Be aware there are spoilers for IT (2017), the 1990 miniseries, and Stephen King’s novel.
We all know Pennywise is terrifying. Whether you grew up on Stephen King‘s novel, Tim Curry‘s iconic performance in the 1990 miniseries, or just met the dancing clown via Bill Skarsgard‘s unique but equally terrifying performance in Andy Muschietti‘s film adaptation, the consistent through line is that the creature known as It is an ungodly manifestation of our most primal fears. And one creepy ass clown. But what exactly is It? Well, that’s not super easy to answer, but let’s give it a try.
The film gives just enough answers to satisfy, but IT decidedly leaves the mystery open about the nature of the evil being (they’re probably saving that for the sequel). In short, It is an ancient creature, older than our universe, who resides in a place called the Macroverse. It feasts on the flesh of humans simply because our fears are easy to manifest and they make us taste better. According to It, when humans got scared, “all the chemicals of fear flooded the body and salted the meat”. This is why he prefers to feast on children — their fears are simple, pure, and powerful compared to the complex, pathological fears of adults. Basically, children are delicious. That hunger for tasty, tasty, beautiful fear is pretty much the sole reason It returns to Derry, Maine every 27 years to torment and feed on the townsfolk before retreating into a new cycle of slumber.
While It’s physical form lives in our world as a shape-shifting manifestation of your worst nightmares, It’s true form is much more Lovecraftian and ambiguous — an unnameable and unknowable malevolent force that considers itself Eternal. It’s mortal enemy is a great Turtle, a fellow resident of the Macroverse who, according to It, accidentally belched up our universe in a fit of indigestion. It considers the Turtle inferior, but the only other creature near It’s status. However, after the Losers Club bands together and hurt It, throwing off the predictable cycle of safety he has always known, It begins to fear for the first time there may be an even greater Other.
It resides in the what It calls the deadlights, a sea of destructive orange lights that drive most humans insane upon sight. In the books, Bill nearly glimpses the deadlights and survives, but the only person to fully see the deadlights and recover is his wife Audra. In the film, it’s Beverly who glimpses the deadlights when Pennywise unhinges his jaw and reveals a peek at his true form. We also see subtle hints of the deadlights when Pennywise’s eye glow orange throughout the film, first when he terrorizes Mike and again when he retreats to the Well House after the Niebolt street battle.
When Beverly is shown the deadlights, she instantly goes catatonic and dead-eyed, floating in Pennywise’s cistern until Ben resurrects her with a classic true love’s kiss, but once she does, she recovers quickly. It’s not yet clear why she was able to see the deadlights and recover so quickly, unlike Audra, whose catatonic state lasts long after her and Bill return home. It’s also worth noting that Stanley may have glimpsed the deadlights as well when he was being attacked by It in the form of Judith, aka the creepy flute lady. When the Losers find him, It has it’s mouth unhinged and wrapped around Stanley’s face. If you’re familiar with the books, you know Stan the Man’s mental health doesn’t fare so well when his memories of Pennywise come rushing back 27 years later, maybe that’s a part of what haunts him. Although, he doesn’t go all dead-eyed and we didn’t see the deadlights when Pennywise attacked earlier in the film, so that was probably a special trick for Bev since she wasn’t scared.
As you probably would expect from a great celestial creature, It’s powers are not restricted to embodying your worst nightmare driving people insane with his space lights, but It is best known for it’s shape-shifting abilities. Pennywise is only one of It’s forms. In the film, we also see It become a mummy, Beverly’s dad, Mike’s burning parents, the creepy painting lady, a decapitated boy, a leper, and Georgie, and in the book, he takes many more forms, most famously, the classic Universal monsters. But It can also appear as much grander and stranger spectacles. In the books, he attacks Mike as a giant bird, swooping through the remains of the Ironworks. He also appears as a 30-foot Paul Bunyan statue, a swarm of piranhas, winged leeches, and of course, a giant spider laying her eggs in the Derry sewers.
He also has the ability to manipulate people into violent action. We see this in the film when Henry Bowers murders his father and sets out to kill the Losers, and in the way It has spread through the town’s history like a cancerous corruption. Pennywise’s evil deeds are writ large throughout the book in histories, flashbacks, and knowledge passed down to Mike from his grandfather. In the movie, we get a glimpse of It’s far-reaching influence through Ben, who takes over Mike’s role as the resident history nerd. Ben explains Derry’s dark history, telling us that people die or disappear at six times the national average in their town… and that’s just the adults the kids are worse. “Way, way worse.” First, we learn about the Ironworks which inexplicably exploded in 1908 killing 102 people, including 88 children who were participating in an Easter egg hunt. We also hear about the Black Spot, a night club created by and for local black soldiers that was burned to the ground by a hate group in 1962 (1930 in the book).
When Ben takes the Losers to his room (we’re rough!) to learn more, he tells them the tale of the charter for Derry township, which started as a beaver trapping camp in the 18th century (per the book). It crashed to the ground there thousands of years prior, but It only began to feed when the Derry settlers arrived. All 91 settlers vanished, a la Roanoke, with no explanation. There were stories of a battle with Native Americans, but no signs of an attack. All that was left was a bloody trail leading to the Well House. As we later learn, the Well House is located in 29 Niebolt Street, where It lives. Finally, we get a quick reference to the Bradley Gang in 1935, and a bit more details can be seen on the wall mural outside the butcher shop (where the Losers tend to Ben’s wounds). The Bradley Gang were an infamous group of bandits who robbed and killed multiple Derry shop owners before the townspeople rallied against them and shot them dead in the streets. In the novel, that story is passed on through creepy pharmacist #1, Mr. Keene and the book is filled with many, many more instances of how It has corrupted the history and town of Derry, from eating children to inciting violent chaos, It’s fingerprints are all over the dark history of the town.
That’s pretty much the need-to-know on Pennywise. When we leave in him IT, the creature is at the end of his feeding cycle and he retreats into darkness temporarily defeated. While IT: Chapter Two hasn’t been officially announced yet, it’s one of the safest bets you could make in the filmmaking industries at the moment, so hopefully, we’ll get a bigger glimpse at It’s cosmic terrors when It returns to hunt the adult Losers nearly three decades later.