Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel “It” has undergone three completely different adaptations, but still focuses on the fear of his terrifying clown Pennywise, who was inspired by true crime and social fears. The clown became a symbol of revived childhood horrors when he published an almost thousand-page story. Although it contains various themes of the paranormal, supernatural, and even science fiction, the inspiration from real life that influenced King’s creation of Pennywise remains the most terrifying.
The novel was originally adapted as a television miniseries by Tommy Lee Wallace from Halloween III: Season of the Witches. In 2017 and 2019, Andy Muschetti took on the task of once again adapting the novel for theatrical release. Both have found success among King’s fans, whether it’s a cult following in the case of Wallace’s miniseries or critical acclaim like Musketti’s. Staying true to the source material, both films are about the “Losers Club”, when adults and children fight an evil clown known as Pennywise, who kills children in the city of Derry, Maine.
Pennywise and his child abuse are central to the storyline of each adaptation and the book itself. While King was writing a long novel, the influence of his surroundings and the headlines that were plastered all over the news stations profoundly influenced the being who would become the heart of his novel. A werewolf clown from another dimension is scary enough, but the real-life influence that created it is even more disturbing and adds frightening depth to the familiar horror icon Pennywise.
The Murders of John Wayne Gacy
John Wayne Gacy was a notorious serial killer and sex offender who often dressed up as a clown. He regularly performed in children’s hospitals in his clown costume under the pseudonym “Clown Pogo” or “Clown Patches”. On December 21, 1978, Gacy was arrested and convicted of 33 murders. He was sentenced to death on March 13, 1980 and executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1994. Pennywise may have been based on a serial killer.
Although there is debate about whether Gacy really influenced the creation of Pennywise, the two are very similar, as both dress up as clowns and are aimed at children. When Gacy was convicted of his murders in 1980, King must have started writing “It.” Whether this was a conscious influence or not remains unknown, but real horror often spills over into fiction, especially when reality is much more terrible. Undoubtedly, the Gacy murders caused great fear in the hearts of Americans, and as soon as Pennywise was introduced, he further perpetuated the need to be afraid of people behind white paint and red smiles.
Panic of the 1980s “Unknown Danger”
Another influence on the novel about IT was the panic of the 80s associated with the danger of a stranger. In the 1980s, society was overwhelmed by a new wave of public fear. As the epidemic of child murders and kidnappings reached an incredible level, a panic was formed caused by the “alien danger”. Former President Ronald Reagan launched a campaign to toughen criminal penalties for anyone who tried or harmed children. During the Reagan administration, family values and security were at the epicenter of his political platform. With the threat of Gacy and other child killers, the panic about the unfamiliar danger intensified.
When clowns wear makeup, rainbow costumes and wigs, they are almost unrecognizable. Because of this fact, all real clowns become strangers. With so many children’s birthday parties, including performances by these actors, the fear of a bloodthirsty stranger like Gacy was all too real a threat to American society. Various moments in King’s novel hint at panic over the danger of a stranger as a partial influence on the book, as children who interact with Pennywise often see him as nothing more than an innocent clown at a party.
What other characters inspired Stephen King to create Pennywise
While Gacy served as the basis for the horrors that Pennywise would cause, Ronald McDonald was the model for his appearance. In various interviews, Stephen King has called Ronald McDonald a trustworthy character that children know and love, which makes him someone they can trust. By modeling an unreliable creature of horror on the model of a beloved children’s icon, he created an alarming division of who or what can be a source of comfort or horror for children. This does not mean that Ronald McDonald was the main source of inspiration for the novel, but his iconic image inspired the appearance of Pennywise.
Where will Pennywise appear next?
For the first time in March 2022, it was announced that a prequel series to Musketti’s film “It” would be released on HBO Max under the title “Welcome to Derry”. An upcoming TV show has recently opened a scriptwriter’s room, and the series will take place in the 1960s.