***This article does not feature spoilers for either the book or the film adaption of the Stephen King novel “It“***
Pennywise is one of the most terrifying monsters ever in literature. ‘It’ preys on the town Derry, is insanely creepy and feasts on the flesh of children. To say that Stephen King’s novel isn’t going to get under your skin would be false and misleading.
But what makes Pennywise terrifying- and what can writers learn from the dancing clown? Well, one crucial lesson.
To frighten your readers you must construct characters that show fear and horror. As writers, we want to give our lead characters as much agency as possible. We know that passive characterization will frustrate our readers, and it can be fun to humiliate the villains. However, when you are writing horror you must be cruel. Because, how can you scare your readers if the characters aren’t terrified?
This is what Stephen King does well in It. The characters, over the course of the novel and in the film adaptions, wrestle with their fears. This doesn’t apply to just Pennywise, but with social situations such as school bullying and abusive family members. Because of this, Stephen King manages to make Pennywise the embodiment of social terror. I think the entire It story is a metaphor for child abuse. For instance, there’s a lot of symbolism in Pennywise attacking children when they are alone, arguably at their most vulnerable. Also, the uncaring and apathetic adults hit close to home to many children who have dealt with indifferent figures. Therefore, Pennywise reminds us not to just look under our bed, but to look at other people and see the darkness.
Most adults amongst your readers aren’t afraid of outer space creatures or demonic clowns. Adults understand those realms of reality and do not seek to question. However, they are scared of other people- whether that’s terrorism or mafia-like gangs, corrupt governments, powerful individuals or their next door neighbor. When you are a child, you are scared of creatures and the inhumane. When you are an adult, you are scared of humans and their capabilities. Fiction ought to combine both of these elements.
Adding onto this, one of the most remarkable things about Stephen King’s body of work is his thoughts about childhood. King reveals the tragedy and despair of growing up well- and writers should take notes from him.
Good horror mixes childhood fears with adult concepts of the world. Pennywise is a clown. A common fear amongst children, but ‘it’ also represents the more adult terrors of predators and strangers. The end result is a horrifying Cthulhu-like creature that could feasibly exist within our world. Effective horror has traces of realism within it- you must convince the reader that your monster could exist. If it does, it would lead to suffering. Writers should not be afraid to terrify their characters on a profound and personal level. By demonstrating vulnerability and humanity, you are forming goosebumps on your reader’s skin.
In summary, great horror fuses childhood and adult fears. It also features characters who are impressionable to harm and are completely human. When crafting your horrifying tale, remember Pennywise and what ‘it’ can teach us about horror and humanity.
What do you think? Write in the comments below!