If you take a leisurely stroll by Barratt Park on any given Friday afternoon after the local elementary school rings its final bell for the day, you might hear hushed voices. The whispered snickers and goading might waft up with the cool California breeze, mixing in with the smell of stagnant water and grape-flavored Big League Chew. The sidewalk you’re walking along breaks into a short paved road that goes over the terminus of the creek running along the perimeter of the park. A peek over the edge of that paved spot, about 10 feet down, might yield a gaggle of bikes and Star Wars backpacks at the foot of the large sewer pipe opening under your feet. Bravely huddled together nearby like the Ghostbusters before Zuul stand a posse of boys, aged from 9 to 11 and a half, thank you very much. Practically grownups. Their conversations run from goading one another to enter the pipe, to the rumor-du-jour about what lurks in the pipe and whom has fallen victim to it. In this, the Summer of 2017, Slenderman has been stripped of his Creepy Legend title belt, and a new orange-haired icon has taken his place.
Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
Most of the boys had seen the 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s It and were able to condense the classic horror tale into its purest essence for the Creepypasta generation who hadn’t been able to (or weren’t allowed to) see the miniseries yet: A bunch of kids fight a clown who eats children. They look to my son Shane, the group horror expert who knows how to kill a Wolfman and all three rules for keeping a Mogwai as a pet. Like all of the boys, he’s talked big game of how brave he is. Sure, Nathan saw all of the Saw movies with his stepdad (just don’t tell his mom) and Elijah watched Hush while he was home alone (and “wasn’t even scared”), but Shane had heard tell of Pennywise in multiple mediums. He had not only seen the '90s adaptation, but he read the first pages of the book, where a little kid dies a gruesome death. If he backs down now, he’d earn the dreaded title of “chicken”, the absolute worst thing a 9-year-old can be. A hush falls over the ragtag group as he carefully steps towards the pipe.
It’s within this context that I took my boy Shane to see Andres Muschietti’s IT on opening weekend.
Previously, Shane’s visits to the movie theater entailed summer superhero blockbusters with his grandfather and animated Pixar magic with his younger brother. But this was different. A hard “R” horror movie, with cursing and kissing and terror and gore. There’s no turning down the volume when the scares get too scary, no pausing the movie to get a drink and steel himself up to finish enduring Jason Voorhees’ latest murder spree. Like The Losers’ Club, there’s no turning back. Gotta face that monster.
Shane sank into his seat beside me in the top row, armed with Starburst, soda, and a bag of popcorn nearly as big as he. The grin he wore widened as he took in the scene around him: a sold-out show filled to the rafters with rowdy teenagers, young couples, and the occasional genre cinephile donning a Fright Rags shirt. I gave him one final chance to flee and see The Emoji Movie instead. He scoffed his evergreen assurances to me, the same thing he said when I had trepidations about his proposed screening of Child’s Play.
“Mom, I can handle it.”
Nevertheless, a hefty breath escaped from him when the lights went down. His misgivings intensified within the terrifying tone-setting opening scene. Young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), no bigger than Shane’s own baby brother Levi, has an unfortunate encounter with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) that results in his arm being bitten off. As a screaming Georgie was pulled through his own outpouring of blood and into the sewers of Derry, so Shane pulled back into his own seat. Even among the rumblings of the shocked moviegoers around us, he never asked to leave. In fact, as the blood-red title card filled the screen, a smirk could be seen on my child’s face.
The smile faltered here and there: as each member of the Losers’ Club - Bill, Beverly, Richie, Mike, Stan, Eddie, and Ben - individually encountered It in some form or another, as Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang of thugs tormented Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and especially as the Losers had a falling out after battling an erratic, Pennywise in the house on Neibolt Street. Life is hard for a kid, and Shane connected with all of those trials that Stephen King distilled though monsters and mayhem in a small town.
But the smile widened, as well: during the wildly entertaining rock fight between Bowers & Co. and the Losers, Shane, like the whooping and hollering crowd around him, laughed and clapped and cheered with every projectile that struck a bully’s forehead. Every barbed taunt launched by Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier landed with my 4th grader, who (as any eavesdropping parent can attest to) exchanged the same profanity-laced insults with his own friends when the coast seemed clear.
In our home there’s a staunch “no talking” rule during movies, so my son’s commentary during IT was limited to one hushed statement. As the Losers regroup after the showdown at the Neibolt Street house, Shane leaned towards me and whispered, “They’ll beat Pennywise, but only together.” This kid had seen enough monster movies with child protagonists to know two things: the grownups are useless, and there’s power in love and friendship. It’s evident in a couple of his favorite such films: Silver Bullet and The Monster Squad both feature youths grappling with maturation and monsters with the same combination of fear and bravery. So when the Losers ventured underground (knowing It lurked thereabouts) in search of their friend, he nodded solemnly. When Richie Tozier spit out the climactic line, “Welcome to The Losers’ Club, asshole,” Shane clapped and shouted his approval in unison with the audience. The end credits had barely begun to roll when he turned to me and begged to see it again the following weekend. That communal energy followed him all the way home where he Facetimed his friends and sung the praises of “the scariest movie ever” that starred a group of kids “just like us.”
It’s within this context that Shane steps towards the pipe on any given Friday afternoon at the park, armed with an updated knowledge (and fear) of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. This villain leaps and lunges with inhuman strength and speed, giggling as he opens his gaping maw to feed on kids just like him. Inching towards his own possible death, Shane braces himself. That’s when, like any other day when the kids get together, the power of friendship comes to the rescue. Nathan suddenly grabs Shane’s shoulders and yanks him backwards while shouting, “Saved your life!” Just as he did for the entire 135 minute runtime of IT, he screams and laughs. Like many horror fans, the boy lives for the thrills and really can “handle it”. A spirited chase ensues, and the kids live to fight their battles another day.