Stephen King's original It novel, published in 1984, inspired a 1990 mini-series starring Tim Curry, and more recently, director Andy Muschietti's 2017 feature It and 2019's It Chapter Two. The franchise's simple name is based on its central villain -- a supernatural entity known primarily as It -- due to its mysterious and horrifying nature.
Everyone who comes across It sees something different before suffering a gruesome death. While It often appears as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Pennywise is not simply a killer clown with sharp teeth and a hunger for frightened children. It is many things, some of them too bizarre and alien for anyone to truly understand.
What Does It's Pennywise Really Look Like?
It is known for being a shapeshifter. While It prefers its Pennywise persona, the creature's true forms are vastly different from any colorful human entertainer. In Stephen King's original novel, the 1990s mini-series and It Chapter Two, the Losers Club discovers one of It's true forms, which is arachnid in nature. It is not truly a mutated spider, but rather, a bizarre trans-dimensional alien with a vaguely spider-like appearance -- and that's the best way the Losers Club's members can describe the creature. It is also much larger than any Losers Club member, towering over them with its many legs.
In the 1990 mini-series, It's true form was a mottled brown alien with a fearsome face, not to mention two humanoid front arms complete with fingers and claws to grasp its enemies. It also seemed capable of traveling through narrow pipes despite its size, suggesting that it can shrink down or fold up its body to move around at its convenience. Meanwhile, the 2019 version of It's true form combined the Pennywise persona with the spider theme, becoming a massive creature with the Pennywise torso but with countless legs and two arms, and it could form single, giant claws with any of its limbs to stab an enemy to death. When the Losers bravely fronted It without fear, the creature shrank into a baby-like version of Pennywise until It's heart was destroyed.
However, even these spider forms might not be It's genuine form. It is a cosmic horror creature in the same vein as H. P. Lovecraft's many works. The creature's real body is composed of the "deadlights," or glowing orbs that overwhelm the mind of anyone who sees them. The deadlights made a cameo in 2017's It when Beverly looked into Pennywise's open mouth and saw three small, white lights rotating deep inside Pennywise's throat. Even this limited exposure put her into a catatonic state until revived later. It's true body may not be physical at all, and any solid form It assumes, even the spider forms, is just a convenient vessel for the deadlights while operating on Earth. In It's own macroverse, there may not be a need for a tangible form.
Why Does Pennywise Shapeshift?
Pennywise rarely, if ever, confronts any human prey in the spider or deadlights form. Instead, It is known to stalk and ambush human prey while in a more conventional but horrifying disguise, often as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Pennywise's forms are always terrifying, but they are also familiar to any human who sees them, such as an aggressive mummy, a sickly leper, a headless boy or even Beverly's abusive father. It assumes these creative forms for a single purpose -- to inspire as much terror and dread as possible in the victim before finally killing them. To It, just butchering a victim isn't enough. It seasons the victim's mind with fear, considering fear a delicacy. To It, scaring a child is the same as a chef adding spice rub to a steak before grilling it.
It doesn't have to guess what a child fears most. The creature has some psychic abilities and can read a person's mind, know what upsets them the most and assume that form. It also seems capable of influencing the minds of others, convincing them not to interfere in It's hunts, which may explain why the adults of Derry never seem to realize what's happening to their children. Mike Hanlon was mentally scarred when his parents died in a fire, so It assumes the form of badly burned human arms, desperately trying to escape a doorway. Eddie Kaspbrak fears illness, so he sees a shambling leper, and so on.
As for the Pennywise persona, the fear of clowns is well-known, stemming from a clown's unreadable and exaggerated face, making its true intentions difficult to discern. In modern times, the fear of clowns may also be based on the real-life horror of John Wayne Gacy, and it's likely that It knows about that too.
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