A Not-So-Godforsaken Town: It: Chapter 2 Shows Us It Really Is Finished

Very grateful to Prof. Leigh Hickman for bringing her expert analysis to bear yet again. […]

Guest Contributor / 9.17.19

Very grateful to Prof. Leigh Hickman for bringing her expert analysis to bear yet again. If you missed her essay on It: Chapter 1, start there. And be warned—spoilers ahead!

The first line of voice-over in It: Chapter 2 starts with the word, “Memory.” Like an invocation of the muse in a Homeric epic, the film announces its theme at the beginning. In their underground clubhouse, the Losers Club have the movie poster for The Lost Boys, the 1987 teen horror classic about forever-young vampires. Yet the child heroes of It (2017) aren’t the lost boys who never grow up, and Derry, Maine, isn’t Neverland. While childhood is usually associated with innocence, play, and a lack of responsibility, Chapter 2 is about adults forced to reckon with the violation of their innocence as children and the horrific responsibility they swore to bear.

The film is set 27 years after the Losers almost fatally wounded Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). Each of the Losers, for the most part affluent adults, is called back to Derry by Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the only character who chose to remain in his cursed hometown. As they are summoned home, each of the characters experiences the reappearance and pain of their shared scars. The Losers had cut their hands and made a blood oath to return to Derry if Pennywise ever came back. The shared scar of the Losers is the visual thesis for Chapter 2. How do people heal from the memories that cut them most deeply?  Can people truly mature if they try to avoid the memories of which they are most ashamed? It’s empowering to recall times of personal heroism, victory over destructive behaviors, and intimacy with friends. But It won’t let its characters or its audience off without confronting their old wounds. If the Losers Club is a story of the church reimagined, then scars aren’t just unhealed wounds. Scars are sacred for Christians and Losers alike. They are the sacramental doorways through which people experience grace and give grace to others.

As in Chapter 1, the physical and social environment around the characters is an essential component of the horror. Derry and Pennywise are equally villainous. Mike refers to Derry as a “godforsaken town.” It’s a statement that hangs like a question mark over the entire story as the Losers literally reach the heart of what’s wrong in Derry. The first scene of the film sets the adult tone for what follows: it’s a violent hate crime. In the midst of a carnival, a young gay couple is brutally attacked by bullies. One of the victims, Adrian Mellon (Xavier Dolan), is thrown off a bridge into the river. As he tries to swim and cries for help, he vaguely sees Pennywise on the embankment in the posture of a potential rescuer. Adrian’s boyfriend watches in terror as he is swept up by Pennywise who takes a huge, gory bite out of his side. The fact that Pennywise at first appears to be saving Adrian only to murder him begins a pattern in the film of expectation reversal.

What makes Pennywise seem more mature in his methods than in the first film is the way he uses his victims’ empathy and expectations against them as a trap. Before he is attacked, Adrian kindly gives a stuffed animal he wins in a carnival game to a small girl named Victoria (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) who has a birthmark on her face. This stuffed animal connects Pennywise’s first victim to his second. The girl, like Adrian, is bullied for being different in Derry. Bullying is a major motif in the film, and Pennywise is the monstrous amalgamation of the culture of bullying in Derry. Victoria is bored watching a local baseball game with her mother. Pennywise entices her to come to him in the darkness by manifesting as a lightning bug. Entranced by its beauty, she follows the light into the darkness where she meets Pennywise.  When the clown speaks to her, she rightly rejects his overtures of friendship saying that her real friends don’t talk to her in the dark. Pennywise then begins to cry and explains to Victoria that he’s sad because no one wants to play with him because of his scary face. The girl, bullied for the same reason, empathizes with Pennywise. In this scene, Pennywise’s means of baiting his victim is reminiscent of the tactic used by Ted Bundy, who often lured his victims by wearing an arm cast and faking an injury.

In Chapter 1 empathy was a weapon the Losers used against Pennywise. It was their desire to protect other kids that inspired their battle with him. In Chapter 2, Pennywise successfully weaponizes his victims’ empathy against them. Even more insidious, Pennywise entices Victoria by offering to remove her birthmark. He says he can remove the mark causing her shame in a single “poof.” Victoria, like the Losers, wants to get rid of a scar causing shame. Pennywise does remove Victoria’s mark, but by eating her whole face. The cost of removing her scar is the removal of her identity. In one cruel scene, the film says that the alluring promise of a quick fix to human scars is fool’s gold. People become whole through their marks of suffering, not through attempting to live like they’ve never been marked by suffering. The lightning bug’s light that attracts Victoria to her death is a false light. The demonic Pennywise, like Lucifer, masquerades as an angel of light. This intentional juxtaposition of false and real light, of true empathy against its perversion, is at the narrative heart of the film. Chapter 2 is about the discerning of spirits, and its protagonists and audience are warned that they must learn to discern light from darkness.

The film’s narrative structure reflects this intentional emphasis on discernment and the significance of scars. After the Losers return to Derry, they struggle to remember the summer 27 years earlier that defined them as a group. They eventually recall wounding Pennywise and making the oath to return and defeat him, but their memory is selective. People have a tendency to edit out moments of special shame or vulnerability. As Mike says, “We are what we wish we could forget.” In order to defeat Pennywise, the Losers must remember the sources of their deepest personal wounds. Tellingly, each wound was opened during the brief span of time the Losers disbanded in Chapter 1, when they chose self-preservation and autonomy over friendship and empathy. The audience coming to see the film is, in its own way, just as shocked as the Losers that they don’t have the full story they assume Chapter 1 gave them. With this narrative strategy, the filmmakers again break the fourth wall and implicate the audience in the characters’ assumptions that they understand what happened in the previous film. Mike tells the Losers they must do what stereotypically no characters should do in a horror film: split up. Each character must leave the group and revisit the places where they were alone. Each individual must collect a token from that time of loneliness and exposure. Admittedly, Chapter 2 is almost three hours in runtime because of this focus on how one brief moment of separation affected seven characters. Yet the sometimes tedious pacing serves a point: facing shame and scars is often frustrating, and healing takes time.

The collected tokens are emblematic of each character’s scar, and they are to be used in a ritual to conquer Pennywise, their very personal demon. While each of these remembered events is painful, the token that each character retrieves is a physical talisman of their irrevocable membership in the Losers Club. Ultimately, each Loser learns that their personal struggles and shame have no power to excommunicate them from their church of losers. Their group and individual identity is established and safeguarded in grace. The Losers in Chapter 2 incarnate the identity security guaranteed by Jesus in John 10: 27-29: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” The fact that each character remembers what happened to them when they tried to leave the Losers Club makes this parallel more explicit. Even when they try to break apart and experience disunity, they don’t have the power to remove themselves from the group because they are each bound together by some force stronger than their will to stay. The blood that binds the Losers, a shadow of the blood that binds the church, keeps those whom it covers. If Chapter 1 pictured the church as a community of losers who become lovers able to see and push back spiritual darkness, then Chapter 2 pictures the security of those inside that grace-empowered community.

Stanley Uris’ token is a shower cap. The Losers wore shower caps as they built their underground clubhouse. While the other kids are playing, Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) is pensive and asks aloud if they will all still be friends once they grow up. Stanley, who was excited about his upcoming bar mitzvah and “becoming a man,” is also the character who is most afraid of dying. He looks forward to maturing and dreads it as well because maturing eventually means facing human mortality. Significantly, when the Losers are called back to Derry, adult Stanley (Andy Bean) is too frightened to face the demon of the past and kills himself in his bathtub. By far one of the weakest narrative choices in Chapter 2 is to make Stanley’s suicide an act of heroism and self-sacrifice. One of the strengths of King’s novel is its honesty about the consequences of losing faith and letting despair win. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have the guts to be as dark as the novel when it comes to Stanley.

The shower cap token that the rest of the Losers collect for him foreshadows where Stanley will die. But the shower cap also represents where Stanley actually belonged. During his bar mitzvah, which occurs while the Losers are disbanded in Chapter 1, Stanley discusses the idea of change and transformation. He then formally rejects his Jewish faith in front of his rabbi father and the rest of the congregation. He identifies himself as a Loser rather than a Jew because that is his real community. The shower cap token is a sign of Stanley’s exchange of the yarmulke for a new head covering. Stanley doesn’t reject faith; he just converts to a new faith. In this conversion, he distances himself from his biological family and chooses to be part of a new family.

Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) returns to her childhood apartment to collect her token, the love poem Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) wrote for her. It’s significant to Beverly because it connects her to one of her only memories of pure romantic attention from her childhood. While she looks for the poem, Beverly remembers a conversation she had with her father (Stephen Bogaert) when he sprayed her with her mother’s perfume after blaming young Beverly (Sophia Lillis) for her mother’s death. The audience sees Beverly blaming herself for her own sexual abuse in Chapter 1. Chapter 2 implies that her father tried to make Beverly a sexual replacement for his dead wife, and the abuse was punishment for his wife’s absence, for which he blames his daughter. In the same room where she finds the love letter, Beverly sees a manikin wearing a dress; this image further suggests that this apartment has been a place where Beverly was made to dress up and pretend to be her father’s property. He tried to make her someone she was not. Juxtaposed with this memory, the love poem is important to Beverly because it reminds her that she is loved precisely for being herself and no one else. The love poem is Beverly’s link to the Losers Club and who she actually is.


Ben Hanscom’s token ironically links him to Beverly’s security in her identity. Ben’s token is the yearbook page that Beverly alone signed for him. Beverly was the first person in Derry who claimed Ben as a friend, and that claim helps define him in relationship to her and the rest of the Losers. When he returns to Derry in Chapter 2, Ben (Jay Ryan) has transformed from an overweight, highly intelligent boy into a fit, successful architect. Nevertheless, Ben’s fear remains the same: that he will ultimately be alone because of his weight or intellect. Ben fears Pennywise as a mummy, a symbol of paralyzed intellect and physical decay. Countering this fear, Beverly warmly recognizes and values Ben’s mind and friendship.

During his time separated from the Losers, Ben remembers playing by himself in school until Pennywise disguised as Beverly came to join him. Confiding their mutual loneliness to one another, Ben tries to kiss Beverly but is cruelly rebuffed by her. She calls him fat and disgusting, that there’s no way someone like her would love someone like him. Beverly’s head then bursts into flames as she pursues him into a locker chanting his love poem after him. The image intentionally perverts Ben’s poem and, like the headless mummy in Chapter 1, again suggests that this attack is explicitly against Ben’s mind. Finding the yearbook page, Ben looks at Beverly’s signature and reminds himself, “Beverly would never say something like that.” He defeats Pennywise’ lie by remembering who Beverly is and who he is to her. Pennywise’s accusation is smoke without substance because Ben knows who he is in remembering who loves him. A major theme both in the book and film versions of It is that identity is formed and safeguarded not merely by individual choice. Identity is perhaps more powerfully given than it is made. It is about who people choose to be in community and the community that chooses people. 

In the final confrontation, Ben and Beverly undergo two different baptisms from which they both raise one another. Their salvation stories are entwined and interdependent. In Chapter 1, Pennywise could draw the Losers away from one another by curiosity. That strategy doesn’t work in Chapter 2, so Pennywise has to physically drive characters away from one another by force. Rather than suggesting Pennywise’s strength, this physical coercion suggests his growing impotency. He drives Beverly away from Ben into a locked bathroom stall covered with graffitied accusations and cruel labels. She is then bullied by the same girl who bullied her in Chapter 1, by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and by her father. All of these people accused Beverly of being a slut and continue the accusation in this scene. As the three accusers torment her, the stall begins to fill with blood. Beverly is covered in gore. She becomes a reflection of Stephen King’s first bullied protagonist, Carrie White. Carrie destroyed her entire school when she was doused in the public judgment of others. Carrie is what Beverly Marsh could be if she didn’t belong to the Losers.

Ben is forcefully separated from Beverly by Pennywise. The clown tries to bury Ben like a mummy under the earth. As he is being buried alive, Pennywise accuses Ben again and says that he will die alone despite all his weight loss and intelligence. Although he can’t see Beverly, he can hear her scream for help as they are both being buried. Right before the earth closes over his head, Ben cries out that he loves Beverly. More than a romantic confession, the words are exactly what Beverly needs to hear and believe to overpower the accusations around her. She isn’t a slut. Beverly is purely seen and loved. Hearing Ben and believing him, Beverly kicks open the bathroom stall and is freed from condemnation. The blood that covers her is now no longer a sign of her shame. The blood is now a sign of something else: grace and new identity. Coming out of her blood baptism, Beverly reaches down to Ben, takes him by the hand, and pulls him out of the grave. Grace received is grace to give, and Beverly incarnates that truth when she raises Ben from death to life with her bloody, grace-drenched arm.

Bill’s token is the paper boat he made for Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), the one that went down the sewer before he was murdered. Adult Bill (James McAvoy) still struggles with blaming himself for Georgie’s death. Significantly, Bill’s memory from his time away from the Losers is the only one actually seen in Chapter 1. There, young Bill (Jaeden Martell) goes down into his family’s basement and sees Pennywise as a manifestation of Georgie who blames Bill for his death. Bill collects the paper boat from the sewer where he thinks he hears Georgie crying for help. When he reaches into the drain to grab Georgie, several small hands of dead children grab his arm. Pennywise isn’t just accusing Bill of his brother’s death. He’s accusing him of all the deaths in Derry. Pennywise, like Satan, is the accuser.

That Georgie’s paper boat is Bill’s token to help defeat Pennywise again shows the pattern of expectation reversal in the film. For 27 years the memory of making the boat was utilized by Pennywise as a weapon to shame Bill. In Chapter 2, Bill uses the boat to arm his weapon against Pennywise. In one of four symbolic baptism scenes, Bill goes under water in his confrontation with Pennywise and has a vision almost exactly the same as the one he had in Chapter 1 where Pennywise accused Bill for Georgie’s death. In this vision, adult Bill is in the water between Georgie and himself as a child. Georgie again accuses Bill of his murder and young Bill agrees with the accusation, saying that he wasn’t really sick the day Georgie died and just didn’t want to spend time with him that day. In the midst of this scene, young Bill points a gun at adult Bill’s head while the adult assures his younger self that he loved Georgie well and wasn’t responsible for his death. At that moment, Pennywise as young Bill shoots adult Bill in the head, but the gun is unloaded. The bullet of accusation is out of the gun, so the accuser is powerless to kill him. The accusation doesn’t define his character anymore. In the end it is adult Bill who shoots Pennywise in the head with the truth. The lie goes down into the water as adult Bill pushes the false Georgie, still accusing him, under the water. Bill drowns out the lie, and at the same moment he comes out of the water a new, blameless man. The paper boat is now what it always was meant to be: a symbol of Bill’s love for Georgie. This memory is both scar and sword for Bill who disarms Pennywise and shoots condemnation in the face through grace.

Eddie Kaspbrak’s token is his inhaler. Eddie’s mother (Molly Atkinson) instilled in her son an almost absolute belief in his own frailty and helplessness. When young Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is separated from the Losers, he again encounters Pennywise who manifests to him as the leper. Yet this time the leper captures Eddie’s mother, ties her up, and tries to infect her with its disease. The scene is particularly affecting because, without the Losers, Eddie’s mother is the only person he has in his life. If he loses her, he loses his only family relationship. Adult Eddie (James Ransone) remembers the awful powerlessness he felt as he was unable to free his mom and abandoned her in order to save himself. The vision, as is every accusation Pennywise makes against the Losers, is a lie. It prophesies that Eddie will choose self-preservation over the lives of the people he loves. After remembering this vision, adult Eddie is again attacked by the leper who puts his hands on him. In Chapter 1, the leper only threatened to touch Eddie, but, this time, Pennywise opts for an actual physical fight with Eddie. Reversing the leper’s expectation, Eddie fights back and seizes the leper by the throat. The fact that Eddie touches the leper means that he no longer fears what the leper represents to him: sickness, frailty, and death. The attack on Eddie transforms from another scene of victimization into a scene where the victimizer becomes his target’s victim. As Eddie easily strangles the leper, he becomes comically gleeful in his discovered physical strength. All Pennywise can do is dissolve into goo in Eddie’s hands and wash over his face. As Pennywise dissolves, the Juice Newton love song, “Angel of the Morning” plays over the scene. The music choice denotes what’s just happened: if Pennywise is a demon, then Eddie is a representative from the other supernatural team. Angelic power overpowers demonic power. Eddie’s inhaler becomes his token because he discovers that his weakness is actually his strength. 

Richie Tozier’s token is actually a game token for his favorite video game, Street Fighter. In Chapter 2, adult Richie (Bill Hader) is a successful standup comedian, still utilizing his trash-mouth wit. Richie remains the clown in the scary film about another clown. His humor still masks some of his intimate insecurities. Young Richie (Finn Wolfhard) was scared of clowns in Chapter 1, an externalization of his inner self-loathing. Richie’s chief fear is not being perceived as “man enough” by people around him. In Chapter 1, the audience saw Richie aggressively playing Street Fighter while he dealt with his anger toward Bill for punching him in the face. The violent disagreement between Bill and Richie in Chapter 1 instigated the group’s disunity. Without the Losers, Richie is desperately lonely, and his personal insecurities about his masculinity are cruelly exploited by Henry Bowers’ gang. Richie’s memory of his time apart from the Losers centers around a moment he played Street Fighter with Henry’s cousin. When the game is over, Richie doesn’t want to be alone and asks the boy if he wants to play with him again. Henry and the other bullies enter and immediately accuse Richie of having sexual intentions toward his friend. Henry’s cousin asks Richie, “Why are you being weird?” In that moment, Richie’s loneliness and vulnerability are labeled perverse. Running out of the arcade and crying by himself on a park bench, Richie is suddenly attacked by Pennywise who manifests as Derry’s huge Paul Bunyan statue come-to-life. The fact that Bunyan is trying to chop Richie in half with his huge axe suggests that Richie is scared of idealized masculinity because he feels he isn’t masculine enough.

This idea of falling short of the manly norms is constantly referenced in Chapter 1 when Richie tells the other Losers, “It’s a good thing we’re not measuring dicks.” The joke veils the suffering that Richie feels inferior to other boys. Pennywise threatens adult Richie, that he will expose Richie’s “dirty little secret.” The whole attack is an accusation to make Richie feel “dirty” and “little.” Almost allowing Pennywise to win, adult Richie tries to leave Derry in order to save himself, again doing exactly what he did in Chapter 1. It is seeing Stanley’s synagogue and remembering Stanley’s public identification of himself as a Loser that helps Richie turn around and recommit himself to the Losers. In It, one character’s faith doesn’t only affect themself. Individual faith ripples implications beyond itself and draws others to faith even in the midst of their doubts. Richie may be the “doubting Thomas” in the Losers Club, but his acceptance in that community is not threatened by his doubts. Richie’s token symbolizes his true identity that disarms the curse. For all of his insecurity and doubts, Richie is a street fighter. Returning from Stanley’s synagogue, Richie kills adult Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) who is trying to kill Mike. In Chapter 1, Richie is the first person to injure Pennywise in the final confrontation. In Chapter 2, Richie is the character who disarms the clown. He literally rips the enemy’s arm off. The curse and accusation inadvertently help Richie believe the truth: he does measure up because he’s not being measured. He’s a Loser, and in embracing that grace-fused identity, Richie and the other Losers “have nothing to lose.” With no weapon that can stand against him, Richie simply takes weapons away from Pennywise.

Mike Hanlon’s token is a bloody rock from the rock fight the Losers won against Henry Bowers’ gang. Henry’s attack on young Mike (Chosen Jacobs) instigated the rock war. The rock is Mike’s identity tie to the Losers because they entered the fight to save him before they even knew him, before he was their friend. Mike was helpless and viciously attacked, and the Losers chose to fight his attackers away. Of all the tokens, the bloody rock is the most emblematic of a Christian story. Biblically, rocks are signs of judgment and accusation. In the ultimate reversal of expectation, Jesus walks out of his tomb after rolling the stone, sealed by Roman authority, the highest human authority of that time, away from his grave. In his resurrection, Jesus breaks the human authority to condemn and to keep buried. When the Losers rescue Mike in the rock war, they, like Jesus, enter a fight they didn’t have to enter. They are all bloodied in the fight to deliver someone they didn’t have to save.

One of the hallmarks of bullying is that bullies are empowered by the thought that no one will actually call their bluff. The bully will inflict the pain and terror, not the other way around. During the rock war, another reversal of expectation takes place. Stones of condemnation become weapons against the one who condemns. The rock war in Chapter 1 prefigures the ultimate defeat of Pennywise in Chapter 2 when the Losers conquer Pennywise by “making him small.” Individually, Pennywise is larger than life to each one of the Losers in Chapter 2. However, when they are all together they are able to call Pennywise’ bully bluff. When they are the church united, the Losers can accurately say, “You’re just a clown. You’re just a mummy.” They use their enemy’s attack against him and make him small by calling out his lies for what they are. Without believing the lies and accusations that make Pennywise so terrifying to each of them, the accusations lose power and so does the accuser who goes from being huge in the scene to a cowering infant in form. If Pennywise accused each one of the Losers individually, he’d have power over them as he does throughout Chapter 2. Yet when they are together as a corporate body, their perspective of him changes. In the final confrontation, the Losers reach into Pennywise and pull out his beating heart. They crush his heart in their hands and finally conquer him. In one moment, they’ve literally given Derry a heart transplant. They metaphorically remove the heart of stone from their community; thus, they can heal and remember rightly again. The rock war is over because the rocks of judgment and the stone heart of Derry are finally rolled away. 

After they defeat Pennywise, the adult Losers once again jump off the cliff into the same water they played in as kids. The baptism that inaugurated the Losers Club again washes over them at the end. Richie loses his thick glasses in the lake, and the others dive under the water to find them for him. Huddled together in the water, holding onto one another, and mourning the loss of two of their own, the Losers are a beautiful, resilient picture of Christian community. They mourn with those who mourn. They find lost lenses when someone can’t see. They push back darkness and disarm the power of accusing lies. The last line of Chapter 2 is true of Losers and Christians alike on this side of eternity: “Remember, we’re Losers, and we always will be.”

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