25 Years of Pennywise the Clown

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Last year, when Twisty the Clown was terrorizing the town on Jupiter on American Horror Story: Freak Show, I wrote about how clowns went from lovable children’s entertainers to horrifying monsters toward the end of the 20th century. There are a number of reasons why this happened—Poltergeist, Ronald McDonald, the fact that the notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy regularly dressed up as a clown on weekends—but for me, the thing that ruined clowns forever was the 1990 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s IT.
The two-part miniseries debuted 20 years ago today on ABC, and starred Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown, a shapeshifting presence that emerges every 30 years in the town of Derry to feast on small children. Curry is one of the most efficiently creepy actors of the last 50 years, imbuing even his more ridiculous roles (Rooster in Annie springs to mind) with equal parts menace and smarm, but his Pennywise is something different altogether. He speaks in a kind of singsongy, guttural growl, his teeth are sharp fangs, and the contrast between his comical yellow dungarees and his penchant for ripping off children’s limbs is fairly stark.
The scariest thing about Pennywise, though, is how he preys on children’s deepest fears, manifesting the monsters they’re most petrified by (something J.K. Rowling would later emulate with boggarts). He appears to one child as a werewolf, to another as a mummy, and to Bill, the hero of the piece, as Georgie, the brother Pennywise murdered a few years ago. In that sense, Pennywise isn’t so far removed from regular clowns, who’ve made a living for decades by mimicking the thing that almost everyone fears—being seen as ridiculous.
IT is currently being remade, although not by Cary Fukunaga, who dropped out of the project earlier this year after writing a two-part script. He explained why to The Hollywood Reporter:

In the first movie, what I was trying to do was an elevated horror film with actual characters. They didn’t want any characters. They wanted archetypes and scares. I wrote the script. They wanted me to make a much more inoffensive, conventional script. But I don’t think you can do proper Stephen King and make it inoffensive.

Until the project finds a new director, here’s a supercut of Pennywise from 1990, reminding children that laundry, paper boats, and old photo albums will never not be scary again.