Free-Range Horror

By Jason MiddletonDecember 13, 2017

Free-Range Horror
DESPITE MANY OTHER predictable changes to its source material, the opening sequence of Andy Muschietti’s wildly successful adaptation of Stephen King’s epic 1986 novel It reproduces the book’s inciting incident with meticulous loyalty. In the beginning of the novel, just before protagonist Bill Denbrough’s younger brother Georgie is killed by the monstrous clown Pennywise in a horrific realization of “stranger danger,” he must run down to his family’s basement to get paraffin for the newspaper boat Bill is building for him. It is an experience of unrelenting terror, despite his desperate attempts to reassure himself: “Stupid! There were no things with claws, all hairy and full of killing spite. Every now and then someone went crazy and killed a lot of people — sometimes Chet Huntley told about such things on the evening news — and of course there were Commies, but there was no weirdo monster living down in their cellar.” King’s powerful evocation of the nearly unbearable ordeal of a solo trip to the basement at age six reminds us of childhood’s blurred line between real and imagined fears.

For contemporary advocates of “free-range parenting” for whom the 1980s represents the last vestige of freedom before the descent of the helicopter parent, this is precisely why the unattended trip to the basement or the playground is vital: independently navigating those indistinct regions of the real and the imagined should help children learn to better delineate between the two. But the gruesome murder that sets King’s novel in motion sides instead with the logic of a famous quotation from Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Georgie successfully conquers his fear of the basement, only to be dismembered down the street by a version of the very monster he’d convinced himself was only imaginary.

Critics have noted the It movie’s overlap with the hit Netflix series Stranger Things in their apparent celebration of autonomous childhood adventure, a possibility many believe to have vanished with the 1980s in which movie and show are both set. Do the parent-free exploits of the young “Losers’ Club” in King’s novel support the idea that parental overprotectiveness be dismissed as so much needless paranoia? The novel instead explores more complex and troubling questions inaugurated by Georgie’s death: Is the best and bravest way to treat our fears truly to tell ourselves that they don’t exist? Is it actually possible, or even advisable, to try to separate the real from the imagined?

From Michael Chabon’s wistful “The Wilderness of Childhood” to more polemical essays like Hanna Rosin’s “The Overprotected Kid” and Christina Schwarz’s “Leave Those Kids Alone” (both in The Atlantic), a proliferation of recent think pieces has lamented the loss of an American childhood in which unsupervised play and everyday encounters with moderate danger build independence, resilience, and creativity. In these views, today’s highly regulated kids not only lack fortitude but also tragically miss out on the risky fun and adventure of yesteryear’s childhoods.

Some of these pieces suggest that fictions can help today’s postlapsarian children imagine a different world, and remind parents that such a world could exist. One contemporary father watches the Spielberg-authored adventure The Goonies (dir. Richard Donner, 1985) with his children. Their sense of wonder is ignited simply by the image of a group of kids striking out on a quest on their own. “Where are their parents?” the author’s kids demand to know. “How are they allowed to do this?” In a New York Times op-ed titled “The ‘Stranger Things’ School of Parenting,” Anna North argues that the acclaimed television series offers more than a pleasurable nostalgia for 1980s kids’ adventure movies like The Goonies and E.T. North sees in the show a valuable corrective to the “hyper-parenting” approach of today (indeed, she goes so far as to suggest that the show’s villainous Dr. Martin Brenner is the only adult that fits the “helicopter parent” mold): “‘Stranger Things’ is a reminder of a kind of unstructured childhood wandering that — because of all the cellphones, the fear of child molesters, a move toward more involved parenting or a combination of all three — seems less possible than it once was.” Synthesizing the ideas of Rosin, Schwarz, et al., North asks us to view Stranger Things as a model for a loosened approach to parenting that acknowledges the world may hold dangers, but accepts that “bravery needs its own space to grow.”

There is general consensus among these essays that the 1980s marks a turning point away from older childhood freedoms. This characterization adds further poignancy to Stranger Things’s loving evocation of 1983–’84. The years following the 1982 release of Spielberg’s E.T., the movie with the strongest imprint on Stranger Things’s vision of its era, are also seen as the beginning of the end of a world in which such fantasies of childhood could seem grounded in a recognizable reality. In the present, the image of a group of unsupervised kids biking headlong into mystery and adventure can exist only as nostalgic evocation of past fictions. What happened in the 1980s to bring us to this point?

As Rosin explains, a series of child abductions and murders between 1979 and 1981 garnered a new level of media coverage for this type of crime. Perhaps most notoriously, the disappearance in 1979 of six-year-old Etan Patz, walking alone to his school bus in New York City, precipitated the widespread perception of a rise in kidnapping and child molestation. Rosin succinctly summarizes the cultural upshot of this infamous case: “[T]he fear drove a new parenting absolute. Children were never to talk to strangers.” Or walk to school, or anywhere else, alone. Simultaneously, high-profile lawsuits over children’s injuries led to a radical overhaul of playground design according to stringent new safety standards. In the views of some psychologists and educators, the removal of any sense of risk in the experience of play undermines the development of children’s ability to negotiate real-world fear or danger. Rosin describes an evolutionary psychologist’s critical perspective on these cultural shifts in the 1980s: facing moderate fear through unregulated exploration and play inoculates us against greater, more debilitating fears that may otherwise take hold. For Rosin and many other commentators, this inoculation is what we have lost.

Stephen King’s It, written between 1981 and 1985 as the fears and protective responses described by Rosin became culturally entrenched in what she terms “the era of the ubiquitous missing child,” might at first blush seem an opening salvo in defense of the childhood freedoms whose loss is lamented today. Indeed, King’s story of a group of outcast kids who band together to fight a protean monster in the fictional small town of Derry, Maine, in the 1950s was a major influence on the plot and themes of Stranger Things; the show originated in part because its writer-directors were turned down in their bid to helm the film adaptation of It. It is tempting to read King’s novel as a wellspring for the lesson North believes Stranger Things revives for our present moment: sometimes kids need to be left alone to confront monsters themselves, because “it’s only when the parents aren’t watching that a child can become a hero.”

If understood in these terms, as a paean to childhood freedoms, King’s novel makes a particularly bold statement for the time of its release. Just a few years after Etan Patz’s abduction cemented the rule against talking to strangers, It’s opening scene and inciting incident finds a boy exactly Etan’s age playing out in the street on his own. Lured to the edge of a storm drain by the seductive banter of Pennywise, Georgie hesitates, reciting the dictum actually much less ingrained in the 1950s of the book’s setting than in the 1980s of its writing: “I’m not supposed to take stuff from strangers. My dad said so.” And in this scene King makes it very clear that Georgie invites his own violent demise by eventually trusting the charming Pennywise and accepting his proffered balloon. If Georgie had run away when he first heard the voice coming from the storm drain, there might never have been occasion for Georgie’s older brother and his band of misfit friends to become heroes.

Stranger Things is King by way of Spielberg: It transferred to a 1980s of risk and wonder in which we never really fear for the main characters’ lives. Season one, after all, begins with a missing child, but unlike It, ends with that child’s safe return. Where the four boys of Stranger Things navigate pubescent romantic crushes and perils, King’s children confront actual sex and death. Georgie’s murder comes amid a wave of child disappearances and deaths in Derry that leads the police to impose an evening curfew. At an assembly, the police chief assures the town’s children that they will be safe so long as they never talk to (or accept rides from) strangers. Townspeople speculate about the presence of one or more sexual predators. The death count rises. 1950s Derry becomes a microcosm of “the era of the ubiquitous missing child” Rosin ascribes to the 1980s United States. And, like the science fiction plot cliché in which a character travels back in time to change the future, It’s 1950s imagines an opportunity to confront the fears of the 1980s in advance, before they become insurmountable.

This projection of 1980s anxieties backward to the 1950s is mirrored in the book’s dual time frame: the characters, grown to adulthood in the 1980s, must return to Derry to again confront the monster they thought they had defeated as children. Riding on the coat tails of its own imitator, Stranger Things, the 2017 It movie transfers the children’s story to a more marketable and mediagenic 1980s setting. This only renders its allegory for 1980s panic over missing children more palpable: here is the moment when kidnappings and murders suffuse the adult imagination, but children may still, for just a bit longer, ride their bikes across town alone. Though more horrific than Stranger Things, the It movie aligns with the TV show in lending itself to the view that the dangers the children face are a necessary and bearable price for the joys and glories of their adventures. Both texts can easily support Rosin’s and North’s claims that with increasingly supervised childhoods, kids — and we, as a society — have lost much more than we have gained.

The show and movie can resonate with this message in part because a central argument in most essays on the loss of childhood freedom is that the fears of the 1980s were imaginary all along. The authors of these pieces repeatedly invoke statistics to demonstrate that the rate of stranger abductions did not actually rise during the period in which fear of this act rose exponentially. Nor have they risen since then, and the overall rate of crimes against children has in fact declined since the 1990s. But for me, this common argument calls to mind a Jay Leno routine about how, after every spectacular disaster, the airline industry seeks to reassure the public with statistics. You are a thousand times more likely, authoritative pilots tell us in television spots, to die from a fall in the shower than in a plane crash. Fine, Leno says, but when I slip in the tub I’m not falling 30 thousand feet! Probabilities mean little to fear and horror. It is enough that the thing really exists. And this is what makes King’s novel resistant to being marshaled along with its movie adaptation and Stranger Things in the case for unsupervised childhood. The monster in It assumes many forms as it appears to each of the kids individually. But there is one consistent principle in its manifestations: “It” asserts the brutal reality of particular fears the children already hold but assume are only imaginary.

King emphasizes this point repeatedly: the unsupervised spaces of play and exploration in the novel’s small-town 1950s are sites of self-discovery and growth yet also of terror and violence. And this violence is enacted by a monster whose particular horror derives from its very insistence that fears are never just imagined. Significantly, King invokes horror fictions themselves in this logic: the monster sometimes appears in the form of figures from 1950s horror movies that the children have previously experienced as fun and cathartic entertainments — as a means of safely facing their fears. But It’s manifestations of the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so on, are far more grotesque and deadly than the fictions familiar to both the novel’s characters and the reader. Some children are violently murdered. Others escape It’s assaults, eventually banding together to fight back.

Despite firsthand experience of the monster, a major obstacle they must overcome is the ingrained belief that it cannot actually be real:

“You’re … not … real,” Eddie choked, but clouds of grayness were closing in now, and he realized faintly that it was real enough, this Creature. It was, after all, killing him. And yet some rationality remained, even until the end: as the Creature hooked its claws into the soft meat of his neck […] Eddie’s hands groped at the Creature’s back, feeling for a zipper.

This scene, in which minor character Eddie Corcoran is murdered in a town park by It’s version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, exemplifies a central theme in the novel: although we may rationalize our fears as unbelievable, even ludicrous (a clown in the sewer? a man-sized fish creature?), this doesn’t change the fact that the most unimaginable things do actually happen.

Published at the peak of the “era of the ubiquitous missing child,” It offers a less reassuring message than North’s takeaway from Stranger Things, a bromide equally applicable to the It movie: “it’s only when the parents aren’t watching that a child can become a hero.” There is some of that celebration of heroism in King’s novel, for sure. But in at least equal measure, the book troubles the rationalization that fear is just in our heads. Even if stranger abduction is about as probable as a supernatural killer clown in a storm drain, the book turns the reassurances of probability on their head. What matters isn’t the statistical likelihood of these things happening, but the horrific magnitude of the things that sometimes do happen. It requires the passage of an entire generation for the novel’s characters to even begin to cope with what happened to Georgie and the others. And so, the novel proleptically answers today’s unsupervised childhood nostalgists with a challenging question: why shouldn’t it change everything when a six-year-old child is stolen by a monster?

I am not proposing an alternative to Anna North, an “It School of Parenting” predicated on the belief that Georgie should simply have stayed in his parents’ sight at all times. But nor should the portrait of childhood in the novel that inspired Stranger Things be assimilated to the romantic idealization of childhood before “the era of the ubiquitous missing child.” As Joshua Rothman reminds us in a recent New Yorker piece on It, the movie is unable to capture the novel’s vast, messy weirdness — the cosmic fever dream to which its conflicts eventually build. Indeed, the bizarre incoherence of the book’s resolution further illuminates its status as a missive from the trenches of the missing child era: the book’s inciting incident powerfully conveys the horror of real-life events, but its allegory becomes unruly — and eventually unmoored from its historical referents entirely — in its attempt to imagine what it might take to overcome the fears these events bring into the world.


Jason Middleton is a professor of film and media studies at the University of Rochester.

LARB Contributor

Jason Middleton is a professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Rochester. His articles have appeared in Cinema Journal, The Journal of Visual Culture, Popular Music, The Velvet Light Trap, Afterimage, and Avidly. He is author of Documentary’s Awkward Turn: Cringe Comedy and Media Spectatorship and co-editor of Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones.


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