The new adaptation of Stephen King‘s classic novel It has quickly become one of the most successful horror movies of all time. But why has it fared so much better than other recent King adaptations like The Dark Tower and The Mist? Horror author Grady Hendrix says one reason might be that it focuses on the universal childhood fear of monsters.
“Kids fighting monsters has a real primal hold on our imagination,” Hendrix says in Episode 274 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Going back to fairy tales, it’s been a really resonant trope.”
But it’s not just any kids that we want to see fight monsters. Whether it’s Stranger Things, The Lost Boys, or Monster Squad, these stories gain much of their power from taking nerdy kids who know and care about monsters and making their daydreams a reality.
“This goes back to Mark Petrie in Salem’s Lot,” Hendrix says, “who is the kid who is so in tune with pop culture and alienated from everyone else, but that pop culture has served as like boot camp to allow him to accept the idea of vampires, and as soon as they appear he is dropped and locked and ready to rock and roll.”
Fantasy author Erin Lindsey notes that many of these tales are set in the ’80s, and that this may be because it was easier for kids to have adventures back then. “Even in twenty below, my parents were like, ‘Here’s a snowsuit, go outside. I don’t want to see you until sunset,’” she says. “So it’s completely plausible that they would go off for hours at a time and nobody would think it was odd.”
Horror author John Langan thinks it’s still possible to tell stories about modern-day kids battling monsters, but that it probably requires more work to justify how the heroes could break free of their overprotective parents.
“I think you would probably have to acknowledge that those kids might very well be the lucky ones,” he says. “They might have plenty of friends who are like, ‘Nope, my mom says I’m not going out there.’”
Listen to the complete interview with Grady Hendrix, Erin Lindsey, and John Langan in Episode 274 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
John Langan on Stephen King and Peter Straub:
“Pennywise, to an extent, is a psychic mirror who reflects back at you that which you fear the most. And since Pennywise is so caught up in your mental energy, you can turn that to your own advantage. Straub actually does something like that in Ghost Story—the monster, the manitou figure in Ghost Story, is another kind of a mirror, another kind of reflector. And there’s a young guy—actually he’s a high school student, so he’s a little older than the kids in It—but he figures out that if this thing has gotten in his head, that he can turn that to his advantage and use that to actually harm the monster. It never occurred to me before that maybe King got the idea from Straub, but it’s entirely possible in this case that he did.”
Grady Hendrix on the ’80s:
“In the ’60s and ’70s you really had this loosey-goosey approach to parenting. Parents were like, ‘Kids should have as much freedom as possible, and be able to try as many things as possible, and experiment with as many things as possible.’ And then in the early ’80s there was this whole thing—and it really appeared in ’79 and ’80—’Your kids are in danger. Moonies want to abduct them from a shopping mall, they’re going to be on the back of a milk carton, they’re going to be molested at their day care center, Satanists are going to give them stickers of Mickey Mouse that have LSD on them.’ … And so it’s weird that everyone’s fetishizing this idea of ’80s kids fighting monsters, but maybe that’s when everyone feels like the monsters appear.’”
Grady Hendrix on It:
“It is a big, messy, sprawling, undisciplined novel, but I also think it’s pretty genius. … It’s about these kids in Derry who defeated Pennywise in the ’50s, and they’ve all grown up and forgotten it. And when they remember their childhoods, they remember these beautiful, bucolic, nostalgic images of the ’50s, and it’s up to Mike Hanlon, the librarian, who’s the one black kid, to call them up and say, ‘Not so fast. You’re not remembering that era right. It was an era of horror, and danger, and we almost all died, and it was cruel, and mean, and sadistic.’ And I don’t think it’s a mistake that this is a book about a bunch of white kids who grow up to glorify their past, and a black kid who calls them up and says, ‘Uh-uh, remember how it really was.’”
Erin Lindsey on women in horror:
“What I think is equal parts interesting and frustrating as a woman in this stuff, is that even in the modern incarnations we don’t seem to be able to get away from this sense that the woman is often struggling with her sexuality and how that plays into it. So even in Stranger Things for example, the older sister, in one of the earlier episodes, is having sex with her boyfriend—or on the cusp of having sex with her boyfriend—when something bad happens to one of her friends, and so she’s in a sense punished, and her impetus as a character going through it is that she feels very guilty that this thing happened to her friend because her friend was waiting for her to make out with her boyfriend. And Buffy also has a lot of paroxysms of angst through the series about the relationships that she has and all that. And that’s not a criticism of them in a standalone sense—these are all perfectly acceptable narrative arcs. I would just like to see a narrative that doesn’t rely on that trope of the woman feeling guilty or being punished for her sexual expression.”