this point, or if he's simple exercising every batshit creative muscle, creating a conclusion that's crazy and scary and weird just for the sake of being out there. Once you realize that King himself has ditched subtlety and contemplation for the sake of frantically playing around in a giant narrative sandbox filled with spiders, tunnels, giant eyeballs, and a semi-psychedelic trip through a vast cosmological void with a giant turtle... well, it's easier to stop trying to desperately find and grasp on to meaning where it no longer exists.
One of the biggest issues with the novel comes late during the climax, during a flashback to 1958. After the kids have defeated It (for the time being), they try to make their way out of the labyrinthine sewer system. In one seemingly abrupt moment, they realize they are lost, but Beverly knows how to get them out: this 11 year old girl will have sex with all six of her 11 year old boy friends, in an act meant to permanently bond them and seal their love for one another. It's not that King's intentions with this passage are oblique -- the sequence is clearly meant to connect childhood to adulthood, and King himself has said that it reflects the way that the adult and children's libraries at the fictional Derry public library are connected by a glass tunnel. The intention is poetic, but the execution is a baffling disaster. King doesn't write the passage salaciously, but there's an inherent discomfort to reading about pre-pubescent children engaging in what can only be described as a mystical gang bang. It's not exactly surprising, since so much of the novel is written with unnecessary references to erections and breasts, particularly in scenes that are nonsexual in nature. King practically invented the awkward boner. King certainly knows how to write an 11 year old boy, dealing with the dual trauma of coming of age and facing an immensely horrifying entity that wants to tear you limb from limb and consume you, both literally and figuratively. Where he struggles is in writing an 11 year old girl, and this misguided idea that her manic pixie dream vagina will reset some shared internal compass, putting her and her friends on the right path -- but also marking them each, eternally, with a part of herself that will bring them all back home. Once again, we go back to Freud and this idea that the vagina represents home, and all men are just trying to go back home to where they came from.
In this passage, Beverly's sex act is meant to unite them with an unbreakable bond and prove (to whom?) that they all truly love each other. These are kids who aren't even old enough to romanticize sex as a love-making act, much less understand exactly how it results in babies (and remember, this is 1958). Beverly thinks of birds as she has sex with each boy, distracting her from what she intuits is a shameful act, thanks to her father's gross insinuations about her chastity. She whispers to Ben, who is desperately in love with her, "Teach me how to fly," though neither of them knows what they're doing -- and above and beyond any basic sexual skill, much of the passage is babbling nonsense. Beverly takes no pleasure in the sex act and most of the boys don't even manage to ejaculate, though she describes the lengths of their penises as if this has some pleasurable consequence -- either visually or physically -- to an undeveloped young girl. This part of the book makes sure to tell us that these multiple sex acts mean practically nothing to her, and she is driven only by vague intuition, the same intuition that has led these kids in the right direction for the entire novel. But what is the true purpose of this sex act? Could the same ideas of connecting childhood to adulthood be expressed in a more eloquent way? Sure, and they are throughout the rest of the novel. And even without salacious embellishment, the passage still reads as perverted -- maybe not in the sexual sense, but in the sense that it deviates from what is, in our minds acceptable. It goes back to what Stan says about It, and how the very idea of this entity is offensive. Not offensive in the way that it tests your notions of moral decency, but offensive in that it offends a person's sense of order.
The way King writes the rest of the novel conflicts with this passage -- so much of It is poetic, rich, and full of thematic depth and detail. In this way, the writer has created his own sense of order, but he breaks it during the climax. He breaks it, perhaps symbolically, and perhaps in a self-aware manner to reflect back on Stan's thoughts about offensiveness and insanity. It, the creature, the entity, is disorder. It is offensive to our central understanding of our surroundings and existence. And so the climax of the story is also offensive to the order the writer has created, like setting off a firecracker during a symphony. And while all of that makes some level of sense, the moment when King disrupts his own sense of order and disorder -- which is harmonious in its own inharmonious way -- is when he has little Beverly have sex with all of her friends. The passage somehow manages to be jarring in a book littered with jarring sequences, which is no easy feat. Stan details how that which is offensive is that which is nonsensical, and what's more nonsensical than a random pit stop in a labyrinth of tunnels to engage in some prepubescent gang bang ritual?
Crazy, illogical 11-year-old group sex and utterly bonkers climax aside, Stephen King's It is still largely an awe-inspiring and resonant work that connects with readers on a very regressive and raw level. It's the kind of story that sinks its teeth into our most tender spaces, the places where we've been hurt, and recognizes that child-sized, seemingly irrational desire within all of us to relive trauma in order to understand and move beyond it, but as young Eddie says, you can "still exist inside the pain, in spite of the pain." You live with the imprint of past hurts all your life, but the only way out is through, to go on in spite of it, and choose just how you'll take that baggage with you.