There are few things in life that scare me. These include but aren’t limited to bellybuttons, my dog barking at nothing, and using my dead great-grandmother’s grapefruit spoon (but it works so well). Likewise, when I went to see IT a couple of nights ago, the worst part was Eddie’s arm cracking in half like a tree limb, and even that might be because I was overly sympathetic to the germaphobic hypochondriac of a boy in whom I saw myself.
IT has some startling images, but much like American Horror Story: Cult, the plot tries to string together so many disparate elements that it ultimately distracts from the scary-clown factor (which oscillated between terrifying and overly CGI-ed). Unless the clown is Twisty, hiding a jawless face behind its half-mask, it won’t do much for me in the scare department. I happen to have fond memories of clowns making balloon animals for me and painting my face at parties.
All this got me thinking about how experiences form what scares us, which is fairly obvious, but in a pop-culture climate in which fear depends on hype, I turned myself inside out looking for a way to be scared by Pennywise. Deep down, I wasn’t. I’m too old for that thing to eat anyway. (Cue the existential crisis dancing comically in a flaming circus tent.)
Twisty is the only truly scary clown. It’s filthy and jawless, and it looks like a relic of another time. All the other ones on AHS look like asshole teenagers on Halloween … probably because they have sex in produce aisles and ride around in an ice-cream truck. I get it; things associated with children are scary because kids are awful and make us second guess our assuredness that boogeymen aren’t real because they’re (i.e., kids) literally terrified of thin air. They must see and hear the same scary shit my dog does. (Aside: the premise of Cult is terrible — a caricature of stereotypes.)
When I was younger and heavily religious, I was terrified by all things Satan. A cheesy exorcist rip-off scarred me for over a year-and-a-half. It convinced me that a demon was following me around, ready to possess me if I didn’t say the Lord’s Prayer enough times — seven. I later learned this was a manifestation of my OCD, but I still couldn’t watch movies with even a tinge of the Devil. People told me that watching those types of movies would “open portals.” That certainly didn’t help, but now the devout just sound off their rocker.
Now, the scariest things I encounter involve imagery that simply unnerves, whether in real life or in movies. For instance, the culmination of every horror film I’ve seen to date is the unease children’s music and children singing inflict on me. They come with a sense of foreboding as if something’s slightly amiss.
Or, just staring at the empty woods behind my house on a cloudy day was creepy à la the ambiances of 28 Days Later and The Happening.
OR, I was at the ear, nose, and throat doctor the other day (my sinuses know only congestion), and my insufficient coffee intake left me feeling dissociated. In the waiting room, the clinical lighting coupled with staring at the fish tank and the competing sounds of the TV forecasting destruction, top-40 radio, and a toy playing children’s music felt supremely creepy. It was surreal in a mundane way, paying homage to Freud’s “uncanny.” The knowledge that I was about to be numbed, scoped, and suctioned didn’t offer any relief.
Scary masks, rotting flesh, and jump scares are everywhere, so if horror films are going to use those tropes, they better execute them as realistically as possible. More often than not, they’re just cheesy. But even if Pennywise didn’t offer consistent scariness, the fact that it can appear in the form of the children’s worst fears is terrifying in the abstract. The personalized scares are the worst kind, which may be why I didn’t find the movie that scary in aggregate; none of the manifestations of Pennywise were creatures I would find most unnerving. If Pennywise appeared to me as, like, intrinsic meaninglessness or humans reduced to their basest tendencies after an apocalypse, it would scar me for life.
That’s why Cult’s imagery is creepy enough to keep me watching, but it’s not as intolerable as that of Asylum. (Aliens, mental hospitals, weird medical experimentation, oh my!) I don’t share any of Ally’s — heh — phobias. Plus, her son’s name is freaking Ozymandias. Come on. Then again, I guess even the most influential people among us being forgotten is terrifying.
Plus, clown overload begets eventual desensitization no matter how progressively creepy they are. At some point, the drug stops having an effect, and it just becomes a necessary baseline, which is why I think AHS throws a ton of stuff at us simultaneously. (Ignoring this season’s laughable premise)
What we find scary upends whatever gives us a sense of control and meaning. When the fish tank in a waiting room fails to calm — when a situation is so otherwise saturated in unease that that which usually offers relief reaches the up-until-then unforeseen limit of its ability — who knows what other illusions are about to fly out the window? And that scares me more than anything onscreen ever could.