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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Lessons from a killer clown: What “It” can teach the horror genre

JAMIE CHEN / AGGIE

“It” uses empathy and characterization to heighten the scare

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for the film “It.”

Horror as entertainment is popular today. “It” recently debuted in theaters and proved just that. Masses flocked to theaters, helping the film gross over $100 million in its first weekend.

Where was the appeal of this movie? What made it different from other horror movies? What made it gross the most out of any horror movie in its opening weekend?

The movie made its money off its characters’ backs. And by “characters” I don’t mean the child-eating clown named Pennywise, but rather the cast of children, who were a unique aspect of “It” and a leading reason for its success.

The reason the Losers’ Club, as the kids are dubbed in the film, landed such success was its ability to traverse the large pitfall of horror movie casts: bad and stupid protagonists. Stupidity plagues modern horror films. In the 2013 remake of 1981’s “The Evil Dead,” one of the characters, Eric, finds himself in the basement of their strange eerie cabin in the woods. In the basement, Eric finds a book. To his surprise, he finds the book to be made of dried skin. Unnerved by the Frankenstein-like patchwork, the character opens the book and finds pages of pentagrams and scribbles about demons. On the pages, written in what could be blood, are the words, “Don’t say it, Don’t write it, Don’t hear it!” Eric, being the fool he is, reads the devilish words aloud, and in doing so releases a demon that kills a huge chunk of the cast.

Why did Eric do this? Wouldn’t a normal person be perturbed by the serious warnings scrawled on the pages? So why isn’t Eric disturbed? Because Eric is not a person; he’s a character — and a bad character at that.

The best characters evoke empathy, and the more the audience can relate to a character, the more popular that character will be. There is nothing relatable about Eric because few people are thick enough to peel back the pages of a human-skin-bound book and read aloud the explicitly marked demonic phrases. So, when Eric died, I didn’t care. I felt no empathy toward him. I connected with him on no level. When he was in danger, the outcome had no effect on the audience.

“It” does exactly the opposite: it presents likeable, non-idiotic characters. “It” allows for empathy. Ben Hanscom, one of the main characters in “It,” opens one of the film’s scenes by clumsily talking to the girl he has a crush on. That is a relatable aspect of Ben’s character. Many people have tripped up on their words when talking to their crush; it’s an incredibly human thing to do. Scenes like this, which involve small, but real, human interactions, fill the first half of the movie. Those scenes exist for one reason: empathy. The more empathy there is for a character, the more that character will be missed if lost.

Empathy for characters is the best thing a horror movie like “It” can do. Unlike Eric from “Evil Dead,” I cared when Ben Hanscom got gored up. I cared because the character Ben rang true to me as person. He did things a normal person would do. He didn’t summon demons and play with skin-bound books; he tripped up on his words when talking to the girl he loved. I connected with him, thanks to the cleverly placed empathy.

The film’s success is not found in its horrifying graphic visuals, but instead resides in the small things — the little actions that make you relate to a character and see them as your friend. Then, when they’re in danger, you worry and fear about their outcome because you care about them.

 

Written by: Nicolas Rago — arts@theaggie.org

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