Stephen King presents Derry, the setting for It, as a sleepy New England town in which terror and evil lurk beneath its placid surface. This evil takes the supernatural form of the monster “It.” It is a presence that hides in dark, underground spaces, first discovered in the narrative by George Denbrough in his basement in 1957. This creature has several names—It, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, and Bob Gray. It can take almost any form and inhabit the bodies of those who are already inclined toward evil-doing, pushing them into murderous, obsessive rage. It has been present throughout Derry’s violent history, witnessing and partaking in the racist attack on the Black Spot, the hate crime against Adrian Mellon, and numerous other murders and disasters going back centuries. On its own, It has killed many small children and teenagers up until the 1980s. However, It is also evil because It forces people to see the horrors of everyday life. In this regard, the novel illustrates how evil is not always as simple as a monster that lurks in the dark. Evil is, instead, a complex, multi-faceted thing that takes shape according to the darkness within the human psyche.
King uses Derry as a microcosm of the United States—a place whose wholesome surface belies a history of prejudice and violence. Will Hanlon, the father figure of Derry’s only black family, enters Derry as an army private. He and other black soldiers are allowed to open their own speakeasy—the Black Spot—due to opposition from Derry’s White Legion of Decency over their mixing with white women at the town’s speakeasies. The Black Spot becomes a success, and in 1930 it is torched in the middle of the night by hooded white supremacists. Reflecting on the incident in the 1950s, Will says that the incident occurred because “bad things, hurtful things, do right well in the soil of this town.” In Hanlon’s estimation, Derry is a place that nourishes evil. The Black Spot, whose very name suggests an attempt to mar Derry’s white supremacy, is destroyed to protect the town’s self-image.
Similarly, Derry’s small gay community in 1985 also understands “the shadow under which it [exists].” Don Hagarty, Adrian Mellon’s partner, describes Derry bluntly as a “dead strumpet with maggots squirming out of her cooze”—something that appears tempting but is rotting underneath. He also describes it as a “sewer,” as though it contains all of the detritus American life, which it sweeps under its surface. A month before Adrian’s murder, Don takes him to Bassey Park and, in “the dark, vaguely unpleasant-smelling shadows of the Kissing Bridge” shows him the violently homophobic graffiti covering the bridge’s wall. Though Don is aware of the ubiquity of homophobia, the graffiti expresses a cruelty that is quietly embraced, it seems, by many of the town’s inhabitants. The graffiti is a warning of the hatred that lurks just out of public view—never openly expressed by the town’s “decent” inhabitants but by misfits like John “Webby” Garton and his gang. King thus presents Derry as a place that nourishes evil but denies responsibility for what it fosters.
“Decent” Derry citizens, such as those who live on West Broadway, blame the town’s unsavory elements on “crazies,” such as Butch Bowers and later, his son, Henry Bowers, who bullies the seven friends who make up the Losers’ Club. Henry later ends up in a mental institution for stabbing his father to death. It uses both Henry Bowers and Tom Rogan, Beverly Marsh Rogan’s abusive husband, to do It's bidding. Both men have obsessive and violent natures which It exploits, turning each man into It's “dogsbody,” or servant, who carries out It's evil tasks. It uses violent impulses that already exist within people to push them more deeply into obsessive, murderous madness.
Henry’s weapon of choice is a switchblade, which he uses to try to carve his name into the Ben Hanscom’s stomach. In this instance, Henry’s bullying shifts into a sociopathy that shocks his friends, “Belch” Huggins and Victor Criss. To complete his revolution in character, Bob Gray sends Henry a specially-designed switchblade in the mail, which Henry uses to stab his father in the throat and later uses to attack Eddie Kaspbrak. The switchblade thus represents the murderous violence lurking beneath Henry’s role and actions as a schoolyard bully—a common figure among children everywhere. King pushes this character to a horrifying extreme as It senses Henry’s violent impulses and use him as a conduit through which It can inflict terror on Derry.
Like Henry, Tom Rogan also grew up in an abusive household and inflicts that abuse on others—not only Beverly, but also her friend Kay McCall, whom he beats savagely to get information about Beverly’s whereabouts. Rogan’s personality becomes increasingly dangerous after Beverly challenges his authority by leaving Chicago to go back to Derry. Like Henry, Tom’s evil surfaces from his need to have a sense of control over his environment—in this instance, his sense of power over women. The inability to secure that power causes him to lash out with more extreme violence, which It is also able to use to inflict real instead of imagined harm.
Along with It, Henry and Tom are the novel’s most obvious villains. They are obsessive, vengeful, and, therefore, perfect couriers to carry out It's evil designs. However, King avoids making them seem inherently evil by detailing their backstories of child abuse. They are both products of corrosive environments, which makes them more vulnerable to It, or the evil that exists outside of them. Derry is thus representative of both that external and internal human evil. Bigotry is “nourished” in Derry, as Will Hanlon points out, but it does not start there. Bigotry, like bullying and violence, is a normal aspect of life, but it is aided by an evil supernatural force in this town. King uses the device of the supernatural to illustrate how evil behavior is both a product of character and of forces outside of one’s control.
Evil and the Supernatural ThemeTracker
Evil and the Supernatural Quotes in It
Her father tucked her in as he always did, and kissed her forehead. Then he only stood there for a moment in what she would always think of as “his” way of standing, perhaps of being: bent slightly forward, hands plunged deep—to above the wrist—in his pockets, the bright blue eyes in his mournful basset-hound's face looking down at her from above. In later years, long after she stopped thinking about Derry at all, she would see a man sitting on the bus or maybe standing on a corner with his dinnerbucket in his hand, shapes, oh shapes of men, sometimes seen as day closed down, sometimes seen across Watertower Square in the noonlight of a clear windy autumn day, shapes of men, rules of men, desires of men: or Tom, so like her father when he took off his shirt and stood slightly slumped in front of the bathroom mirror to shave. Shapes of men.
What a bunch of losers they had been—Stan Uris with his big Jew-boy nose, Bill Denbrough who could say nothing but "Hi-yo, Silver!" without stuttering so badly that it drove you almost dogshit, Beverly Marsh with her bruises and her cigarettes rolled into the sleeve of her blouse, Ben Hanscom who had been so big he looked like a human version of Moby Dick, and Richie Tozier with his thick glasses and his A averages and his wise mouth and his face which just begged to be pounded into new and exciting shapes. Was there a word for what they had been? Oh yes. There always was. Le mot juste. In this case le mot juste was wimps…
He looked at her, eyes narrowed, mouth smiling casually, completely alive, ready to see what would come next, how she would react. His cock was stiffening in his pants, but he barely noticed. That was for later. For now, school was in session. He replayed what had just happened. Her face. What had that third expression been, there for a bare instant and then gone? First the surprise. Then the pain. Then the (nostalgia) look of a memory . . . of some memory. It had only been for a moment. He didn't think she even knew it had been there, on her face or in her mind. Now: now. It would all be in the first thing she didn't say. He knew that as well as his own name […] He had regressed her. He was in this car with a child. Voluptuous and sexy as hell, but a child.
Ben could see the clown's face clearly. It was deeply lined, the skin a parchment map of wrinkles, tattered cheeks, arid flesh. The skin of its forehead was split but bloodless. Dead lips grinned back from a maw in which teeth leaned like tombstones. Its gums were pitted and black. Ben could see no eyes, but something glittered far back in the charcoal pits of those puckered sockets, something like the cold jewels in the eyes of Egyptian scarab beetles. And although the wind was the wrong way, it seemed to him that he could smell cinnamon and spice, rotting cerements treated with weird drugs, sand, blood so old it had dried to flakes and grains of rust…
The leper was crawling out. It was wearing a clown suit, he saw a clown suit with big orange buttons down the front. It saw Eddie and grinned. Its half-mouth dropped open and its tongue lolled out [….] The leper's tongue had not just dropped from its mouth; it was at least three feet long and had unrolled like a party-favor. It came to an arrow-point which dragged in the dirt. Foam, thick-sticky and yellowish, coursed along it. Bugs crawled over it.
There was no zipper on the thing's jacket; instead there were big fluffy orange buttons, like pompoms. The other thing was worse. It was the other thing that made him feel as if he might faint, or just give up and let it kill him. A name was stitched on the jacket in gold thread, the kind of thing you could get done down at Machen's for a buck if you wanted it. Stitched on the bloody left breast of the Werewolf's jacket, stained but readable, were the words RICHIE TOZIER.
“Oh!” He smiled a little at her now, as if pleased by this explanation. “Was that it? Damn! If you'd told me, Beverly, I never would have hit you. All girls are scared of spiders. Sam Hill! Why didn’t you speak up?” He bent over the drain and she had to bite her lip to keep from crying out a warning . . . and some other voice spoke deep inside her, some terrible voice which could not have been a part of her; surely it was the voice of the devil himself: Let it get him, if it wants him. Let it pull him down. Good-fucking-riddance. She turned away from that voice in horror. To allow such a thought to stay for even a moment in her head would surely damn her to hell…
“It was most pop'lar in the big cities and the manufacturin areas. New York, New Jersey, Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, Portsmouth—they all had their chapters. They tried to organize in Maine, but Derry was the only place they had any real success. Oh, for awhile there was a pretty good chapter in Lewiston—this was around the same time as the fire at the Black Spot—but they weren't worried about niggers raping white women or taking jobs that should have belonged to white men, because there weren't any niggers to speak of up here. In Lewiston they were worried about tramps and hobos and that something called ‘the bonus army’ would join up with something they called ‘the Communist riffraff army,’ by which they meant any man who was out of work. The Legion of Decency used to send these fellows out of town just as fast as they came in. Sometimes they stuffed poison ivy down the backs of their pants. Sometimes they set their shirts on fire.”
“If we have to call It something, it might as well be what we used to call It. I've begun to think, you see, that It has been here so long …whatever It really is…that It's become a part of Derry, something as much a part of the town as the Standpipe, or the Canal, or Bassey Park, or the library. Only It's not a matter of outward geography, you understand. Maybe that was true once, but now lt's…inside. Somehow It's gotten inside. That's the only way I know to understand all of the terrible things that have happened here—the nominally explicable as well as the utterly inexplicable.”
Then they were all babbling together, laughing at him, calling him banana-heels, asking him how he'd liked the shock-treatments they'd given him when he came up here to the Red Ward, asking him if he liked it here at Juh-Juh-hooniper Hill, asking and laughing, laughing and asking, and Henry dropped his hoe and began to scream up at the ghost-moon in the blue sky and at first he was screaming in fury and then the moon itself changed and became the face of the clown, its face a rotted pocked cheesy white, its eyes black holes, its red bloody grin turned up in a smile so obscenely ingenuous that it was insupportable, and so then Henry began to scream not in fury but in mortal terror and the voice of the clown spoke from the ghost-moon now and what it said was You have to go back, Henry. You have to go back and finish the job. You have to go back to Derry and kill them all. For Me. For—.
In Henry's ears, it was a constant litany: the nigger, the nigger, the nigger. Everything was the nigger's fault. The nigger had a nice white house with an upstairs and an oil furnace while Butch and his wife and his son lived in what was not much better than a tarpaper shack. When Butch couldn't make enough money farming and had to go to work in the woods for awhile, it was the nigger's fault. When their well went dry in 1956, it was the nigger's fault.
Glamour, he said, was the Gaelic name for the creature which was haunting Derry; other races and other cultures at other times had different words for it, but they all meant the same thing. The Plains Indians called it a manitou, which sometimes took the shape of a mountain-lion or an elk or an eagle [….] The Himalayans called it a tallus or taelus, which meant an evil magic being that could read your mind and then assume the shape of the thing you were most afraid of. In Central Europe it had been called eylak, brother of the vurderlak, or vampire. In France it was le loup-garou, or skin-changer, a concept that had been crudely translated as the werewolf, but, Bill told them, le loup-garou (which he pronounced “le loopgaroo”) could be anything, anything at all: a wolf, a hawk, a sheep, even a bug.
He saw the gratitude in their eyes and felt a measure of gladness for them…but their gratitude did little to heal his own horror. In fact, there was something in their gratitude which made him want to hate them. Would he never be able to express his own terror […]? Because in some measure at least he was using them […] And was even that the bottom? No, because George was dead, and if revenge could be exacted at all, Bill suspected it could only be exacted on behalf of the living. And what did that make him? A selfish little shit waving a tin sword and trying to make himself look like King Arthur? Oh Christ, he groaned to himself, if this is the stuff adults have to think about I never want to grow up. His resolve was still strong, but it was bitter resolve. Bitter.
The kid in you just leaked out, like the air out of a tire. And one day you looked in the mirror and there was a grownup looking back at you. You could go on wearing bluejeans, you could keep going to Springsteen and Seger concerts, you could dye your hair, but that was a grownup’s face in the mirror just the same. It all happened while you were asleep, maybe, like a visit from the Tooth Fairy. No, he thinks. Not the Tooth Fairy. The Age Fairy.
Mike said, “It's always been here, since the beginning of time…since before there were men anywhere, unless maybe there were just a few of them in Africa somewhere, swinging through the trees or living in caves. The crater's gone now, and the ice age probably scraped the valley deeper and changed some stuff around and filled the crater in…but It was here then, sleeping, maybe, waiting for the ice to melt, waiting for the people to come.” “That's why It uses the sewers and the drains,” Richie put in. “They must be regular freeways for It.”
She looked back and here he came again, Al Marsh, janitor and custodian, a gray man dressed in khaki pants and a khaki shirt with two flap pockets, a keyring attached to his belt by a chain, his hair flying. But he wasn’t in his eyes—the essential he who had washed her back and punched her in the gut and had done both because he worried about her, worried a lot, the he who had once tried to braid her hair when she was seven, made a botch of it, and then got giggling with her about the way it stuck out everyway, the he who knew how to make cinnamon eggnogs on Sunday that tasted better than anything you could buy for a quarter at the Derry Ice Cream Bar, the father-he, maleman of her life, delivering a mixed post from that other sexual state. None of that was in his eyes now. She saw blank murder there. She saw It there.
He would kill them all, his tormentors, and then those feelings—that he was losing his grip, that he was coming inexorably to a larger world he would not be able to dominate as he had dominated the playyard at Derry Elementary, that in the wider world the fatboy and the nigger and the stuttering freak might somehow grow larger while he somehow only grew older—would be gone.
The former power of their imaginations would be muted and weak. They would no longer imagine that there were piranha in the Kenduskeag or that if you stepped on a crack you might really break your mother's back or that if you killed a ladybug which lit on your shirt your blouse would catch fire that night. lnstead, they would believe in insurance. Instead, they would believe in wine with dinner—something nice but not too pretentious, like a Pouilly-Fuissé ‘83, and let that breathe, waiter, would you? Instead, they would believe that Rolaids consume forty-seven times their own weight in excess stomach acid. Instead, they would believe in public television, Gary Hart, running to prevent heart attacks, giving up red meat to prevent colon cancer. They would believe in Dr. Ruth when it came to getting well fucked and Jerry Falwell when it came to getting well saved. As each year passed their dreams would grow smaller. And when It woke It would call them back, yes, back, because fear was fertile, its child was rage, and rage cried for revenge.
Bill marked it as a paper boat. Stan saw it as a bird rising toward the sky—a phoenix, perhaps. Michael saw a hooded face—that of crazy Butch Bowers, perhaps, if it could only be seen. Richie saw two eyes behind a pair of spectacles. Beverly saw a hand doubled up into a fist. Eddie believed it to be the face of the leper, all sunken eyes and wrinkled snarling mouth—all disease, all sickness, was stamped into that face. Ben Hanscom saw a tattered pile of wrappings and seemed to smell old sour spices […] Henry Bowers would see it as the moon, full, ripe…and black.