How ‘It’ and the New Pennywise Mirror the Fears of 2017

stephen king's it

The new It has become one of the biggest blockbusters of 2017, and has reinvigorated the box office for the fall. Much of that success comes from the amazing performance of Bill Skarsgård, who transformed himself into the monstrous Pennywise.

Pennywise has been a horror staple for years, thanks both to Stephen King’s original novel and Tim Curry’s performance as the character in the 1990 TV miniseries. But this Pennywise has definitely been reinvented to match today’s times and our struggles, chief of which being our struggle to get over the past. It would seem that for all of our technological advancements, the 21st century is still full of confusion and fear about the future.

On the surface, Pennywise’s popularity comes from an almost universal fear of clowns, fears that stem from childhood. But looking deeper, you can see that these fears only still retain their power because of how connected they are to our nostalgia for our childhoods. We closely identify with these fears because they came to us during a time when we felt the most protected and secure. Characters like Pennywise play on this strong connection and exploit it. But when we put Pennywise in today’s time, we can see that the character, through his makeup and costume, also says a lot about how our lives currently are being exploited by the strong pull of nostalgia’s lies.

Dat Boi Pennywise

Blast From the Past

Pennywise’s strength comes from his ability to play on nostalgia, and that’s most evident in his costume. Gone are the days of Pennywise’s old standard clown costume, which was used more as a way for Pennywise to blend in as a regular clown in the original It. One look at Pennywise’s new costume tells the viewer that this isn’t Pennywise’s first time hunting kids, or even his first time on our earthly plane. That story is told through mixing several different time periods together to present a cohesive, singular look.

“The costume definitely incorporates all these otherworldly past lives, if you will,” said costume designer Janie Bryant to Entertainment Weekly. Bryant utilized the styles of several different eras, including the Medieval, Renaissance, Elizabethan, and Victorian styles, to create a timeless, antique creepy doll look for Pennywise.

The fact that Pennywise does look like an old dusty doll makes him even scarier. It’s definitely something he uses to his advantage throughout the film, particularly when Pennywise hides among other clown dolls while he’s on the hunt for the Losers. The reason his costume alone can incite fear is because it’s a definite reminder of the types of porcelain dolls in curio cabinets that we might have seen as kids. These dolls, of course, became extremely scary looking when the lights go out. One of the biggest horror themes is how nostalgia plays a part in what terrorizes us. Namely, what frightened us as children — weird dolls like Annabelle or Chucky, and clowns that look like Pennywise — still have a deep hold on our psyches today.

Pennywise’s costume not only plays on the things that used to scare us as kids, but it also plays on It’s own focus on nostalgia, particularly how nostalgia charms us, much like Pennywise himself, into believing things that aren’t actually true. Similar to how Pennywise’s costume is a pastiche of elements from different time periods, the It movies move through nostalgic eras as well. In this reboot, the story takes place in the 1980s, a time period that is especially relevant to moviegoers today because many of the adults in movie theater audiences were kids in the ‘80s. Despite the scary setting, the ‘80s are still being used as a “simpler time,” when childhood was still magical. The original It also plays off the audience’s longing for the past as well; the original TV movie came out in 1990, but it’s set in the 1950s, when horror fans who were in their 40s at the time were kids. Were those times actually simpler? No. They were actually quite scary, in their own ways. Pennywise’s power comes from the lie of nostalgia, though, a lie that definitely still has resonance today.

Pennywise Empire

Elegance and Youthfulness

If Pennywise’s costume is a huge comment on how nostalgia affects us and lies to us, his makeup is a comment on how the more unassuming something looks, the more dangerous it might actually be.

Pennywise’s makeup is starkly different from the Curry era of It. There is no classic clown makeup; instead, clown-like motifs are exaggerated into something much more alien. The trick, though, is that the exaggeration isn’t overt; it’s simplistic and graphic. That graphic quality certainly cements Pennywise into the 21st century; he feels modern, sleek, and futuristic, even while wearing Elizabethan garb.

Entertainment Weekly described the make-up perfectly. “This manifestation of Pennywise from director Andrés Muschietti’s film…is elegant, precise—even alluring,” wrote EW’s Anthony Breznican. “He’s in control. It’s a stark contrast to the messy, smeared, and dirty scary-clown trend pioneered eight years ago by Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.” Skarsgård also said to EW that the new look is supposed to be “fresh and original,” adding, “It’s purposely not going toward that weird greasy look.”

The elegance and simplicity of Pennywise’s make-up is the only modern element found in this new It. Yes, it has echoes of classic clown makeup, but the way the lines of the mouth crawl up to the eyes in a dark red curve looks more like something out of avant-garde fashion than a horror film. It’s this element, coupled with his youthful face, that tickles the mind and makes you wonder just what it is that makes Pennywise tick.

The cleanliness of the make-up also makes it clear that we are now at the demarcation point for grungy horror characters. With grunge comes a relatable, real world aesthetic, and Pennywise is anything but real world.

“There is something inexplicable about Pennywise, and it should be that way,” Skarsgård said to the LA Times. “Heath Ledger’s Joker is rooted in the real; you can break down the psychology. But Pennywise is not…a real person.”

That feeling of something or someone not being real is certainly something we’re used to nowadays, what with the advent of a post-truth and “fake news” society. Similarly to how we could still find ways to identify with the Joker, many of us used to feel like we could find ways to identify with anyone, even people we disagreed with. Those days seem sadly behind us. Now, it’s hard to know who is real and who is a Pennywise; that is to say, how can we go on in a society that feels like it’s not even real anymore?

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