I cannot begin to understand your fear of clowns. That’s fine. Irrationality is part of what makes a phobia a phobia. You don’t have to understand why after merely typing the word “snake” I spend the rest of the day making sure my feet don’t touch the ground and in a perpetual flop sweat. Truce.
What makes the clown thing frustrating, though, is pop culture’s insistence that everyone is afraid of the mere sight of a man in a red wig and painted smile. The prevalence of the idea has in turn fostered some sort of performative phobia from the attention-seeking among us. Carol in Accounting “just can’t even walk down the street anymore because those It posters are just too scary!”
Well, Carol, we’ve seen the actual film. Is it scary? Sure! But its scariness typically has nothing to do with the clowns.
People love to get excited about being scared. We get that. That’s why horror movies are so fun. That’s why Jaws, The Exorcist, The Blair Witch Project, and more have been some of the biggest event films in history. People like the community aspect of the thrill, the fun in the collective scream.
Might we yelp a bit louder than we really feel the need to just to feel like a part of the fun? Duh. The old gasp-breathe-giggle routine is one of the greatest communal cinematic experiences. If you’re a movie lover, an entire cineplex doing it in unison is like music to your ears.
And so, too, we understand the excitement over being scared silly by the remake of It. It’s the perfect confluence of clown-phobia obsession and fright-film obsession.
We assume that if you have a fear of clowns, then the sleepy, overly familiar first half of Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of the classic Stephen King novel might have you squirming out of fear and not just out of restlessness like us. The real thrills actually kick in at the film’s midway point, when the kitchen-sink homage to nearly every tried-and-true horror trope in the book kicks in—most having nothing to do with men wearing red noses.
Stephen King’s 1986 novel was one of his most popular, about a group of bullied kids in one of the author’s signature quaint American small towns who are terrorized by Pennywise the Dancing Clown, a shape-shifting being that exploits their greatest fears and phobias while systematically hunting them down. (An almost meta pursuit when you examine how the new film’s marketing has so unapologetically played to a fear of clowns.)
The novel was adapted into an ABC miniseries in 1990, with Tim Curry putting an indelible spin on Pennywise and a blockbuster 30 million viewers tuning in for the premiere. In other words, it’s precisely the kind of pop culture phenomenon that both gets people amped for an announced remake and also makes them skeptical that it could do justice to a beloved—or in this case, feared—property.
Much in the vein of Netflix’s Stranger Things, Muschietti’s take, working off a screenplay from Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, succeeds (when it does) because of how specifically it leans into ’80s cinematic nostalgia. With a brilliantly cast group of young actors—interestingly enough, it’s Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard who gives the standout performance—the film evokes Stand By Me, Goonies, E.T., and about 100 Steven Spielberg tricks on how to spook an audience.
The film’s greatest strength is its embrace of humor, often at the mere sight of some hilariously ’80s timepiece. The iconic opening sequence, too, is a faithful and harrowing launching point for the film, taking its time and gleefully torturing an audience waiting to watch poor Georgie meet his fate in the storm drain.
From there, Muschietti puts us on a carousel of horror themes and tropes as the kids are, one-by-one, tormented by Pennywise. There’s gruesome gore, the theatricality of haunted houses, cat-and-mouse chases, ghastly creatures, psychological torture, severed limbs, gross-out porn, sudden frights, and hallucinatory fever dreams, whirling by in an eerily scored blur.
It’s an artful buildup of suspense taken as a whole, but little jewels of moments that, when piled up, can sometimes appear like a cinematic junkyard.
Truthfully, most of the film’s terrors exist as patchwork set pieces, each effective and well-executed in terms of tone and genre on their own—you’ll be scared!—but haphazardly stitched together, with each section not always complementing or even making sense alongside the next. It leaves the film feeling somewhat messy, a collection of mismatched attempts at greatness. But, hey, it’s the ’80s we’re talking about. What’s more ’80s than a tacky, mismatched quilt?
For all the talk of clowns, it’s Pennywise that doesn’t really work here.
Despite all the marketing focus on the homicidal circus freak, It was never about the clown. It’s about how trauma haunts a childhood and how the latent ennui of small-town America can fan the flames of our greatest fears.
Maybe it’s Bill Skarsgård’s performance, a victim of 30 years of villains paying homage to It. His theatrics come off as hollow, like a watered-down Heath Ledger’s Joker. Maybe too much CGI was employed to make him look too slick—Curry’s Pennywise was harrowing because of his D.I.Y., could-literally-be-in-the-sewers-right-now aesthetic. Maybe it’s because in this melee of phobias and scare tactics and children to be invested in, the pivot back to Pennywise is distracting.
Or maybe clowns just aren’t that scary.
In the lead-up to the release of It—it’s already predicted to win this weekend’s box office—Vulture talked to Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist Steven Schlozman about what’s behind the scary clown trope in horror films. There’s this idea of “the uncanny” in which, Schlozman says, “something is familiar enough to be recognizable but weird enough to give you the shivers.” (Explaining not only the clown thing, but also the prevalence of creepy dolls in horror movies.)
With clowns, there’s an added element of the ingrained role they’ve had in society dating back to the Middle Ages, Schlozman says. “Clowns, by definition, are supposed to make you laugh, but in the background is the fear that they won’t, and all of us have that in the back of our mind: the fear that you won’t actually be able to do the very thing that you’re designed to do.”
In a recent study, more Americans said they are more afraid of clowns than climate change. Clearly it’s a real fear. But there’s a difference between a minor phobia and the hyperbole people tend to turn it into; a fear of clowns has become the kind of thing a person adopts, mistaking it for a personality trait. (For the last time, Carol, your coulrophobia does not make you interesting.)
We understand it’s a real thing, but with all due respect to people who are crippled by the fear, it can sometimes seem as ridiculous as episodes of a reality TV show where a woman is cripplingly afraid of vegetables. Actually, that might be more relatable.
Last year there was the insane epidemic of clown attacks, after reports surfaced that clowns in South Carolina were trying to lure children into the woods. But the stories and the videos would have been just as bone-chilling and nightmare-inducing had it been a spate of magicians terrorizing innocent strangers. Or people in teddy bear costumes. An epidemic of Left Sharks on a killing spree. Taylor Swift’s Girl Squad on a murderous rampage in the woods. Is the clown really the eerie element here? Well… yes. The whole thing is eerie. But you get what I’m saying.
The clown phobia thing is having a bit of moment, with the fear playing a major role in the new American Horror Story, which sees Sarah Paulson hallucinating depraved clowns wielding murder weapons and having sex in the produce aisle of the grocery store. (Fun show!) And the histrionics of the fear have been played up for laughs in almost every sitcom, where some dispensable character has an unreasonable freakout over a clown and everyone laughs.
There’s certainly nothing to laugh at with the monster of It. But what works about the film and, more, what doesn’t might suggest we’ve spent so much time putting stock in clowns as a horror device that the effect has been dampened. Call it a “Bozo bubble,” if you will. And I think it’s about to burst.