From Losers to Lovers: How It: Chapter One Takes Us to Church

In gleeful preparation for the upcoming “It: Chapter Two,” this essay comes to us from […]

Guest Contributor / 8.22.19

In gleeful preparation for the upcoming “It: Chapter Two,” this essay comes to us from Leigh Hickman

In 1990, Tim Curry scared audiences in a TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 horror opus, It. While Curry’s performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown has cultural staying power, the adaptation as a whole hasn’t aged well, with poor special effects and a dismal second act. So in 2017, audiences finally saw a full-length theatrical release of It. This version, directed by Andy Muschietti, updates the original 1950s setting of the book to the 1980s, cashing in on the current craze for ’80s nostalgia stirred up by the success of Stranger Things. With literally gallons of blood, New Kids on the Block references, and an incredibly talented cast of child actors, It became the highest grossing horror film in history. Looking at the nostalgic appeal and shear talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s easy to conclude that the film’s success stems from arriving at the perfect moment in the cultural zeitgeist. But is there more to It than meets the eye? It is the story of seven friends battling a demon who transforms into and feeds on their worst fears. It is a coming of age story about what people do with their vulnerability and shame. More than a summer popcorn flick, It’s cultural resonance remains because the film shows the power of a community whose bond is cruciform. It takes its audience to church, and this church is a place where children lead.

The first sign that the child heroes of It model Christ’s Church is the title they give themselves in relationship to one another: The Losers Club. Sadistically bullied by a gang of boys led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), the children transform the denigrating label “loser” into the moniker of their distinctive community. Instead of denying or running from this abusive title, they embrace this identity as their own, and thus the term “loser” loses its harmful power over them. In fact, this choice to embrace curses and to transmute them into blessings is at the heart of how the kids eventually overpower Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). The Losers win by being willing to lose their own lives in order to rescue others. The Losers Club follows in the footsteps of the early Christians who chose the cross as the symbol for their faith. Crucifixion was among the most shameful ways to lose one’s life. It was a manner of death reserved for the worst criminals. In other words, the early Christians formed the first Losers Club. They wore the cross in honor of their Savior who they believed beat sin and death by willingly losing his life on the cross. The first sign that the protagonists of It will beat the darkness is the fact that they embrace the group identity of Losers.

“They all float down here. You’ll float, too.” This declarative statement is the tagline for the film. The line self-consciously breaks the fourth wall. Not only is Pennywise threatening children in Derry, Maine. He’s threatening the film’s audience as well and implicating them in the horror. Almost every time Pennywise speaks in the film, he threatens the children with floating rather than dying. His aim is not merely to kill people. Pennywise wants to keep them as floating trophies of his potency. When considering the themes of friendship and community in the story, it becomes clear why. In order to float, someone must be deprived of a firm foundation. They must be buoyed up and unanchored to anything stable. Lack of stability and rooted foundation are the optimal environmental factors to grow evil in It. Almost every time a character is attacked in It, they are first drawn away from their friends. Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) is right when she warns the boys, “This is what it wants. It wants to divide us. We were all together when we hurt it. That’s why we’re still alive.” Pennywise is only as powerful as his victims are isolated and autonomous. On every advertisement for the film, the viewer is warned that, without a firm foundation, they are subject to becoming Pennywise’s floating victims, too. Countering the popular veneration of the rugged individual in American culture, It warns that individuals actually lose what makes them distinctively strong outside of community. Without a united community, it’s “time to float.”

In It, friendships aren’t merely pleasantries of childhood. Intimate community and friendships are essential to survival. This theme is incarnated in the action of the characters repeatedly throughout the film. For example, when Eddie Kaspbrack (Jack Dylan Grazer) is separated from his friends in a condemned house, Eddie falls through the decaying floor and breaks his arm. He is unconscious for a while on the floor and helpless while Pennywise plays a cat-and-mouse game with him, tauntingly snapping and snarling at his arm to provoke greater fear in the child. Right before he is consumed, his friends find and rescue Eddie. As Pennywise approaches, Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) grabs Eddie’s face and directs his eyes away from the clown to his own face. Pennywise’s power is determined by how much his victim fears him. The more fear provoked, the more tasty the victim is to the victimizer. So Richie’s strategy to help Eddie in this moment of fear is significant. In redirecting Eddie’s focus, Richie destroys the power of Eddie’s enemy. By privileging relationship and community over the fear of being consumed, Eddie is rescued by his new focus. It is precisely the expulsive power of something stronger than Eddie’s worst fear that saves him: the fact that, even in his darkest, broken moment, Eddie’s friend is there to protect and love him.

When Pennywise slinks away, Richie resets Eddie’s broken bone and helps his friend out of the house. This painful and comedic moment indicates a major theme about the salvation achieved in It. Richie doesn’t obey Eddie’s command not to touch him or reset his arm. Richie resets it anyway, against Eddie’s will. In It, the victim’s will to be saved or healed prior to salvation is not consulted. In It, people are saved in spite of their lack of willingness or ability to choose to be saved. Modeling Jesus, the Losers pursue people who don’t ask to be rescued.

Among a few iconic images from It, few are as memorable as Eddie’s arm cast. After surviving his attack, Eddie goes to the pharmacy to pick up more of his prescriptions, his arm in an unsigned cast. Noticing him, the pharmacist’s bully daughter feigns sympathy and offers to sign his cast. The next time the cast is shown, the viewer sees what she wrote over his brokenness: “Loser.” Yet Eddie changes this label by writing over the black “S” a vivid red “V.” This word change from “Loser” to “Lover” is the visual thesis for It. The story is about what people do with their brokenness and shame. The “it” of the film’s title is ambiguous on purpose because It focuses on the labels people are given by others or give themselves and what they do with those given identities and their brokenness. More than a play on words, It is about broken losers who become broken, healing lovers equipped to face their own and others’ monsters. Becoming a lover of others is the only way to survive in the context of the story.

In order to savor this identity transformation, the antagonist working against the heroes needs to be identified. The antagonist is as hard to concretely name as the pronoun “it” is. The first villain in the story isn’t the demonic clown. The villain is Derry, Maine, itself. In the book and film, the environment around the characters in It is absolutely necessary for the horrors of the story to happen. All seven children that comprise the Losers Club have no protection or covering from any parent or authority figure. They are all very much orphans even if they have parents. More disturbing than getting eaten alive by Pennywise, when Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) is pulled into the sewer at the beginning of the film, an elderly lady and her cat are watching the murder happen. The woman looks away while Georgie cries for help, and the camera focuses on the house cat, the only one looking at the child. In another scene, Beverly’s abusive father cannot see the blood covering his daughter’s entire bathroom. Only the children can see the mess and clean the carnage up. Derry is a town where adults are blind to the evil happening around them. It is either the passivity towards evil or the aggressive participation in evil that serves as the welcome mat to usher in a demon like Pennywise. Each child’s unique experience with a perverse or absent parent determines what each child fears most. The absence of loving parents is part of the horror. Each manifestation of Pennywise is a reflection of each child’s unique fear and how they try to cope with their personal shame.

Bill’s worst fear manifests in visions of his murdered brother Georgie. Anytime Pennywise seeks to torment Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Martell), he shows him his brother and mimics his voice pleading to come home, mourning the fact that Bill didn’t protect him. Bill’s fear takes the form of the event for which he is most ashamed. Tellingly, these ghostly visitations actually work to destroy Pennywise. The clown’s name significantly denotes his lack of wisdom. He only has a penny’s worth of insight. Like C. S. Lewis’ White Witch, Pennywise’s knowledge of his victims’ weaknesses is ultimately his downfall. He does not expect their fear and shame to galvanize Bill and the others into fighting back—again taking curses and changing them to blessings. Inspiring the rest of the Losers to confront Pennywise in his haunted house, Bill says, “I go home, and all I see is that George isn’t there. His clothes, his toys, his stupid stuffed animals, but he isn’t. So walking into this house, for me, is easier than walking into my own.” Pennywise doesn’t understand the potency of love that makes a loved one’s absence more tormenting than their faux presence. Every time Pennywise shows Bill his brother, he fails to understand that Bill’s love for Georgie prompts him to confront evil rather than run from it.

Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) shares a similar fear and shame. Mike’s parents burned to death in a house fire, screaming for their son to help them. Like Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs, he is haunted by his failure to save victims he should have saved, haunted by “that awful screaming of the lambs”–literally, since he works in a slaughterhouse, where he resists killing sheep. So Pennywise appears to Mike in the screams of his burning parents, his greatest shame but also the source of his empathy. Again, Pennywise doesn’t know that showing Mike his fear inadvertently motivates him to save others.

To torment Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Pennywise becomes a headless mummy that attacks him in Derry’s public library. Ben is the “new kid on the block” in Derry. Overweight and a lover of knowledge and books, Ben is labeled a nerd. The librarian warns Ben that boys his age should be more athletically outgoing instead of pouring over books. Ben’s intellectual curiosity makes him less of a boy in the eyes of adults. He instantly loves Beverly when she is the only person who signs his yearbook. Beverly and Ben share interest in the same boy band, and something more personal. They know what it’s like to be sexually objectified. (Because of his weight, Ben is nicknamed “Tits” by Henry Bower’s gang.) In one of the most horrific scenes in the film, Henry carves an H in Ben’s exposed stomach and threatens to mutilate his chest. Then, a couple of adults drive by the boys circling Ben. They look right at the attack and do nothing. It is as if Ben and his attackers are invisible to adults. Hence, it makes sense that Ben’s fear and shame would manifest as a headless mummy. He already feels invisible to adults. The headless mummy also suggests that Ben fears losing his intellectual capacity. His intellect and size are used as weapons to shame him, but they are also some of his greatest strengths. His sexual objectification stirs his empathy for Beverly. And his intellectual curiosity helps him understand Derry’s long history of apathy toward evil.

Stanley’s fear and shame are manifested as a distorted woman with huge teeth coming out of a portrait in his father’s office. His father is the local rabbi. During their first conversation in the film, the boys of the Losers Club discuss Stanley’s upcoming bar mitzvah. Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) says that, after this ceremony, he will “become a man.” The theme of what constitutes real maturity and masculinity is a major focus of the story. The audience then sees Stanley in his temple, struggling to read from the Torah as he practices for his coming-of-age moment. Standing over him in the shot, his father reprimands him, “You’re not studying, Stanley. How’s it going to look? The rabbi’s son can’t finish his own Torah reading.” It is right after his father dismisses him with disgust that Stanley has his first visit from Pennywise as a distorted woman who jumps out at him from a portrait. Stanley’s fear and shame revolve around appearance. He sees the bar mitzvah as his masculine initiation, and his father is concerned about how his son will “look” to others. So it is fitting that Stanley’s fear would manifest as a woman who transgresses the limit of her frame. Stanley fears not looking like a man to others, and he’s ashamed that he doesn’t stay inside the expectations of his father. Tellingly, when Stanley is later attacked by Pennywise, the distorted woman jumps out at him and starts to eat his face. His identity is literally under attack. The Losers rescue both their friend’s life and his identity. Still, the attack on Stanley reveals the real demonic motive: to efface and subsume identity.

Stanley’s initial response toward evil is comically immature. When Bill and Richie find a missing girl’s shoe in the sewer, Eddie and Stanley refuse to try to find her. Stanley complains, “It’s summer. We’re supposed to be having fun. This isn’t fun. This is scary and disgusting.” Throughout It, the children use their lack of physical maturity as their primary excuse for not facing the evil in Derry. As the story progresses, this excuse becomes a call to action. Adults in Derry can’t see and don’t act to protect what only their children can see and protect. Part of the appeal of the story is the fact that children are able to confront and conquer darkness not in spite of their weaker status as children but because of their weakness. In It, being a child is an advantage. Being an adult is dangerous.

Eddie’s fear and shame are ironic since he is, apparently, the most protected child of the Losers. Pennywise manifests to Eddie as a decaying leper who pursues him. Eddie’s mother is one of Stephen King’s monster-parents, perversions of what loving parents are to their children. She is constantly reminding Eddie of how frail and sickly he is. Eddie’s fears and shame are very much bequeathed to him by his mother who teaches him to fear both germs and relationships with others. Her overprotectiveness is tantamount to psychological child abuse that stunts Eddie’s maturation. Eddie is aware of this abuse because his shame looks like a leper, a person who loses pieces of themself without the ability to feel. Like the leper, Eddie begins the story unable to appropriately feel reality around him. Eddie rejects looking for missing children saying, “What if I don’t want to find them? I don’t want to go missing either.” He begins the story concerned only with self-preservation because that is what he’s been trained to value by his mother. The story says that children need to be protected, but over-protecting children is potentially just as abusive as neglecting them.

Beverly, the only girl in the group of heroes, is sexually abused by her father. Her father is particularly attracted to his daughter’s long red hair. Blaming herself for her abuse, Beverly cuts her hair off and tries to look more like a boy to protect herself against her father’s attention. Secretly expressing his affection for Beverly, Ben writes Beverly a haiku: “Your hair is winter fire, January embers. My heart burns there, too.” Tellingly, while her father fetishizes his daughter’s hair, Ben’s poem is an example of pure and age-appropriate love. It is right before she is first attacked by Pennywise that Beverly reads and visibly enjoys Ben’s love poem. She holds the postcard close and smiles before Pennywise attacks her with her own hair as the form of entrapment. Her hair forms bonds on her hands and face as it shoots out of the sink. She is then sprayed with a huge fountain of blood that floods over her and her bathroom. Beverly’s shame and fear center around menstruation and female development. She fears sexual maturity because she only becomes more alluring to her father as she gets older. Still, her enslaving hair and maturity are not merely curses. Ben’s pure love for Beverly and his childlike attraction to her hair shows that she can experience what it’s like to be appropriately cherished instead of objectified.

Richie’s fear and shame is the icon of It. Richie’s number one fear is clowns, the form Pennywise takes most often. Richie has poor eyesight and wears thick glasses through the whole story. His physical eyesight reflects his lack of spiritual sight in the story. In key moments in the film, as in the scene where the boys help clean Beverly’s blood-soaked bathroom, the rest of the Losers leave Richie outside. They don’t trust his vision or his ability to control his mouth. “Can only virgins see this stuff?” Richie asks when the rest of the children are discussing Pennywise. Richie, like the other kids in Derry, has no positive adult role model. How he articulates his manhood is almost singularly through sexual innuendo and boasting about his supposed sexual experience. While Stanley says his bar mitzvah will make him a man, Richie quips, “I can think of funner ways to become a man.” The statement is grammatically and spiritually wrong. Like boys who haven’t seen examples of mature older men, Richie’s view of masculinity is extremely shallow and cynical. On some level, Richie must be aware of his lack of maturity and vulnerability because he talks incessantly in an effort to mask his weakness. He even calls his ability to over-talk anyone “a gift.” Of all the kids, Richie drops the most F-bombs. His “strong language” shows his weakness as he hides his insecurities behind profanity. Richie fears clowns because clownishness is how he tries to mask his shame.

The first time Pennywise attacks Richie, he exploits his poor vision. Entering the haunted house, Richie sees a Missing poster with his image on it. Looking at himself in horror, Richie immediately believes the deception. Only his friend can keep him from believing the sham.

The next time Richie is confronted by Pennywise, he is alone, drawn away from his friends, and isolated behind a locked door. He sees a coffin surrounded by mannequin clowns. When Richie sees himself now, he sees himself as another mannequin, another clown, in the coffin. Over his body is the same missing poster with the word “Found” written over it. This play-on-words is explicitly antichrist in nature, a perversion of the biblical idea of a lost soul being found. Richie slams the coffin lid shut in response to his vision. Pennywise springs out of the box and runs in clown form straight at Richie. In response, Richie opens the once-locked door and shuts it in Pennywise’s face. More than just a jump scare, Richie’s salvation scene shows his budding maturity. Still believing Bill’s voice, Richie rejects the lie that he’s already a victim. He closes the door twice on Pennywise. For the first time, Richie sees rightly by rejecting what he sees and choosing to believe what he can’t see: that he’s alive, that he’s able to resist the lie of the Enemy.

The full arc of Richie’s maturation comes in the final confrontation, when he is the first of the Losers to attack Pennywise. Right before Richie attacks, he uses his language to lull Pennywise into a state of false confidence in Richie’s cowardice: “I told you, Bill. I don’t want to die. It’s your fault. You punched me in the face. You made me walk through s****y water. You brought me to a f*****g crackhead house. And now … I’m gonna have to kill this f*****g clown.” Richie is not a threat to Pennywise as long as he’s cynical and focused on self-preservation. Pennywise doesn’t move to attack Richie because this litany of profanity-laced complaints is exactly what one expects from Richie. Yet in the moment that Richie pummels Pennywise, his verb tense changes from the past to the present tense. Richie may have been a selfish clown, but he isn’t one “now” when he acts to save his friend. With new vision, he is now a man.

In the second act of the film, two fathers die. The bully, Henry, murders his father and Beverly accidentally kills her father in self-defense when he tries to rape her. This patricide is the ugly end of the bad parenting on display. Still, these deaths mark different identity embarkations in Henry and Beverly. Henry becomes Pennywise incarnate, and Beverly becomes a fairytale heroine. Even as Beverly overcomes her paternal monster, Pennywise instantly attacks and kidnaps her. Angered that Beverly refuses to fear and empower him, Pennywise entrances Beverly and causes her to lose all control of her body as she begins to float with the rest of the victims. Bill finds her and tries to pull her back to earth, but he cannot reach her by himself. Only when the Losers form a human ladder are they able to reach Beverly and anchor her to the ground. In It, community literally saves the lost. Trying to save a floating victim autonomously never works. Beverly, like Eddie, cannot ask to be rescued, cannot even use her will to save herself. Ben, in classic fairytale fashion, brings Beverly out of her sleep of death by giving her a kiss of pure love. Perhaps one of the most appealing things about this horror film is that, for all the perversions of love Pennywise and the adults of Derry manifest, the story is profoundly uncynical about the power of childlike empathy and unselfish love. Horrors happen in fairytales, and, in the end, It is a fairytale. It’s a reimagining of the story of the Church.

The film opens with music. A child sings a nursery rhyme about “the bells of Saint Clarence.” The first invocation of children coincides with the first reference to a church. The next time a church is literally referenced in It is right before Eddie is first attacked by Pennywise. He walks slowly by the All Saints Anglican Church as the congregants sing, “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow.” The spiritual blindness of Derry juxtaposed with the lyrics of the Negro spiritual highlights two different perceptions. Unlike Derry, the church is a place of real seeing, a place where the horrors of the world are acknowledged. The church of Losers pushes back darkness that they correctly see and know.

Interestingly, the Losers Club comes into being in the film through baptism. In a rare moment of innocent joy, all seven children agree to meet at the quarry to swim. To enter the water, they must jump off a cliff. The boys nervously look down, unsure if they will jump. They are all stripped down to their underwear. Running up behind them in her bra and shorts, Beverly fearlessly jumps off the cliff, and the boys, inspired by her bravery, take the plunge after her. After this communal leap of faith, the cinematography revels in childhood nostalgia. The kids simply play, splashing and lifting one another onto their shoulders in the water. The fact that every character in this scene is in their underwear sharply contrasts the innocence of the children with the sexual perversion perpetrated by adults. The kids have the almost Edenic experience of being naked and knowing no shame. The scene is especially tender considering Beverly’s sexual abuse by her father. With these boys, Beverly experiences simple love that doesn’t objectify her. Theirs is a community forged in their willingness to be courageous together, and their bond is sealed in a summer water baptism. The Losers Club is a picture of the Church united.

The midway point between the first and second acts of the film is denoted by another explicit reference to the Church. Almost destroyed by Pennywise the first time they go into his lair, the Losers are too frightened to continue their search for the lost kids of Derry. Beverly tries to galvanize the boys saying, “We all know no one else is going to do anything. We can’t pretend it’s gonna go away. I wanna run toward something. Not away.” In one line, Beverly indicates the telos or ultimate direction for the Losers. Life isn’t just dark, scary, and covered by shame. There’s something to run toward because there’s a real purpose for human life. There’s something people are meant to be and do in community with one another. Outside of this community, there is only nihilism, denial, and despair. This certain nihilism is voiced by Richie in his rejection of Beverly’s appeal: “I’m just saying, let’s face facts. Real world. Georgie is dead. Stop trying to get us killed, too.” One of the signs of Richie’s lack of knowledge is ironically his stress on facts and what appears real. Before his worldview changes, Richie believes the real world is only the world he sees, the world where children are taken and killed. There’s no reason for courage in this “real world” where missing posters are always correct. The lost can’t be found, so there’s no point in seeking the lost. Right after this statement, Bill punches Richie in the face, and the church of Losers breaks apart.

The scene that follows this communal disunity is a musical montage showing each of the Losers by themselves. The lyrics sung over the scene are a prayer: “Dear God, hope you got the letter, and I pray you can make it better down here. I don’t need a big reduction in the price of beer. But all the people that you made in your image, see them starving on their feet because they don’t get enough to eat from God. I can’t believe in you.” The song “Dear God” by XTC is about the existential crisis of faith. Facing the fact of human suffering and evil, if people are created in God’s image, God must be cruel or non-existent. This song plays over the dissolution of the Losers, the loss of their church because they no longer believe there’s a purpose for their community anymore. It is while the Losers are divided that Pennywise is empowered to kill people and kidnap Beverly. Their love for Beverly is the ignition fuel to unify the Losers again. Significantly, when the Losers come back together, they pedal their bikes past All Saints Anglican Church as they enter their final confrontation with Pennywise. They are the Church again, united in purpose and empowered to push back darkness.

Pennywise’s final threat to the Losers reveals the source of his power and their power over him. Pennywise says, “I’ll feast on your flesh as I feed on your fear.” In a single sentence Pennywise says “flesh” and “fear” are inextricably tied. Pennywise is paraphrasing Paul’s warning in Romans 8:6: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Peace is the ultimate antithesis to Pennywise who lusts after fear and flesh. Those people who live according to their flesh are prime prey for Pennywise. Yet, when the Losers refuse the fleshly desire to autonomously survive, they are the only people able not only to survive but to literally beat Derry’s demon. The victimizer becomes the Losers’ victim as they become real lovers, people united by a communal love greater than the love of self. In the end, it is Pennywise who cowers in fear and falls back into darkness. He has no power without fear, and he can’t inspire fear in people who don’t live in the flesh.

The last scene of the film ties the Losers again to the Church. They make an oath to come together and confront Pennywise if he ever returns. To make this oath, each of the children cut their hands with the same knife. Forming a circle and holding bleeding hands, their community is bound together by blood. This blood, the sign of their individual lives bleeding into one another, is their unity. Christians, the other Losers Club, are likewise sealed together by blood, but, unlike the kids in King’s story, it isn’t their own blood which unites them. The Church is a bunch of losers who aren’t afraid to lose, and in that grace-empowered fearlessness they overcome. They are losers who become lovers, and that’s It.