The Merits of Psychological Warfare in It (1990)

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With the reboot of Stephen King’s bone-chilling It just around the corner, I was inspired to revisit the movie which inspired a terrible fear of clowns in me. I never understood the coulrophobia my grade school peers suffered through―all I saw were colorful characters trying to make people laugh. But my God, did It change my mind! Even at the end of the movie, when Pennywise turned into a CGI spider monster, the clown’s face was still burned into my brain. Since then I’ve winced away in the face of a clown, particularly the ones made to deliberately be scary. However, since the 2017 rendition is only a month away, I had to face my fears and prepare myself for the next installment. As I watched the movie, I was just as terrified now as I was as a child; Tim Curry’s creepy voice, the colors of the clown, the eerie silliness he incorporated into his horror performance. Each factor contributed to a completely unsettling movie. Surprisingly, though, the worst thing about It wasn’t as obvious as the other things I mentioned. Pennywise was using psychological warfare against the “lucky 7” main characters.

Psychological warfare is generally defined as a battle tactic meant to weaken your opponent’s hope, morale, and willpower by getting into their minds. An expression many people might be familiar with exemplifies the popularity of this operation: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” It is common practice to know the people whom you want to take down, as a means to more easily infiltrate their minds. Sun Tzu, renowned author and military tactician, expresses the same sentiment in his Art of War. According to Tzu, the battle should not be about violence and bloodshed, but rather victory at the cheapest cost. Skill in strategy is more valuable than skill on the battlefield; through battle, your side is weakened, whereas through strategy the enemy may be subdued. If you can take captives alive, cut off alliances, and weaken them from the inside out, then they will fall. The world saw this practice during World War II. In “Psychological Warfare/Operations,” Major Ed Rouse discusses England’s resistance to the German invasion through use of the BBC radio. The announcers, well aware of their German audience, began holding English lessons over the air on the grounds that “it will be best if [they] learn a few English phrases before visiting.” When they said English phrases, though, what they meant were damning images such as “the boat is sinking,” “the water is very cold,” “I am burning,” “you are burning,” “we burn,” and the like. This was one mean of lowering the German’s morale, but an effective one nonetheless.

The war tactic is no stranger to history, and over time has proven to be one of the strongest methods of defense. It gives you a chance to “kick them when they’re down.” This is what the original Pennywise does. We know that it will act aggressively, as its first two appearances are of killings—one of a random girl and one of Georgie, the protagonist Bill’s younger brother. Throughout the movie we hear of it claiming victims and even witness a few, but it never outright kills the lucky 7. When the group first meets Michael, it emerges from an old photograph in a scrapbook and tells the children, “I’ll drive you nuts, and then I’ll kill you,” throwing in a psychotic laugh for good measure. It admits to what it is doing and will do when they all come back to Derry, Maine as adults. Pennywise constantly stalks the children and torments them, pushing them to their limits but for their collective strength as a group. When Beth encounters Pennywise for the first time, it is in the form of blood splattered all over the sink. She spends the entire night cleaning it just for it to fill the sink again and create a whole new mess. What makes them the most nuts, as children and adults, is its knowledge of them as individuals. All of the children think that they are going crazy until they confide what they’ve been seeing to each other (the only one in doubt, keep in mind, is Stan). The audience sees Pennywise’s powers slowly recede when the children first enter the sewers; it puts its hands on Richie’s shoulders in the form of what he fears most: the werewolf. However, it slides them away when the strong-willed 10-year-old repeats firmly that it is not real.

When the clown comes back and draws the lucky 7 back to Derry, it hits their psyche involuntarily. They revert back to a childhood habit when Michael calls them: Bill starts to stutter again; Beth fiddles with her hands, scrubbing them nervously; Stan grabs his right ear; Ben keeps imagining himself as a “haystack” again. And while they fight to ignore these habits, the clown continues to push them to their breaking points, making Beth imagine she’s in her old house that has actually been boarded up; shouting jokes as Richie tries to talk to somebody (who, as we learn, suffers from the Derry delusion and cannot comprehend misfortune); it even kisses Ben in the form of Beth, only to disappear laughing when it is discovered.

This is important. It could not have been closer to Ben than when it was in his arms. It could have killed him then and there, but instead uses psychological operations against him. The audience even sees the affects it has on him when he accuses the real Beth of being the clown. It’s in their head. The force of its manipulation is seen overwhelmingly in Stan, who was the only one to not believe or want to believe in Pennywise. Receiving the call from Mike, instead of making good on his promise he slits his wrists and bleeds out in a hot bath like an ancient Roman all to avoid facing the monster—there can be no mistake that the clown is what pushed him to his limits because he smears blood on the wall reading “It.” Another instance of the clown dragging the lucky 7 down to dangerous lengths is, as Michael tells us, 10 years prior. Going through a rough patch and feeling suicidal, he retreats back into its layer in hopes of waking it up. He was willing to give himself up to it because of the pain.

Everything that I mentioned in the beginning that makes Pennywise terrifying is, in my opinion, nothing compared to psychological torture. True, its abundance of red (a hot and aggressive color, which triggers a warning in our heads), its lack of facial features under clown make-up, and the silliness that makes it seem unhinged and willing to try anything is gut-wrenching. But only on the surface. Those are the reasons why I wince away when it comes on screen. The reason I wince for the lucky 7 is the mind games it plays, deliberately fooling with its prey like a cat with a ball of yarn. It kills for survival, but it plays with its food first to weaken it. As Pennywise tells Stan, “You all taste so much better when you’re afraid!” If it’s forcing them to experience things worse than they can imagine themselves, then they must all taste great.

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