This is one of my favorite times of the year. The air has turned crisp and cool in prophecy of things to come. The trees have begun to turn inward, their spring and summer growth slowly becoming rattling skeletons that will light up the earth with their oranges and reds before succumbing to the final fade and fall.
While December sees my home looking vaguely like the sugar plum fairy exploded, October turns it equally as dark—skeleton candle holders, tombstones, creepy figurines, and black cloth draping and adorning nearly every surface and altar.
Halloween is as much a time of fun as it is a serious spiritual process for me. The whole world seems poised on the edge of the underworld, and I know that the playfulness of the tricks and treats and the thrills of the season hold a special power that balances out the dark that at other times of the year might feel overwhelming.
This year, I’m attempting to do something that touches on an aspect of the darkness of this season every day of the month. Since horror movies, rife with symbolism and meaning, are one of my favorite ways of encountering the underworld, I thought I might highlight some of the stories that stand out to me as particularly relevant, beginning with what I would call the scariest movie I’ve ever seen—IT (2017).
There may be spoilers in the following paragraphs.
Stephen King is, of course, a master of horror, and the recent film adaptation of his book has made an indelible mark on my psyche, as much because of its themes as because of the jumps and scares that nearly drove me out of the theater when I watched it.
IT is a brilliant exploration of fear and the myriad ways we all attempt to deal with it. Each of the children in the movie is grappling with their own version of fear, often handed down to them from their parents’ own unhealthy ways of coping. The town is riddled with a nameless terror that is destroying lives, yet the adults seem surprisingly unaware.
The adults feel the terror, but they won’t acknowledge it.
Instead, they find their own unique ways of keeping it out of consciousness— we see one using hypochondriasis bordering on Munchausen by proxy syndrome, another religion, and another isolation. Several turn to the power surge of abusing those weaker and more vulnerable, and still others are absent (either literally gone or absent through emotional distance or substance use).
The children are left on their own to figure out how to handle their growing fears and awareness of the horrors of life…and death. Some of them take on their parents’ method of coping, a la Eddie and his somatic symptoms or Henry Bowers and bullying.
Others repel the coping mechanisms they see before them, as with Stanley Uris who seems to resent his religious indoctrination or Stuttering Bill who refuses to forget his brother the way his parents have.
Still others develop their own unique way of coping—as with Richie’s potty-mouth humor or Ben’s obsession with research and the library.
But one thing they are all aware of is that they are scared, and nobody seems ready to help them. They’re aware that they’re not meant to deal with this stuff at their age. It should be something the adults deal with. But they also know that the adults aren’t dealing; they’re avoiding. The adults are lulled into a stupor, ignoring the “Missing” posters in favor of a creepy, indoctrinating television show that gives Pennywise perfect access to their subconscious.
There are multiple times when the kids have a choice—take the path of their parents, ignore what is happening, and enjoy being a “kid,” all the while fastidiously distracting themselves with their individual brands of avoidance, or face their fears, bring them into the open, and learn how to work together to overcome them.
Obviously, some choose the former—most notably the bullies. But the Loser’s Club manages to discover, despite the horrific examples they have before them, that the only way they have hope of defeating this nameless horror is to face their own fears with the strength of friends. They learn that fear is strongest when left in secret and that a good portion of its power comes from the internal paralysis of one’s own mind.
As each of the children confronts the real-life horrors in their own lives, they develop the strength to confront the mythical horror that is terrorizing their town. Together, they become a force to be reckoned with.
Whereas It had seemed all-powerful in the beginning (when they each faced It alone), at the end, It is a powerless, confused mess of constant transformation as It scrambles to find the mental foothold that gave It Its true power.
As Stephen King is wont to do, he juxtaposes real horrors with supernatural ones—the horror of abuse, coming of age, and bullying with the horror of some inexplicable but very hungry monster. I love how scary the movie was for me, but more than that, I love how IT isn’t just an exploration of fear but a treatise on the power of connection to heal and overcome.