I picked a theater seat at the end of the aisle, in the back, as close to the exit as I could get. If I was going to try watching a horror movie for the first time since 2000, I had to prepare. I pulled out the plush extra shawls I'd brought, kept them in my lap so that I could swaddle my head if I had to, blinding my eyes. I didn't know if I could sit through it—through IT, that is, the terrifying, hit film starring Pennywise the clown. The last time I watched an overtly frightening movie, I was in high school; since then, I'd avoided all cinematic attempts to spook me. Zombies, serial killers, witches, ghosts, homicidal loners—none of it, I can't, not even the trailers. Play a few bars of ominous film-score music and I'll flee the room.
But here I was, in a cinema on Mission Street, breaking the 17-year self-imposed prohibition. I used to love Pennywise, is the thing: I was a child aficionado of horror movies, in general, and of IT, in particular; I flouted my parents' rules and snuck viewings of the original IT at friends' house. I slipped in The Silence of the Lambs, Candyman, the various manifestations of Chucky the doll. Babysitters put on The Exorcist in the living room, and I only pretended to go to sleep, then sat cross-legged on the second floor, head thrust between the banister rails, intent on learning what happens when a demon possesses a little girl. I wasn't even afraid, not really. What little anxiety I felt tasted delicious, like fun. I reveled in it; I craved more.
But in high school, I lost the hardcore Christian faith in which I'd been raised. Right afterward, I stopped being able to watch scary movies. The reasons for the first loss were multiple, and fairly standard (the existence of other religions, evolution, the problem of evil); the effect was, let's say, devastating. It's the central loss of my life, from which I still haven't recovered, and maybe never will—but hey, enough about that, and what does this have to do with child-gobbling clowns? Reader: everything, though it took watching the entire film—well, trying—to recall why.
I was less afraid of the movie, at first, than I'd expected. (Warning: minor spoilers ahead.) The over-the- top music helped, and the cornball dialogue, the camp. The mean girls at school poured liquefied trash over outcast Beverly, and, in my notes, I wrote, "You know what's scarier than clowns? Filth." But then an empty-eyed painting started moving, and then it loomed at a child, terrorizing him, and I yelled, "No," and ran straight out the exit. I paced the hall, giving myself pep talks—"It's a movie, be a grown-up"—then I returned to my seat.
Then, more bad shit happened. Tall bullies knifed the new kid's stomach. One of these bullies wandered into a sewage tunnel. He was chased by zombie-like children, then the clown jump-scared him, I yelled, "No," again and ran back to the hall, to the calm of bright lights. This kinetic sequence repeated itself a couple more times, but in the end, I managed to watch most of the film, two thirds, at least. I'd accomplished something, I thought—a feeling much of the audience appeared to share, laughing, backslapping, visibly exulting at having survived It. I had, too, but I didn't want to laugh. Instead, I just felt sad.
Reunited with Pennywise, I saw what had drawn me to him. He's so empowering. To vanquish the hateful clown, the kids simply have to stand up to their own fears. The villain can't hurt them as long as they're not afraid of him.
Back when I loved him, Pennywise fit in with my then religious perspective. I believed, as Christians tend to do, that an all-seeing deity protected me: He had a detailed plan for me, as he did for each of his children. Faithful, I wasn't afraid to die, since I was assured of eternal life. The prospect of loss didn't frighten me, given that God would restore all things. The Lord held sway over Satan, so evil couldn't touch me.
For those of you who haven't experienced this, it's pretty great. It's outstanding, in fact, while it lasts. IT and its ilk used to be like rollercoasters: brief, make-believe jaunts into dread and grief. Now, though, I know such a lot about being afraid. Just to glance at the news is to spin into the kind of anxiety that leaves me awake all night, as though, by fretting, I'll singlehandedly keep the world intact. I won't. I know that, but standing up to these fears wouldn't solve the underlying problems. I miss God so much. It's a hole cut out of me, a loss that's always there, but I miss, too, the fearless person believing in him allowed me to be.
There's a moment in IT when we're shown a silhouetted crowd of children floating midair, circling, like a mobile of angels, or souls. It's astonishing, hopeful, as though these specters are living beings waiting to be revived. But in life, as in the film, that isn't how it works. The truly dead—a past self, a lost God—can't be returned, not for all our longing.