Picture this: You’re watching a horror movie. The camera has stumbled upon one character isolated from the rest, engaged in a mundane or innocuous task without a care in the world.
They’re microwaving popcorn. They’re watching TV. They’re getting dressed after a shower. Suddenly, they hear a thump, perhaps a thud, from down the hall, or down the stairs, or down in the basement, and because horror movie characters are inquisitive, they investigate the sound right away to find its source; you, meanwhile, are shouting admonishments at the screen. (You know they’re in a horror movie. They don’t.) After several nerve-wracking, dread-inducing minutes, they’re dead at the hands of the film’s killer. Too bad; they should have listened.
This is one of horror’s oldest rituals. It’s kind of a genre contract: You must be this careless to ride, lest the viewer be robbed of the cheap, visceral thrills they paid the price of admission for. But there comes a point when irresponsible characters are just plot contrivances, and at that point the contract becomes a trope and irresponsibility becomes frustrating. We wouldn’t take a peek in the attic to figure what’s making that creepy scratching noise, after all. Horror characters should know better.
Enter child protagonists, currently represented by the fantastic cast of Andy Muschietti’s It, the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s classic 1986 novel. It does many things well; it’s gorgeously textured, the product of Muschietti’s aesthetic sense and Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography, it adapts the first half of King’s book about as cleanly as any movie can hope to, and it features one of the best realized horror villains seen on the big screen since the duster-coat-bedecked creature in The Babadook. But the film’s best merit, whether intended or not, is the argument it constructs in favor of kids playing the hero in horror movies. Horror characters should definitely know better, but kids don’t know better. They can’t know better. Surprisingly, this makes them far better suited as horror protagonists than teens and grown-ups.
They’re kids, after all, the living embodiments of curiosity, genetically programmed to stick their noses in affairs that are either not their business or liable to get them killed. When adults wander off to their grisly demise in a horror movie, it’s a screenwriting party foul. When kids do the same, it’s organic, natural, even expected. We don’t associate children with much by way of survival instincts. Adults, and to a far lesser extent teens, ought to consider their well being at least a little before taking a leisurely evening stroll through a foreboding cornfield, where certain death lurks behind every stalk.
The default leader of It’s youth troupe, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), habitually wanders off on his lonesome when he catches a whiff of the ancient interdimensional fiend that’s spent the last year in the film’s timeline snacking on kids (including his little brother, Georgie); he does this so many times, in fact, that you can’t count them on all your digits. It’s Bill’s standard practice. Rather than “see something, say something,” he advocates “see something, strut headlong into the waiting arms of imminent death.” Add ten years to Bill’s age and you get a crowded theater yelling “idiot!” at top volume.
But Bill isn’t an adult. Weirdly, he still knows better, but in a way that makes his actions even easier to grasp. Unlike the assorted authority figures littering Derry, the small Maine town It takes place in, Bill actually does understand what evils await him in the darkness. He and his friends — Beverly and Ben, Eddie and Richie, Stanley and Mike — are each painfully aware of their mortality as they spend the summer of 1989 fearing for their lives. Eddie’s mom, by comically stark contrast, is ignorant of the true dangers haunting her son.
Even before the Losers Club put themselves on the radar of Pennywise, aka “it,” the worst perils Eddie faces have little to do with Derry’s gray water or hay fever. If a day goes by where he isn’t menaced by the local bully, Henry Bowers, it’s damn near miraculous. That goes for all of the Losers, though you can add to Bowers a coterie of other hazards, each tailored to the individual Loser’s respective lives.
Ben is the new kid in town; until he runs into Bill, Eddie, Richie, and Stanley, he doesn’t have friends. Beverley is routinely intimidated by her dear loving father. Like Ben, she’s sans friends, but her parent is her worst nightmare made flesh. You can travel on down the line, if you like: The Losers each share the same basic story outline. The shading filling in that outline is the only thing that varies.
Who is more qualified to face the thing that goes “bump” in the night, then, than a kid? In part, It is all about straight-up nullifying the “creepy basement” and “sinister scraping sound” tropes: If the subjects of the movie aren’t yet of age, then you can’t give them much guff for prying or for generally being meddlesome. It’s a clever way of acknowledging a horror custom that has, perhaps, outlived its usefulness, or if nothing else has grown too widely used for the good of the genre. But It is much more about getting to the root of why kids confronting the darkness is more innately frightening, and upsetting, than watching adults do the same thing. Being a kid is tough enough when all you have to deal with are the normal travails of growing up: Bullies, school, puberty, negligent adults — ageless, eldritch aberrations who take sadistic pleasure in devouring your friends and neighbors aside.
It isn’t the only recent entry in horror canon to say as much, either: The film is simultaneously the predecessor and beneficiary of Stranger Things, the 2016 Netflix series that best compares with what Muschietti attempts in telling the saga of the Losers Club’s battles with Pennywise: Pitting kids against monsters and childhood against the terror of the unknown. (It helps to have Finn Wolfhard, who appears in both, onboard, though the Duffer brothers’ obvious love of King makes for a better link between the two properties.) In Stranger Things, as in It, it’s kids, and not their sires or custodians, who are tasked with combating nameless (and also faceless) evil when no one else will; it’s kids who save the day, kids who turn out to be their own heroes.
At least in Stranger Things, there’s the odd character like Joyce or Sheriff Hopper, who over time convinced that something foul is afoot and play pivotal roles in defeating evil. The kids of It possess no such luxury. The quest to kill Pennywise is theirs, and only theirs. The film elegantly makes this subtext into text, pointing out that the things adults fear differ greatly from the things children fear, and this is why Pennywise prefers hunting children over adults. Children’s fears are exotic. Adult’s fears are mundane. (His logic is compellingly macabre: How do you “salt the meat” with anxiety over making mortgage payments or getting your oil changed?)
Maybe horror needs mature characters to make unfortunate choices. Maybe the genre wouldn’t survive without those choices. But maybe horror also needs the perspective of a child to refresh those decisions, to reframe them entirely through the eyes of an age group not normally ceded control of the spotlight in films for folks with driver’s licenses. Kids are more in tune with the skeletons, spirits, and spooks that live in the darkness; they’re better equipped to deal with them. Let them bolt through inky, winding sewers on their own, paying no mind to the reality that each corner they turn might lead them to their demise. They know what’s waiting for them in the basement, in the attic, in the closet, when no one else does.
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009; he contributes words to Paste Magazine, The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.
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