From TV miniseries to the Silver Screen: Pennywise Returns

September 5, 2017

Horror fans around the world have waited for years to see one of the most terrifying clowns in cinematic history, and finally Pennywise returns later this week in the new version of Stephen King’s It.

As a post on Uproxx noted, “Who needs nightmares when you can be traumatized by creepy-ass clowns in person? The Alamo Drafthouse is celebrating the arrival of the 2017 cinematic take on Stephen King’s It with a clown-only screening of the movie. The Austin location of the theater chain will cater to a clown-specific audience on September 9th with a special screening of It. All attendees are expected to be done up like a clown (I can count the Captain Spauldings already) and can also visit ‘an IT pre-party where we will have face-painters available for clown ‘touch-ups,’ a photo booth, raffles for prizes, and other terrifying merriment.'”

The same theater successfully courted publicity earlier this year by advertising an all-female screening of Wonder Woman; a handful of people complained, sparking a predictable backlash of outrage that garnered the theater millions of dollars in free publicity. As it turned out, the Alamo was joking; paying male patrons were not refused entry to the all-female Wonder Woman screening, and similarly the September 9 “clown-only” It screening merely requests that “all attendees should arrive dressed as a clown,” not that they must–a distinction that virtually no journalists bothered to make. When a publicity stunt works, you stick with it.

Here’s a look at the 31-year history of Pennywise the clown. While Killer Klowns from Outer Space from 1988 is a camp classic, by far the most memorable scary clown in visual media is evil clown Pennywise in the film It, based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name. Played by Tim Curry, Pennywise was a murderous evil incarnate entity capable of transforming itself into whatever form a person most feared. A group of outcasts first encounter Pennywise as teenagers, and then later reunite as adults to defeat him.

It was not a feature film but instead a two-part television miniseries that aired in 1990 on the ABC network. A key reason that evil clown Pennywise is so widely known is that It was seen in nearly 18 million households, including by children and teenagers. If It had been a PG- or R-rated theatrical release its audience would have been cut by two-thirds. It might (or might not) have been scarier with the addition of a bigger budget, explicit gore, and the profanity likely to accompany a big screen studio release, but it clearly would not have had the lasting cultural impact that the television production did. Never before had a scary clown appeared in living rooms across the country during prime time.

In a 2013 interview Stephen King explained how Pennywise came to be: “I thought to myself, ‘What scares children more than anything else in the world?’ And the answer was clowns. So I created Pennywise the Clown in It. And then what happened was ABC came along and said they wanted to make a miniseries out of it and they wanted to cast Tim Curry as Pennywise. I thought it was a really strange idea but it really worked, and it scared a whole generation of young people, it made them scared of clowns. Clowns are scary for children to start with.”

In a 2005 interview on The Tonight Show Conan O’Brien credited King as “one of the first people to have the idea that a clown could be a scary figure.” He asked King if he’d been scared of clowns as a child, and King replied with his own early experience: “As a kid going to the circus, there would be like twelve full grown people that would all pile out of a little tiny car, their faces were dead white, their mouths were red as though they were full of blood. They’re all screaming, their eyes are huge… what’s not to like?”

King gently corrected O’Brien, noting that he hardly invented the scary clown idea, though he certainly popularized it for many around the world. “So I started to actually look at kids… kids are all terrified of them. The parents are like, ‘Aren’t the clowns funny, Johnny?’ and Johnny’s like, ‘No! Get me the hell out of here! These people are all crazy!’ because they really are monstrous looking and children are all afraid of them, they do sort of have that monstrous thing going for them.”

Though King himself admitted no particular fear of clowns, he told a (perhaps apocryphal) story of a strange clown he encountered on an airplane early in his career: “I was my first big book tour, I was on my way home… and the plane pulls away from the gate, and then it pulls back in. I’m sitting in first class, and the door opens again, and Ronald McDonald gets on the airplane. He’s fully dressed, and sits down next to me-because I attract weirdness, I’m like a weirdness magnet. And I was so weirded out by that point [from a long, exhausting book tour including] rubber chicken dinners that I wasn’t even surprised. Here he his, orange hair, orange shoes, the whole nine yards. He sits down next to me–this is years ago–the plane takes off, the ‘no smoking’ light goes off, he pulls out a pack of Kents, lights up a Kent, and he orders a gin and tonic from the stewardess…. He had come from McDonaldland, which is a real place in Chicago, and he was going to open a McDonald’s in Burlington, Vermont. You talk about surreal, and I thought, ‘What if this plane crashes? I’m going to die next to a clown.'”

Tony Timpone of Fangoria magazine told me in an interview, “Originally Pennywise was going to be [created with] really elaborate makeup. The director, Tommy Lee Wallace, told me they had a series of makeups for Pennywise, where he gets more and more over-the-top-scary looking, and Tim Curry said ‘You know, I don’t want to go through all the makeup, I want to be able to act. I think I can make this character scary with a minimal amount of makeup,’ and I think that was a wise decision because Curry was such a good actor, he knows how to handle the language, he made the character exceptionally scary just by using simple greasepaint, his body language, and that funny, menacing voice.” Curry’s performance became indelibly linked to scary clowns everywhere, and years later inspired copycats clowns.

With such a distinctive pedigree even if the new It bombs–and to be fair, King adaptations are notoriously uneven–it’s certain that the world hasn’t seen the last of this scary clown.