I went to see IT and almost hyperventilated in the movie theater.

The day I watched the new remake of Stephen King’s IT, I saw a kid inexplicably dressed in a full-on clown costume on a scooter scooting around in my neighborhood. When looking for parking at the theater, a car drove by us, and its driver was a man in a clown costume. What an ominous tone for the night.

I only make note of things like that because I’m a part of that 12% of adults in the U.S. who are afraid of clowns. (Yes, I am that friend.) When I see a foolish-looking harlequin, I feel uneasiness and panic. I find myself having difficulty breathing and my palms get sweaty. It’s almost kind of embarrassing. When people know you’re afraid of clowns, they become total dicks. How could anyone be afraid of something so harmless?

Sweet baby angel me, age 6, looking very uneasy.

But they aren’t harmless. Clowns are weird-looking, with large exaggerated physical features like big smiles, overly large feet, and bulbous red noses. They have painted smiles on their faces, but you never know what they’re really like underneath all that makeup. Take, for example, the most famous killer clown, Pogo the Clown, better known as John Wayne Gacy. He dressed as Pogo for kids’ parties and fundraising events in Chicago, all the while murdering at least 33 young men and burying them in his basement. As police were interviewing Gacy as a suspect, he remarked, “You know … clowns can get away with murder.”


No thanks. And let’s face it: It’s not natural that 20 clowns can fit in a small car.

The fear of clowns, or coulrophobia, is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s not even listed as an official phobia by the World Health Organization. But it’s real. Clowns are often perceived as terrifying, as exemplified by the string of reports around the world of the lone clown standing on the side of the road or in a park, silently glaring at anyone who encounters him. Or the allegedly haunted Clown Motel in Nevada, keeping it creepy thanks to the clown décor and neighboring graveyard. (By the way, this motel is on the market if anyone out there is interested in owning a nightmare come to life.) And who could forget where it all began, the original television mini-series IT from the 90s (starring Tim Curry as Pennywise)?

Clowns and clown-like figures have actually been making people feel uneasy for centuries. The jesters of medieval times not only tried to entertain the king’s court with jokes and magic tricks, but they also had the task of relaying the daily news — even the bad news that no one wanted to tell the king.

Fun fact: If the king was not pleased with his jester, the fool would face some serious repercussions. As Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Steven Schlozman (who teaches a course on the psychology of horror, a class that I would have probably taken in college) explains in an article in Vulture:  “[C]lowns in the Middle Ages, if they didn’t make the king laugh, paid a pretty steep price. A lot of the jesters were mutilated to make them smile all the time. They would have the muscles cut that enabled the mouth to frown.”


Laughing jester (unknown Early Netherlandish artist, circa 1500).

The forefather of the modern clown was Joseph Grimaldi, a popular entertainer during the early 1800s. His makeup — a white face with bright red spots on his cheeks — is the standard clown’s makeup that we see today. But underneath that cheery façade, Grimaldi’s life was filled with sadness. Grimaldi’s wife died during childbirth, and his son was an alcoholic who died at the age of 30. In fact, his profession was hurting him: All of his acrobatics left him with painful joints and respiratory problems.

Even Native American tribes had their own version of clowns, used in religious ceremonies and to provide social commentary through humor. What’s interesting are the striking similarities between the modern clown and the Native American jesters, who also covered their faces with masks or face paint to conceal their identities. The Hopi believed that when a member donned the mask of a clown during a ceremony, he abandoned his own personality and became possessed by that figure.

But yet I went to see IT. Why? Honestly, as I cautiously watched the first trailer to come out, I had to admit, this movie looked pretty dang good.

So, I decided I would go see IT the week the movie opened and chose the aisle seat in case I had to make a quick getaway. But even picking out when I would see the movie was a bit of a challenge. I had to make sure I chose the right day and time because, as a special event, my local Alamo Drafthouse was having an all-clown viewing of IT that I obviously needed to avoid. The day after that, they showed Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Why were they doing this to me??

I’ve made a huge mistake.

In all, I actually enjoyed the movie. The first glimpse of Pennywise could creep out anyone, with his glowing orange eyes peering at little Georgie from the sewer in the opening moments of the movie. And the final scenes in the Neibolt House were nail-biting.

But I didn’t really see IT as a traditional horror movie. One might even say that the true focus of the movie wasn’t the creepy supernatural clown stalking children and eating their souls, but rather a group of prepubescent teens trying to deal with the fears and uncertainties of growing up. These characters — Bill racked with the guilt of his brother Georgie dying, Mike being an isolated homeschooler and the only person of color in Derry, Bev growing into a woman with no strong female role model and an abusive father — struggle to maneuver within the lives that they were given. Pennywise interacting with the kids acted as a manifestation of their stresses.

Clearly, I’m not the only one who liked this movie. IT had one of the best openings for a horror movie in September, making $123 million its opening weekend, and pumping everyone up for the Halloween season.

Am I cured after exposing myself to clowns? I don’t really know. I clearly survived and only felt a panic attack coming on once, during a particular scene (you’ll know when you see it). The story, the way the young actors brought their characters to life (now I’m more afraid of teen psychopaths like Henry Bowers existing), and the cinematography were so good that the movie ended up having much more to offer than just a freaky-ass clown.

Also, it helps that Bill Skarsgård is kind of attractive in real life, so I don’t know how to feel anymore (and apparently, I’m not the only one).

THIS is Pennywise?? My body is confused.

One thought on “When a Coulrophobe Voluntarily Watches IT

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