Friday, October 31, 2014

Childhood Spooks: "It" Revisited

[Bat Girl, Halloween 1992 - That sweet face has yet to be exposed to pure fear.]

Drains. For at least a couple years in elementary school I had an irrational fear of drains.

Whenever it was time for a shower, I would whimper in fear and force one of my parents to sit on the toilet, watching over me as a form of protection. Silly, when I look back on it, but boy did it seem essential at the time.

Now, people who read this and want to call Maury so that I can be one of those people tackling a ridiculous phobia should know it actually wasn't the drain itself. Rather, I was focused on what was mysteriously hiding and could come out from the depths of the dark pipes that were stretched out for miles below.

All of this was due to being exposed at a young age to a certain TV mini-series - Stephen King's, It. Anyone familiar with this one might have even had the same fear or at least can understand where I'm coming from now. Who could blame me after seeing balloons filled with blood, terrifying voices, and even clowns popping out of drains.

Why was I even exposed to such terror, you ask? The stories are all the same for anyone who has siblings.

One trusting babysitter gets tricked by the older brother to let the kids watch something they shouldn't while their parents are away. My dad, the lifer King fan (who tells tales of being scared out of his mind while reading The Shining at 10-years-old up in his attic bedroom), had done what people did before DVR - he had taped the miniseries when it aired in 1990.

The VHS tape sat preserved for future viewings and a few years later my brother's interest was piqued after reading the title on the label, and being told it was too scary. No kid wants to be told they can't do something. Cue defiance.

Our teenage babysitter must have wanted to watch it herself or just really bought into my scheming eight-year-old brother's tale that, "my parents let us watch this all the time!" So, there the three of us were, laying on the carpet in our downstairs family room, me only about six, watching (from between my fingers) the chilling tale of a mysterious force that takes the form of a clown who murders children.

It was too gruesome for me then (obviously!), but twenty years since it first ruined my childhood, the mini-series has become a mainstay during Halloween season. It just so happens that last weekend, on a dark and stormy pacific northwest afternoon, my dad and I came across it playing on cable.

The cast reads like a dated sitcom - it could be thought that anything starring John Ritter, John-Boy from The Waltons, and the dad from Sister, Sister can't have any lasting quality. Surprisingly though (especially to me, the ultimate doubter of dated made for TV drivel), all of the actors and other creative people that were involved actually made something that has held up over time.

Even if I'm no longer a kid, this rather well put together four-hour television event  is actually still chilling.

The biggest factor of all: no child of the 90s looks at Tim Curry and see's anything other than Pennywise - the aforementioned clown killer who comes complete with a set of razor sharp teeth. Any time he comes on screen, bouncing down the street with balloons in an earnest happy fashion, is honestly terrifying. It's just unsettling to see something that is supposedly happy combined with the eerie music that plays over these scenes.

Then there is the segment that scarred me, and probably many others, the most. Pennywise (just typing out the name causes a mild chill to be sent all over my body) at one point pushes his head through a drain in the boy's locker room shower. Totally implausible, but logic doesn't factor into a youngster's mind. I couldn't stop thinking about that single image. The face of a friendly entertainer quickly turned into one that taunts children to death. In all of pop culture, only the current season of American Horror Story has concocted a clown that is more frightening. [Click at your own risk.]

Other than those spooks, the general story sticks to what Stephen King always writes about best - children fighting their fears. It is haunting that - much like A Nightmare On Elm Street - only the children can see Pennywise and his tricks. It's all in their mind. When blood comes spouting out of a sink, a girl screams in terror, but her father doesn't see a thing, and even rubs blood all over his hysterical daughter's face. Creepy, creepy, creepy.

The one thing that kept me from being scared through the whole experience, was spending time during this re-watch thinking about the sad demise of Jonathan Brandis. Once a teen heartthrob and rising star, he died tragically by his own hand in the early 2000s (another one of those in the 27 club). In It, Brandis played one of the main characters as a child (along with other familiar faces like, Seth Green).

Actually, all the young actors in this miniseries are the highlight. They act just like real kids who curse, rough-house, and spout off dirty jokes. Their talent was simply natural in a way that really makes them feel vulnerable. Kid actors nowadays seem to convey a more sanitized version of childhood. This would have made the mini-series fail. Brandis and the other children really make that sense of innocence palpable, which only intensifies how defenseless they are against Pennywise. This is essential to caring at all about how the story unfolds.

Just like the kids in the tale, childhood fears eventually fade. I can't even recall the exact time I grew out of the "scared to shower" phase. After seeing It again, the same trauma isn't there, but I would be lying if I didn't mention that this week I have been looking at drains just a little bit more curiously.

Have a Happy Halloween. Don't get too scared...or do.

Until next time.
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