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Stephen King’s It is a Call for Solidarity Among the Traumatized

Amid the shock and gore, the new Stephen King adaptation is a devastating account of childhood trauma.

Courtesy Warner Brothers

“I need my bifocals,” the hypochondriac kid announces. He’s tending to a wound on the belly of the fat kid, put there by a bully. Around these two cluster the Jewish kid who wears a kippah, a kid with big glasses, a kid everybody calls a slut, and a kid whose little brother is dead. “They’re in my second fannypack.”

The new adaptation of Stephen King’s novel It opened to massive success this past weekend, raking in an enormous $123.1 million as of Monday morning. Variety cited a media analyst who attributed the movie’s splash to the “universality of the fear of clowns.” That fear may have drawn audiences to the movie theater but, as the gaggle of losers tending to their wounded comrade showed, this movie is also a about comradeship: it’s an exhortation to solidarity among the traumatized in the face of fear.

A little boy named Georgie follows his paper boat along the stream coursing down the gutter of his street. When the boat drifts into the sewer, sweet Georgie goes to retrieve it. Two eyes glow up out of the darkness, followed by a big nasty smile. Georgie does not come back.

In the wake of Georgie’s disappearance, his grieving brother Bill is haunted by a violent clown. The clown starts appearing to his friends. When the clown appears to each misfit, he is preceded by a personification of each of their greatest fears. Beverly (Sophia Lillis), whom we see earlier gingerly buying a box of Tampax, is drenched in blood which comes spurting out of her bathroom sink like a geyser of medical waste. Mike (Chosen Jacobs) watched his parents die in a fire, so he sees burning fingers clawing around a door. In turn, each child is targeted and gets away. They decide as a group that in the end they must come together to face down this abominable clown, and that only in their unity will they find the power to do so.

Although the clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), is corny and silly—his theme tune is “Oranges and Lemons” and he does a stupid dance—the pain enacted upon these children feels very real. Things have been done to them by adults. Most of them keep their pain a secret. Members of the group are subjected to child abuse, both sexual and violent, while others are stigmatized for their slight deviations from the town’s norm (fat, Jewish, black). In the form of the local bully, Henry (Nicholas Hamilton), that stigma is converted into physical pain.

It’s the new kid, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who figures out that the clown is a sort of inherited curse in the town. Unfortunately, part of the answer is that the clown lives in the sewer, so that’s where they have to go to find him.

In several scenes, the Losers (the gang’s name for itself) wade through disgusting water in the local sewer. The water is several times described in the script as “graywater,” which is actually the pretty clean wastewater that drains from washing machines and sinks and so on (blackwater is the stuff with the fecal contamination). But the water is full of gross objects and the clown has a habit of rearing out of it. The water is a place where rain and memories of the dead and fears about contamination and disease all mingle. That water’s path is the one the Losers have to follow.

Sewers, sewage, and plumbing are a much-decorated movie trope. As Slavoj Žižek describes in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), the bathroom is a kind of threshold, symbolically. When we flush or rinse or otherwise send something down the pipes, we banish that material to a kind of unimaginable netherworld. The invisibility of that netherworld is precisely that which defines our concept of hygiene, the habitability of our homes. But when something lurks down there and threatens to come back up the pipes—that is true horror. Wastewater, for Žižek, symbolizes a great and terrifying darkness: a dimension in which unknown forces are at work, a place where all the dark and scary things we do not understand live.

So, a clown that lives in a town’s sewers lives in the dimension of the community’s real but suppressed darkness. Children are the powerless recipients of generation trauma, the violence and perversion which haunt any human settlement, but which are denied and therefore left unaddressed. When the gang of Losers plumb the depths of the sewers to redeem the lost kids of their generation, they enter into a dimension of waste and shit and trauma and violence. They take iron spikes with them in their backpacks.

In the movie’s final scene, the Losers bind themselves as a group through blood-mixing. They slice their hands with glass and then press them together. The film is set in the mid-eighties, and earlier scenes in the movie had invoked AIDS and the fear of contagion (the germophobe kid had heard of a lady who got AIDS from just touching a pole). The culmination of this ragtag gang’s bond therefore also marks the transcending of stigma and the shedding of a final kind of fear: the fear of illness, and the fear of the death that lies beyond illness.

The actors of It are universally good. Special praise should go to Jack Dylan Grazer, the kid with the second fannypack, who blends his neuroticism with saying “fuck” a lot, and Finn Wolfhard, the one from Stranger Things. The cinematography of It dwells in the loose light of summer vacation; thick late-afternoon light plays in grass, knees are skinned and bicycles ridden. The music (The Cure, Wire) imports historical atmosphere.

I’m no expert on Stephen King, and I leave it to other writers to weigh up this movie’s faithfulness to the canon from which it derives. But a look into the grief of children can only come across in a movie that’s been put together well, and this one has. Go expecting jump scares, and you will be rewarded handsomely. But you’ll also find a well-crafted meditation on the pain that communities refuse to see and the effect that pain has on the young and powerless. It is study in trauma to match the best of them.