When I was growing up, there were rules. Not crazy rules. More like “Halloween candy isn’t for breakfast” rules. Or “you can’t wear skirts so short they show your lady parts” rules. As someone now closer to making the rules as a parent than having to follow them, I now see these weren’t so much rules as they were common sense.
In sixth grade, however, I befriended a girl whose parents had very few, if any, rules. For the sake of anonymity, let us call her Faye.
Faye could wear, eat, and do pretty much whatever she wanted. Her mother — let us call her Rose — wore fake eyelashes and tight jeans and sprayed her cock-a-poo dogs with Calvin Klein Obsession so that they would smell “fresh.” She made us virgin Kahlua mudslides, and she let Faye wear press-on nails, go to pop concerts, and cut all of her Barbies’ hair. And, on top of all of that, she let Faye watch scary movies.
At that age — eleven — I didn’t have much experience with scary movies or books. I’d seen a few scary-ish movies at friends’ sleepover parties, and I’d read a few R.L. Stine books, but beyond that, my exposure was fairly limited.
Faye’s parents, on the other hand, let her watch scary movies to her heart’s content. And so one night when I arrived at Faye’s for a sleepover, Faye gleefully announced that after dinner, once it was good and dark and her parents were asleep, we’d be watching Stephen King’s It.
Have you seen or read It? If so, then you know it is not a movie (or book) for eleven-year olds — unless you want to scare them to death, imperil their ability to sleep for at least a week (probably longer), and ensure they never look at clowns the same way again. If you have an eleven-year old and this is your goal, please show him or her It immediately.
For those of your who haven’t seen It, the story is about a mysterious predator (“It”), who can take the form of its prey’s greatest phobias but most often appears as “Pennywise the Dancing Clown.” Pennywise seems like your standard friendly clown, offering smiles and balloons, until — BAM! — he opens his mouth and reveals a set of razor sharp teeth, which he uses to murder his victims.
As you can imagine, Pennywise — and It generally — scared the bejesus out of me. Take a look at this clip below, and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about. Thanks to the scene beginning at 2:55, I was basically afraid of my shower for a month.
What scared me about Pennywise — and Stephen King is a master at this — is that Pennywise wasn’t a four-headed monster. He wasn’t a witch or a goblin or a zombie. He was a clown. A clown like the ones I’d seen at dozens of birthday parties. A clown like the one who came to my own birthday party when I turned four. But instead of making balloon animals or doing magic tricks, this clown lured children in and then ATE THEM.
For me, that’s what took a scary premise (mysterious being who eats children) and turned it into something flat-out terrifying (trusted childhood entertainer who eats children). Sure, flesh-eating zombies are hideous and scary, and they probably would have given me nightmares too, but because Pennywise was so familiar, so “normal,” he — It — got in my brain and wouldn’t leave.
And that, for me at least, is what makes a story truly spooky or scary: eliciting fear from the everyday, the familiar, the humdrum. Doing so makes us look differently at the world around us (“Could a clown pop out of my shower drain, too?” “Could my cute little puppy turn into Cujo?” “What if my house is haunted or cursed?”). I will never look at clowns the same way again, and I have Mr. King to thank for that.
We are bred to smell fear in things that are unusual or outwardly creepy, but if the commonplace things around us warrant our vigilance as well, then we begin to wonder if we’re ever really safe. If something as silly as a clown can make me sleep with the light on for a week, then what else should I be afraid of?
What about you? Have you seen a movie that scared the pants off you? Did it involve monsters and demons, or everyday subject matter?
**Editor’s Note: Deb Dana is among our many East Coast friends and family coping today with the effects of Hurricane Sandy. We send our best to everyone in the path of the storm and our prayers to those who have suffered in its wake. -KW
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