Why the Movie ‘It’ Is So Scary (and Not So Scary)

The movie It opens today, Sept. 8, and promises to be a quintessential modern horror movie. Which is why I won’t watch it.

A friend of mine taught me to love horror movies, then taught me to hate them.

It is based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel, a book I remember seeing on my mom’s nightstand and then in my big brother’s hands. He told me how terrifying it was — the story of a killer clown — and I stared at it in awe, too afraid to open it.

The 1990 mini-series version of It is said to have terrified a generation with Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise the Clown who hides in sewers and calls to his victims from drains — a suburban Billy Goats Gruff.

That earlier It helped inspired the recent spate of scary clown sightings — and those sightings, in turn, helped inspire the 2017 remake.

The movie’s first trailer, released March 31 online, was viewed 197 million times by April Fool’s Day — a record day for a movie trailer. Hollywood hopes the movie does record business, too, after a summer of box office flops.

The trailer has lots of truly terrifying features: a loving scene between two brothers turns menacing; a child chants an odd phrase so insistently that you can’t stop thinking about it; children at play find their innocence hijacked by a nameless enemy.

It also has lots of clichés that should have lost their ability to frighten us by now: a caricatured dilapidated haunted house; a machine that won’t turn off; an obviously studio-manufactured image of a figure rushing at the camera from the dark.

But it all still works. Why?

A friend of mine convinced me to give horror movies a try after I had spent a childhood too afraid to watch them. We saw The Haunting in Connecticut, The Unborn, The Blair Witch Project and Let the Right One In, among others.

I enjoyed them the way I enjoy roller coasters and appreciated them the way I appreciate fairy tales. Roller coasters work by convincing you for a second that you’re going to die, then thrilling you when you don’t. Fairy tales confront you with your fears — then banish them. Trolls guard the bridges to adulthood; fairy tales teach you to push past them.

Horror movies did all of that for us too. Until my friend started helping an exorcist in his diocese.

Praying with families and assisting with exorcisms helped him discover something else about these movies: They are terrifying because they are true.

These are movies in which people find they have somehow invited a something into their life that is pitiless, cruel and relentless. Just like the people he was offering deliverance prayers for.

The devil attacks us in order to make innocence look helpless and hope look absurd. It does that too.

My friend enjoyed horror movies because they were thrilling escapist fiction. Now he can’t enjoy them because they are depressing inescapable truth: There is a whole demonic world of evil that is hell-bent on defacing the image of God wherever it can be found. The clearest place to find it is in us — and the usual way to deface it is not by possession but by sin.

Fittingly, though, It opens on the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady. September 8 is the day the answer to the devil was born.

Orthodox priest Father Alexander Schememann once noted how counter-cultural the Nativity of the Theotokos is.

“There is so much evil around us that this faith in man, in his freedom, in the possibility of handing down a radiant inheritance of goodness, has almost evaporated and been replaced by cynicism and suspicion,” he said. The answer is “this birth of a little girl in whom are concentrated all the goodness, spiritual beauty, harmony and perfection that are elements of genuine human nature.”

The movie It is terrifying because it suggests there is a strongman hiding in the darkness who will stop at nothing to destroy us.

That’s true. There is.

But the Nativity of Our Lady is powerful because it assures us that God himself sent his Son through Mary to restore our innocence, reaffirm our hope, and overpower our enemy.

Watch It if you must. But remember: Compared to Jesus and Mary, evil is a pathetic, cowering clown.

This article appeared at Aleteia.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.