Fear Its Selves: Pennywise’s Ten Most Frightening Disguises

Tapping victims’ psyches and operating via “masks and glamours,” It assumes a slew of forms in Stephen King’s novel IT. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is Its go-to camouflage, the appearance It most commonly adopts (and reverts back to when revealing Its predatory nature), but throughout the course of the book, It takes the shape of an array of classic monsters and outré figures. Presented in order of appearance, here are my choices for the ten greatest fear-jerkers:

 

1. The Mummy

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… [p. 214 in the 1986 Viking hardcover]

Ben’s recent late-night viewing of Shock Theater leads to a waking nightmare when he encounters a Karloffian monster in the Barrens. Like a figure in a bad dream, the mummy closes the gap between Itself and Its prey with uncanny, undetected quickness. This initial borrowing from Universal horror films is an appropriate one, as King provides an early hint of Its ancientness.

 

2. Creature from the Black Lagoon

The smell was what made him look back. the overwhelming smell, as if fish had been left to rot in a huge pile that had become carrion slushy in the summer heat. It was the smell of a dead ocean.

It wasn’t Dorsey after him now; it was the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The thing’s snout was long and pleated. Green fluid dripped from black gashes like vertical mouths in its cheeks. Its eyes were white and jellylike. Its webbed fingers were tipped with claws like razors. Its respiration was bubbly and deep, the sound of a diver with a bad regulator. As it saw Eddie looking, its green-black lips wrinkled back from huge fangs in a dead and vacant smile. [p. 262]

King’s considerable descriptive powers bring a deadly figure to vivid life in this scene in which runaway Eddie Corcoran is run down by the Gill Man alongside Derry’s Canal. Eddie’s vicious beheading even as he searches futilely for a zipper running up the Creature’s back serves notice to the reader that the horrors on display in this Maine town are really lethal and not just clumsy attempts at cinematic make-believe.

 

3. Rodan

It was not just the shock of seeing a monster bird, a bird whose breast was as orange as a robin’s and whose feathers were the unremarkable fluffy gray of a sparrow’s feathers; most of it was the shock of the utterly unexpected. He had expected monoliths of machinery half-submerged in stagnant puddles and black mud; instead he was looking down into a giant nest which filled the cellarhold from end to end and side to side. It had been made out of enough timothy grass to make a dozen bales of hay, but this grass was silvery and old. The bird sat in the middle of it, its brightly ringed eyes as black as fresh, warm tar, and for an insane moment before his paralysis broke, Mike could see himself reflected in each of them. [p.278]

This scene, in which Mike finds himself trapped inside a fallen smokestack by a monstrous bird of prey, forms one of the most suspenseful of the Losers’ solo encounters with It. King continually takes the scene another unsettling step further, adding details both grotesque (when Mike manages to wound the bird’s eye, “tiny parasites wriggled and squirmed” [p. 282] in the disgusting discharge) and bizarre (“And on this [unfurled] tongue, like weird tumbleweeds that had taken temporary root there, were a number of orange puffs”).

 

4. The Leper 

The skin of its forehead was split open. White bone, coated with a membrane of yellow mucusy stuff, peered through like the lens of a bleary searchlight. The nose was a bridge of raw gristle above two red flaring channels. One eye was a gleeful blue. The other socket was filled with a mass of spongy brown-black tissue. the leper’s lower lip sagged like liver. It had no upper lip at all; its teeth poked out in a sneering ring. [p. 312]

Eddie’s illness phobia (instilled by his overbearing mother) and his dread of sexual predators (after a previous harassing by a syphilitic tramp) make him ripe pickings for the rottenly-costumed It in this scene. As if this wasn’t harrowing enough, King has the nightmare follow Eddie into his bed that night, where the boy hears (only in his imagination?) the leper whisper, “It won’t do you any good to run, Eddie” (p. 315).

 

5. The Teenage Werewolf

Its forehead was low and prognathous, covered with scant hair. Its cheeks were hollow and furry. Its eyes were a dark brown, filled with horrible intelligence, horrible awareness. Its mouth dropped open and it began to snarl. White foam ran from the corners of its thick lower lip in twin streams that dripped from its chin. The hair on its head was swept back in a gruesome parody of a teenager’s d.a.. It threw its head back and roared, its eyes never leaving Richie’s. [p. 377]

This timeliest of monster icons (in relation to the scenes in the book set in 1958) also makes for the most active antagonist that the Losers encounter. The Teenage Werewolf chases Bill and Richie out of the house on Neibolt Street and pursues the boys right down the block as they attempt to speed away on Bill’s bike Silver. They manage a narrow escape, but their adversary rears Its hirsute head in another menacing encounter later in the novel.

 

6. Mrs. Kersh/The Witch

Her claws scrabbled on the plate and she began to cram thin molasses cookies and delicate frosted slices of cake into her mouth with both hands. Her horrid teeth plunged and reared, plunged and reared; her fingernails, long and dirty, dug into the sweets; crumbs tumbled down the bony slab of her chin. Her breath was the smell of long-dead things burst wide open by the gasses of their own decay. Her laugh was now a dead cackle. Her hair was thinner. Scaly scalp showed in patches. [p. 570-571]

The Hansel and Gretel story is given a grim twist, as Beverly watches a kindly senior transform into “a crone with an apple-doll’s face” whose house appears to be made out of candy. A child-eater out of a famous fairy tale is an appropriate guise for It, just as the septic sludge It nauseatingly serves up to Beverly as a cup of tea is a fitting beverage from a monster that calls the sewers beneath Derry Its home.

 

7. Paul Bunyan Statue 

There he had been, sitting in that mellow March sunshine, drowsing a little, thinking about going home and catching the last half hour of Bandstand, and suddenly there had been a warm swash of air in his face. It blew his hair back from his forehead. He looked up and Paul Bunyan’s huge plastic face had been right up in front of his, bigger than a face on a movie screen, filling everything. The rush of air had been caused by Paul’s bending down…although he did not precisely look like Paul anymore. The forehead was now low and beetling; tufts of wiry hair poked from a nose as red as the nose of a long-time drunkard; his eyes were bloodshot and one had  a slight cast to it.

The axe was no longer on his shoulder. Paul was leaning on its haft, and the blunt end of its head had crushed a trench in the concrete of the sidewalk. He was still grinning, but there was nothing cheery about it now. From between gigantic yellow teeth there drifted a smell like small animals rotting in hot underbrush. [p. 584]

An American folk hero (adopted as the “patron saint of Derry” [p. 583]) turns into an overarching villain reminiscent of the giant from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” In lesser hands, this plastic colossus could have made for a tacky form of attacker, but King succeeds in making this animate statue hugely unnerving.

 

8. Flying Leeches

Suddenly one of the shell-like things unfurled insectile wings. Before Patrick could do more than register the fact, it had flown across the space between the refrigerator and Patrick’s left arm. It struck with a smacking sound. There was an instant of heat. It faded and Patrick’s arm felt just like always again…but the shell-like creature’s pale flesh turned first pink, and then, with shocking suddenness, rose-red. [p.832-833]

It’s a case of the biter-bit here, as the sociopathic Patrick Hockstetter receives some nasty comeuppance. No small part of the shock here stems from the unusual nature of the threat (who ever thought of a flying leech prior to reading this book?) and the unexpected place of its emergence (an abandoned refrigerator in the town dump). A death doesn’t get more horrific than having a leech latch onto your eyeball and suck the fluid out of it (and another one roosting on your tongue when you open your mouth to scream).

 

9. The Crawling Eye

A gigantic Eye filled the tunnel, the glassy black pupil two feet across, the iris a muddy russet color. The white was bulgy, membranous, laced with red veins that pulsed steadily. It was a lidless lashless gelatinous horror that moved on a bed of raw-looking tentacles. They fumbled over the tunnel’s crumbly surface and sank in like fingers, so that the impression given in the glow of Bill’s guttering match was of an Eye that had somehow grown nightmare fingers which were pulling It along.

It stared at them with blank, feverish avarice. The match went out. [p.1024-1025]

This fright for sore eyes might trace back to a campy 50’s monster movie, but ultimately is the eldritch offspring of a beastie out of Lovecraft (an author whose prose style King also seems to channel here). When the light goes out, the horror grows horripilatingly tactile, as the Losers feel the brush of the Eye’s questing tentacles, and then the “thick and wet and somehow gristly” (p. 1027) quality of the jellied surface as they strike out against It.

 

10. George

“Kill you!” George cried, and a mixture of doglike sounds came out of the fanged mouth: yips, yelps, howls. A kind of laughter. Bill could smell him now, could smell George rotting. It was a cellar smell, squirmy, the smell of some final monster standing slumped and yellow-eyed, waiting to unzip some some small boy’s guts. [p. 1038]

The cruelest blow Pennywise strikes ostensibly occurs in the book’s opening scene with the ripping off of poor George’s arm, but Its lowest blow is delivered in the climax when It manifests as the young murder victim. Such disguise is fiendishly designed to prey upon Bill’s lifelong sense of guilt over his brother’s demise (“He had sent George out to die, and he had spent his whole adult life writing about the horror of that betrayal–oh, he had put many faces on it, almost as many faces as It had put on for their benefit, but the monster at the bottom of everything was only George, running out into the receding flood  with his paraffin-coated paper boat”), and nearly does the trick of silencing ol’ Stuttering Bill for good.

 

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