I find the 2017 movie It curiously compelling, and that’s probably because I find “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” to be such a compelling Satan figure. It would be hard to imagine a movie that does not attempt explicitly to be theological and yet captures James 4:7—“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you”—as well as It. The story is a theology of evil, whether or not its authors intended it as such.
The Satanic Central Character
It is a supernatural malevolent force. He tempts us with temporary pleasures and leads us astray. He comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). He is a liar and a murderer (John 8:44).
One weakness of the Satanic interpretation of Pennywise is that he does not spend much time accusing. In this respect, Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is a more Satanic clown.
The Overarching Mythology
If we look past the movie to the background mythology from Steven King’s books, another biblical parallel presents itself.
In the books we learn that Pennywise is not It’s real name. It is an ancient entity from outside our universe. And, like Satan in Isaiah 14:12 and Luke 10:18, Pennywise got to Derry, Maine, by falling like a start from heaven.
And there’s more in the background mythology. Satan in the Bible is not the only ancient superhuman power. He is opposed to God. It is likewise opposed to another entity, Maturin, or the Turtle. (Yes, the Turtle. Try not to confuse him with great A’Tuin the World Turtle from Terry Pratchett’s books!)
The Turtle and It may both be superseded by another, higher entity—“the Other.” The Turtle, and maybe the Other as well, help the heroes of It fight Pennywise.
The Literary Descent into Hell
It taps into the very, very old literary image of man’s descent into hell. Odysseus and Aeneas, you may recall, did this. More importantly, Dante did it, and as the author of The Divine Comedy he set the boundaries of the literary trope: The protagonist descends into the underworld where he finds a hellscape populated by monsters and the dead.
Who says medievals are old-fashioned? That’s pretty much the plot of the X-Box game Area 51, as well as the movie Resident Evil, at the beginning of which the protagonist wakes up like Dante not knowing where she is.
In It our heroes find a hell in the sewers underneath Derry. It’s not Dante’s inferno, where Satan is imprisoned, but more like the hell of popular lore, where Satan reigns. And, technically, there’s only one monster, the various forms of Pennywise Itself.
The Biblical Narrative
There’s more. The narrative of It is strikingly biblical in structure and content.
Think about it: A cosmic evil entity comes to earth, where it proceeds to wreak havoc and destruction. A small community is called to the task of opposing it. Who are they—the wise, the learned, the strong, the rich, the powerful? No. It’s not even a community of the good as such; these are people with any number of moral failings and character flaws.
It’s a community of losers who resist the ancient enemy, enabled by a higher power to do so. The losers are the ones whose struggle somehow defeats the ancient enemy.
What story am I telling here? Well, this is the story of It. But this is also the story of the Jews, who were “but a few men in number” and “strangers” in the land of their own home (Psalm 105). And this is the story of the early church (1 Corinthians 1).
The Weakness of Evil
It captures the weakness of evil. Towards the end of the film Pennywise turns out to be, like his meals-turned-foes, a loser. This is an insight as ancient as Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, indeed as ancient as Plato’s Republic: The tyrant is a loser. He’s not happy. He’s weak because he relies on others to survive. He’s friendless because he can’t trust anyone not to kill him.
Pennywise is a bit like this. His only friends are his meals. He’s too weak to stand on his own feet after a small band of losers show they aren’t afraid of him.
When Pennywise is reduced to his defeated, crumbling state we may well wish him to die as he deserves. But we may also feel what Bilbo felt for Gollum; we may pity him.
In the same way, in Harry’s vision of the train station near the end of the Harry Potter saga we see past Voldemort’s veneer of strength and self-sufficiency. He, like all tyrants, is a weak and pathetic loser. What does he deserve? Punishment, to be sure—up to and including death. But pity for someone who made himself into such a pathetic creature would not be amiss.
It and Theology
In short, It portrays a cosmic struggle between good and evil, a struggle in which human decision, will, effort, and self-sacrifice matter. It gives us a theology. This is not literal, or at least It is probably not intended by its authors literally to be a theology. Rather, this is literary. This story functions superbly as a theological allegory. It’s antagonist, mythology, imagery, narrative, and climax are all richly theological in nature.
Do I find this concept fascinating because I believe in the existence of a real Satan, and because I accept the biblical narrative as true? Maybe. Probably. And maybe another lesson goes the other way: Maybe we can learn something about Satan from the fact that our culture hungers for this kind of film. Maybe the storytelling around Satanic figures is cathartic. Maybe it helps us cope with some aspect of our world. Maybe we need the biblical narrative.
Maybe we need to know that the ultimate Loser overcame a world (John 16:33) in the control of the ancient adversary (1 John 5:19), disarming and humiliating the enemy and his minions (Colossians 2:15).
Perhaps It: Chapter Two will give us an image of some aspect of this triumph next year. In the meantime, the true story of the triumph over evil is told in the Bible, and we don’t have to wait till next year to read it. We can start this very Halloween.