Analyzing the Representation of the Clown as a Monster:
How Pennywise from the Film 'It' isn’t Clowning Around
Written by: Brittany Semplonius
The novel written by Stephen King titled 'It' (1986) was adapted into a televised miniseries in 1990 and later into a film in 2017. For my construction of a monster analysis, I focus on the 2017 film adaptation. The film 'It', directed by Andy Muschieitti, portrays the life of seven children, also known as “The Losers Club,” who live in the town of Derry during the year 1988. The main protagonist, Bill, loses his younger brother Georgie. In attempts to find him, Bill brings his friends together on a hunt into the sewers, where Georgie was last seen. Eventually, the children are confronted by Pennywise the clown, who antagonizes each child with their own worst nightmare.
The analysis of the clown as a monster will be constructed using the scene from Bill’s garage (see clip below). The scene shows the seven children gathered around a projector (see figure above). They are projecting an old map of the town of Derry over a current map. They discover that each place where a person went missing is connected by the sewers. They also find that all the sewers lead to the Well House. They assume that Pennywise lives there. Scaring themselves, one of the seven kids, Richie, decides they should stop searching for Bill's brother. Suddenly, the projector gains a life of its own and begins to change the projection from their map to various childhood pictures of Bill. The projector glitches and gets stuck on one image. The video camera scans over each person in the photograph then stops on the part with Bill's mom. The camera zooms in closer to her and with each click! of the projector, the image of Bill’s mom becomes a stop-motion that shows her morphing into a clown. Suddenly, the clown jumps out of the projection and runs towards the kids.
The scene constructs Pennywise the clown as a monstrous figure. Prior to this scene, each child experiences a supernatural event with the clown without being able to prove the veracity of their encounter since no one else notices it. This situates the clown to be perceived as being the child’s active imagination. However, due to the accountability when all the children see the clown at once, the concept of the clown shifts from being an imaginary figure to something that appears real. Therefore, the scene in Bill’s garage is tangential to the clown as monstrous because it destabilizes the viewer’s preconceived notions of the clown as a singular figment of imagination to one that is dynamic and unpredictable and therefore, threatening.
But, despite the destabilisation of the clown into something threatening, the viewer can still hold on to fragments of disbelief, that what they are seeing is not real. Two important elements within the scene are first, the presentation of the clown as a supernatural entity since it transforms from a flat projected image into a three-dimensional “real” life form and secondly, the portrayal of the clown as an animal when it crawls on all fours towards the children. These two elements offer a greater sense of monstrosity because they deviate the figure of the clown away from being human, visually and behaviorally. The inability to declare whether the clown is real or not positions the viewer to think beyond the human form to something supernatural and therefore more powerful. Together these two elements, supernatural and animalistic, construct the clown as not being real since it is neither human nor animal, but rather something from a different dimension.
This is further shown when the clown transforms itself from a projected two-dimensional image and jumps into the children’s world as a three-dimensional figure (it is important to note here that once the clown disappears from the image on the projector, it appears in the garage with the children a few seconds later). The glitching of the projector and flashing of the lights before the clown appears in the garage can be related to Freud’s theory of the Uncanny. Freud states, “that the uncanny effect of epileptic seizures and the manifestations of insanity…excite in the spectator the feeling that automatic, mechanical processes are at work, concealed beneath the ordinary experience of animation,” (Freud 5). Since the clown enters the image through a morphing of the mom into a clown as a stop-motion, we are made to focus on the medium of cinema as a source for the unfamiliar. It is through the clown’s arrival into the image of Bill’s family that the framework between the real and the imaginary are crossed and an erasure of the old and familiar is erased. This is seen again when the clown jumps out of the image. This form of uncanny creates anxiety and distrust in the viewer and psychologically situates us to perceive the clown as monstrous since it can not be trusted or understood.
Monstrosity is also created through the visual construction of the clown (see figure below). If a normal clown is a man with face paint wearing colourful clothes, he should not be that menacing. But Pennywise’s demeanour does not suggest that a man is under his clothes. The height and size of the head are too big to be a human’s. The teeth resemble a shark’s since they are pointy, have multiple rows, and are yellowed. The sounds that the clown makes are more demonic and animal-like with screeching and growling noises in between words. Furthermore, the film editing makes the colours of the clown dark rather than bright and playful. The visual construction of Pennywise as a clown displaces our perceived ideology of what one should look like and therefore, styles the clown to inflict terror rather than surprise, making it appear more monstrous.
The film continues to position the clown as monstrous through an omnipresent point of view (P.O.V.) and background music. When filming the children in this scene, the film angle is looking up at the children and stringed instruments softly whirr in the background. Because of these two effects, the conversation between the children appears energized. It builds anticipation and fear and positions the children as more powerful/important since we look up at them. It is not until the projector begins to glitch that the music builds, drums are struck every couple times the projector clicks! and then screaming and groaning metal sounds begin to play. The distracting music is only present when the clown is present. This offers a stark contrast in mood between showing the children on the screen versus the clown. The binary of the two events places the clown as monstrous due to the dramatic change in music. However, the P.O.V. does not change. The angle of the camera suggests that we are apart of the group of children watching the projector. The camera angle never allows the viewer to be the clown, but rather keeps us looking at the clown, to look at what fears us.
The fact that we are not situated as seeing what the clown is seeing conceptually places us to look at the clown. Since the clown can represent any of the children’s fears, the clown becomes a dynamic icon of horror; we are looking at the source of fear. Relating back to the sound effects, it is important to note that the sound of the projector was never overpowered by the stringed music, drums and screaming. This makes the sound of the projector apart of the horror soundtrack. Due to this, the use of technology is then connected to the anxiety of our fear. More so, it was through their technology that their fears became real rather than just projected. The idea of projecting is a conceptual monstrosity that runs parallel to the belief that the more paranoid we get, the more likely we are to believe that what we are seeing is real.
Also, this scene calls to attention the power of images, specifically the power that images of clowns possess. It was thought that the fear of clowns as the “phobia-inducing experience may have come about through childhood trauma related to mass media images of clowns,” (Bala 60). Thus, the image of a clown has been directly linked to being a traumatic event. The visual construction of Pennywise and the fear he produces in the children reinforces this belief; the children are susceptible to the clown's seduction due to his visual portrayal. Thus, images can make us believe a lie without questioning its veracity depending on their ability to seduce the mind with fear, awe, romance, etc. They play tricks on the mind and distort reality. The imagery of the clown and projector become a metaphor towards the anxiety of technological innovation and the trickery media can play.
In conclusion, monstrosity is created through the inability to prove whether what you are looking at is real. The viewer is left in suspension because they are unable to dissect the facts before them. The inability to categorize what is real and not real, human or animal, from this world or a supernatural one, creates a sense of disorder and disbelief. Our senses are tricked through the agency of the technology and through the icon of horror.