We’ll all float in this informative look at the ultimate Stephen King villain.
That creepy clown Pennywise is back in a big way these days thanks to the huge success of last year’s movie version of the 1986 Stephen King novel, It (which of course followed the 1990 TV adaptation of the same story). Yes indeed, Pennywise gonna get ya — he looms large in the horror pantheon and inspires a lot of thought; there’s even one of those Internet “fan theories” (ugh) that suggests Pennywise is the same entity that appears as Killer Bob in Twin Peaks!
Now as the sequel to the film, It: Chapter 2, is ramping up and casting news is breaking (Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, James McAvoy, James Ransone, and Andy Bean will play the adult versions of the It kids, with Bill Skarsgård returning as the dastardly clown of the title), we figured it was time to once again explore who exactly Pennywise is and what his true nature is all about. So, let’s get going down into the sewers; after all, we all float down there…
Check out our comparison between the 1990 miniseries version of It and the 2017 movie version above.
Pennywise – or “It,” if you prefer, or “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” if you’d like to be very formal – is an all-encompassing evil being of varying shape and size (more on that later) that turns up in 27-year cycles (give or take) in the beleaguered town of Derry, Maine. His principal purpose is to murder children, and what better way to achieve that end than to most often take on the guise of a delightful clown? Because kids just love clowns! I know I do; don’t you? Seriously, who ever thought that clowns weren’t the embodiment of all that is unholy and evil? Come on now! Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has a lot to answer for…
Powers and Abilities
It’s (Haha, this is grammatically correct here, think about it!) primary power is the ability to transform into just about anything, thus taking on the image of whatever its current victim fears, whether an animal or something more fanciful and bizarre. By instilling fear, it primes its prey for the final moment of death, and then it feeds. It also has the ability to influence memory and action, covering up and erasing the knowledge of past violent acts that would have revealed its presence and its reign of death; in particular, it cloaks itself well from the perception of adult human beings. In its most original form as the Deadlights (we’ll get there), it can drive those that see It insane or at least catatonic, which only makes it that much clearer that King’s conception of this shapeless creature was inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. After all, if space has a color, then surely evil has a shape…
Origin and Background
Where does evil truly come from? In the case of It, this thing existed before the universe in which we now live, a being from the dawn of time and a reality beyond our own, along with its enemy “The Turtle” or “Maturin.” Plummeting to Earth from the Macroverse (which may be the “Todash Darkness” of King’s Dark Tower cycle) as a celestial body, the creature slept under the lands that would one day be Derry, Maine, and there it waited until human beings arrived to provide it with sustenance. After its first feeding, it began to cycle in and out of three decade-long slumbers, staying conscious for two years as it stalked prey, taunting them by metamorphosing into what its victims feared the most, and then feasting after it had “salted the meat” with their own terror. While it fed on any human, children were more easily frightened and their fears more simply represented, so it ultimately settled on a youthful diet.
Speaking of Maturin, if you really want to delve into King cosmology, check out the aforementioned Dark Tower series, where you’ll learn more about the role of the Turtle and It, their creation by “The Other,” and their eternal struggle as representatives of universal opposing forces. A creature of many shapes can also have many names, and “It” is no different, even if we most often know It as Pennywise the Dancing Clown (a form partially inspired by pop culture clowns like Clarabell and Bozo, as well as McDonald’s red-haired maniac Ronald). Its familiar and equally chilling form of a Giant Spider and its original existence as the orange Deadlights add to the list, as does its guises as the Leper, Mrs. Kersh, and Mr. Robert “Bob” Gray. The 2017 film will add two new identities for It: Headless Boy and Judith. The actual gender of the creature is indeterminate and may not be relevant at all. To defeat it, you might have to conduct the “Ritual of Chüd.”
Beyond the Book
Of course, Tim Curry is Pennywise for a generation of television viewers. He played the role in the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation of the novel, and the man that made The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Frank N. Furter a pop culture icon was quite capable of doing just the same with one of the scariest clowns every conceived. His rough-voiced approach to the character belied his twinkle-eyed appearance, and with jagged teeth bared, you could believe this guy could rip you to pieces; Hell, I’d believe that of Curry with no makeup at all!
Now of course Bill Skarsgård is the new Pennywise in the 2017 film, and the upcoming It: Chapter 2. How much of the crazy clown’s weird and strange origin will we get in the sequel? We’ll find out when It: Chapter 2 is released in September, 2019!
Find Arnold T. Blumberg on Twitter at @DoctoroftheDead.