Okay, time to clarify the sensationalist headline before I get too deep into this. I don’t believe that the new feature film version of Stephen King’s IT will only be successful because of President Donald J. Trump. From everything I’ve seen, the cast and crew behind IT have made a film worthy of King’s landmark novel. IT will gain copious praise and abundant ticket sales because IT looks like a good movie and is a popular property that people want to see.
That being said, it’s important that we always view popular art in the context of the times. No other genre gives us a better look into the cultural zeitgeist than horror. Throughout the ages, horror fiction has been a way for the masses to confront their prevailing fears head-on. Look at the wave of “torture films” from the early-to-mid 2000s. Saw, Hostel, their sequels and other similar films were cathartic ways for people to deal with the horrific revelations of torture coming out of the Iraq War. Or as our country welcomed its first black president, films like Insidious and the Paranormal Activity sequels which focused old ghosts and demons hiding in our own homes became popular. They became examinations on the inescapable monsters of our country's past being brought to the forefront. I’m not saying that was what their authors intended but it’s easy to draw such parallels and it was a factor that audiences clearly responded to, whether it was consciously or subconsciously.
Or how about the rise of the slashers in the 1980s? The Reagan era was the age of excess, so our horror movies met the decade with extravagant body counts, over-the-top death scenes, and the most elaborate special effects we'd ever seen. Paranoia about communist invasions and atomic experiments? The 1950s offered up Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a plethora of “science gone wrong” creature features. And it’s not just American films that prove this. Go all the way back to legends of vampires and witches and you’ll be able to see how they are manifestations of a primitive culture’s fear of immigrants from foreign lands and the unease of unbridled feminine power. The point is: horror does well when it’s tapping into what we as a collective consciousness are currently afraid of.
And today, a lot of us are afraid of an evil clown.
The creature calling itself our president is one of the most terrifying monsters this country has ever seen. It’s not hyperbole to say that many people are frightened beyond belief at what is going to happen with Donald Trump leading the United States. Persecuted sections of our populace don’t know what the next day will bring as this shapeshifting beast makes his way through our civilization. He seems to be a manifestation of some of the greatest fears this nation has tried to keep buried under the surface: racism, sexism, narcissism, xenophobia, unchecked greed, and a malicious delight for ignorance and exclusion. Trump is both a dullard and a demon, the most deadly of combinations.
It’s here that his contribution to the box office success of IT comes into play.
There have been a number of conversations I’ve had with people who say, in some form or another, “I don’t usually see horror movies in the theater, but I’m going to see IT.” As I said, a big part of that is due to the excellent marketing and the quality of the footage that’s been released. But, I also feel that there is a subconscious element at play here. If people need horror to help them face their darkest fears, doesn’t IT seem like the perfect story to help them do so right now?
IT is a story about a group of self-described Losers coming together to defeat a monster. And who are these Losers? Outcasts. People who feel they are living on the edges of their society and are fighting for normalcy. Fighting against an evil that rules their town by feeding on them. Fighting against Pennywise, a mockery of everything these Losers hold sacred and put their trust in.
The framing of the story not only taps into the fear center of our brain, but it does something that many mainstream horror films don't touch upon: a classic representation of good against evil. It's one of the reasons IT is such a special story. It's this epic tone that turns IT into something much more than your average spook-a-blast date movie or traditional escapist fantasy. IT is a grandiose tale and the evil of Donald Trump is equally gargantuan.
It's also worth noting that Stephen King's worlds are often filled with antagonists who are regressive creatures. Misogynists, bigots, and oppressors are littered throughout his work. Though Pennywise isn't really one of these kinds of villains, he's something more unnerving: he's amoral. He's a unrelenting monster and our current president certainly fits that description.
But what happens at the end of IT? Spoiler: they win. They beat the clown. This ragtag group of kids that nobody had faith in come together and they stop IT. It takes them a long time and the battle is a difficult one with its fair share of loss, but they eventually destroy the monster.
And that’s what audiences want to see. Heck, we need to see it. We need to see the knights enter the dark cave and slay the dragon. Yes, the cave is scary and not all the knights will make it out alive, but the dragon will be conquered.
Stephen King’s IT is an amazing story about fear and that’s a state of mind that is eternal. It transforms to better suit the anxieties of the present day, but it is an omnipresent force that is as ancient as the carnivorous being at the center of King’s horror tale. It’s in channelling that fear and shoving it into the light that we learn how to master it. Art has always been the greatest medium for this, and IT has resurfaced in our popular media at a time where we need IT the most. Not just as a form of entertainment or escapism, but as a representation of the evil we face today and what it's going to take to defeat it.
So yes, I think our fear of Donald Trump will help drive a lot of people to the box office to see IT, whether the people going realize it or not. Why? Because many of us want to face the villainous clown in all of its forms and see it lose. We want to see the outcasts of society band together and become the majority that topples a behemoth. That’s what horror helps us to achieve: a way to make sense of the terrifying and the absurd. A way to fight the darkness on its own playing field. A way to be brave when it’s so much easier to be afraid.
A way to beat the clown.