Children’s fears are often vividly evoked through fantasies, particularly those conjured by films and fairy tales. Horror movies and scary fairy tales entertain, but that entertainment can become obscured by real fears of menace and the frequent inability of children to separate reality from fiction. It knows that children believe that the terrors from fantasies can enter reality, and uses this belief to reach into children’s imaginations to terrorize them. King uses characters from 1950s horror films as well as childhood fairy tales to demonstrate the power that stories and films can exert on young imaginations. King illustrates both how fantasy unearths childhood anxieties that linger into adulthood as well as how fantasy and imagination can empower children to fight against the things that frighten them.
Fairy tales that Ben Hanscom and Beverly Marsh remember from early childhood are especially key in producing dread, because they are seemingly innocuous stories that can evoke fear of dangerous creatures lurking around corners or under bridges, or of tiny old ladies transforming into witches. King uses the motif of fairy tales to explore how seemingly innocuous or mundane things carry an aspect of danger, particularly when they tap into fears that we seek to avoid or repress. One day, while entering the Children’s Library, Ben Hanscom overhears Mrs. Davies reading the story of “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” The Norwegian fairy tale evokes the fear of a troll lurking beneath a bridge that three goats must cross without being devoured. This fear is connected to Ben’s overconsumption of food in childhood, which makes him a target for bullies and a socially undesirable person, akin to the troll in the story. Years later, while arriving at It's lair, Ben sees “a pile of small bones” at the monster’s entrance—the bones of countless children who have been devoured—and thinks of the story. King draws a connection between It's consumption of children and Ben’s persistent anxiety about being fat. By confronting It, Ben exorcises both his adult fears about consuming too much, as well as his childhood fear of being “consumed” by It.
Like Ben, Beverly also confronts a fear of being devoured. When she returns to Derry in 1985, she goes to her childhood home. Her father, Al Marsh, died five years earlier. Mrs. Kersh, an old woman who is the daughter of Bob Gray, greets her instead. While having what she thinks is tea, Beverly watches Mrs. Kersh transform into the witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” a character that always scared Beverly “the worst” during childhood “because she ate the children.” This fear of being eaten is an incarnation of Beverly’s fear of her father’s potential sexual abuse. When It transforms into Al Marsh, Beverly conflates Al’s desire for her body with the witch putting Hansel and Gretel into an oven until they are “plump enough to eat,” or, in Beverly’s case, until her father perceived her to be old enough to rape. The episode with Mrs. Kersh reveals that Beverly has not overcome her childhood fear of being “consumed” or objectified by an authoritative man in her life, but has only reiterated it in her marriage to Tom Rogan.
By the time the children reach early adolescence, they are not entertained by fairy tales but by the horror films of the 1950s. The Aladdin Theater is where all of Derry’s adolescents go—members of the Losers’ Club and Henry Bowers’s gang alike—to see the decade’s “schlock” films. The movies are notable for being poorly executed, due to their bad special effects, while still having the ability to suspend the viewers’ disbelief. This suspension of disbelief occurs to such an extent that, when Richie Tozier sees The Giant Claw and the title character invades New York, he becomes “excited enough to spill his popcorn over the balcony railing.” King demonstrates how children’s willingness to believe in the imagination can override reality in both positive and negative ways.
Shortly after Richie sees I Was a Teenage Werewolf, he and Bill are chased by what Richie sees as a werewolf. For Richie, the teenage werewolf is the most indomitable figure in his imagination (“it keeps comin at us like the Teenage Werewolf in that movie”) and, therefore, the easiest form that It can shift into to conjure up Richie’s fear. The werewolf is also compatible with the children’s developing understanding of It as a creature that shapeshifts from a normal person into a frightening monster.
On the other hand, Bill has a more positive fantasy that his old, clunky gray bike is Silver—that is, a powerful sidekick like the horse on the television show, The Lone Ranger. This fantasy helps him and Richie escape from the terrors that demonize them. While the werewolf reinforces the children’s sense of powerlessness, the fantasy about the bike gives them the notion that they can fight against perceived monsters within their own abilities.
King illustrates both the negative and positive elements of make-believe, particularly the power of stories to tap into the characters’ fears, though they do not understand the crux of these connections until adulthood. King also demonstrates how fantasy helps children achieve a kind of heroism in which they can overcome their sense of powerlessness. In adulthood, they realize how closely linked their anxieties are to the tales that they took into their imaginations as simple entertainment.
Fear and the Power of Fantasy ThemeTracker
Fear and the Power of Fantasy Quotes in It
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.
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.
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.
He looked at his mother, seeing her clear in his pain: each flower on her Lane Bryant dress, the sweat-stains under her arms where the pads she wore had soaked through, the scuff-marks on her shoes. He saw how small her eyes were in their pockets of flesh, and now a terrible thought came to him: those eyes were almost predatory, like the eyes of the leper that had crawled out of the basement at 29 Neibolt Street […] Even through the haze he could see that the nurse was angry and he thought he said, She’s not the leper, please don't think that, she’s only eating me because she loves me, but perhaps nothing came out because the nurse's angry face didn't change.
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.
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.
He touches his wife's smooth back as she sleeps her warm sleep and dreams her own dreams; he thinks that it is good to be a child, but it is also good to be grownup and able to consider the mystery of childhood…its beliefs and desires, I will write about all of this one day, he thinks, and knows it's just a dawn thought, an after-dreaming thought. But it's nice to think so for awhile in the morning's clean silence, to think that childhood has its own sweet secrets and confirms mortality, and that mortality defines all courage and love. To think that what has looked forward must also look back, and that each life makes its own imitation of immortality: a wheel.