Novelist Stephen King has contributed a number of villains to our shared (and scared) public consciousness, from the rabies-infected Cujo to the demonic Randall Flagg of The Stand and The Dark Tower fame. But King’s greatest achievement in terror is likely Pennywise, the sadistic clown from his mammoth 1986 opus It.
Pennywise is not, strictly speaking, the villain of It. The clown is merely one guise the malevolent creature takes on to terrorize the children of Derry, Maine, who believe they’ve vanquished him only to see him return 27 years later. But Pennywise has nonetheless seeped into popular culture, stoking a widespread fear of clowns while living his best life beyond King’s pages in a cult classic 1990 miniseries as well as two big-budget features. For more on Pennywise, look no further.
1. Stephen King wanted Pennywise to be a clown because clowns terrify children.
Coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns, had been around long before King began writing It in the early 1980s. Why are clowns perceived as scary outsiders? Some historians point to the role of the court jester, who could evade punishment from the royal courts and was therefore perceived as being exempt from regular social standards. On the outskirts of normalcy, it was no great leap to consider clowns had a malevolent streak.
While there are benevolent clowns like Ronald McDonald, there was also John Wayne Gacy, the notorious ‘70s serial killer who worked as a clown for birthday parties. In 1912, clown/con artist Charles Conway strangled a roommate in Chicago. He was convicted of her murder, but then escaped a prison farm. In short, clowns have been scaring people for a long time.
For It, King wanted to devise a villain who could take the shape of several indelible monsters of the 20th century. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ll get [as many] of the monsters together as I possibly can; I’ll get the Vampire, I’ll get the Werewolf, and I’ll even get the Mummy,’” King said in 2013. “But then I thought to myself, ‘There ought to be one binding, horrible, nasty, gross, creature kind of thing that you don’t want to see, [and] it makes you scream just to see it.’ So I thought to myself, ‘What scares children more than anything else in the world?’ And the answer was ‘clowns.’”
2. Pennywise’s mortal enemy is a turtle.
In the dense narrative of It, Pennywise seems to embody some of the most vicious evil in the universe. His counterpart is Maturin, a benevolent turtle that Losers’ Club member Bill Denbrough meets while traveling in the “Macroverse,” where Pennywise supposedly came from. Maturin advises Bill on how best to challenge Pennywise. None of the screen adaptations have incorporated the turtle, though 2019’s It Chapter Two does name a hallucinogenic root Marturin, which helps Bill achieve some clarity on defeating the evil clown.
3. Alice Cooper was considered for Pennywise.
Like most of King’s books, It was optioned for an adaptation. Originally, it was due to be directed by Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero, with whom King had collaborated on 1982’s anthology movie Creepshow. But Romero flinched at the four-hour limit set by ABC for a limited series adaptation—he wanted closer to eight hours—and left the project. He wound up being replaced by director Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), who set about casting Pennywise.
Actors Roddy McDowall and Malcolm McDowell, along with musician Alice Cooper, were considered for the role, which ultimately went to Tim Curry based on his scenery-chewing performance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (McDowall, oddly enough, had already starred in a horror movie titled It!, about a vengeful golem on the loose in a museum. The movie was released in 1967.)
4. Tim Curry thought of Pennywise as a “smile gone bad.”
Thanks to his outsized performance, Curry may have done as much for Pennywise’s reputation as King. The actor, who has rarely spoken of It in the intervening years, told Fangoria in 1990 that he believed Pennywise was a master of psychological torture. “Pennywise turns out not to be that physical, actually—it’s mostly mental cruelty,” he said. “What’s fun about him is that a clown is traditionally a very cozy, comforting kind of cheery image, and Pennywise is none of these things. I think of him all the time as a smile gone bad—that’s my image for him.”
5. Curry scared the poor kid who played Georgie.
Reflecting on his time a Pennywise in 2017, Curry said that he managed to scare Tony Dakota, the child who played the ill-fated Georgie Denbrough. “There’s the classic scene where little Georgie floats his paper boat down the gutter and puts his hand down to try and get it back, and is grabbed by Pennywise, who says: ‘Down here we float,’” Curry recalled. “The boy playing Georgie yanked his hand away and said, ‘You’re scaring me!’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m supposed to.’”
6. Pennywise appears in other Stephen King novels.
Despite being vanquished at the conclusion of It, King has trotted out Pennywise in other titles. The most notable is in his 1987 novel The Tommyknockers, where a character travels through Derry and believes he sees a clown lurking in a storm drain. In Dreamcatcher (2001), another character spots a spray-painted “Pennywise Lives” across a water tower in Derry. King has made allusions to the events and characters of It in other books, but these two appear to hint that Pennywise may not be completely done eating children.
7. Will Poulter was almost Pennywise.
It was inevitable that It would become a Hollywood franchise. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga joined the proect in 2012, with Will Poulter (Midsommar) filling the clown’s red shoes. That idea sank when Fukunaga left the project in 2015. When director Andy Muschietti brought the first of a two-part adaptation to screens in 2017, actor Bill Skarsgård portrayed Pennywise.
“I was very, very intrigued by the prospect of working with Will,” Muschietti told Deadline in 2017. “I always thought that he would be an amazing Pennywise. We talked a little bit about it, the idea of making the movie even though that Cary wasn’t there. Will basically expressed a feeling that he had slowly disengaged from playing that character, that was so dark and terrifying. It was a personal decision I respected, but I was eager and willing to find my own Pennywise and that’s what we did.”
8. There’s a third incarnation of Pennywise you’ve probably never seen.
Tim Curry and Bill Skarsgård are widely believed to be the only two actors who have played Pennywise for the screen, but the villainous clown has been portrayed by a third person. In 1998, a production was made for television in India. Titled Woh, it starred M. M. Faruqui (a.k.a. Lilliput) as the clown. Writer-director duo Ankush Mohla and Glen Baretto had actually never read King’s novel: Mohla was just intrigued by the synopsis on the book’s dust jacket. The setting was moved from Maine to the Indian town of Panchgani; Pennywise was not quite the sum of all evil, but instead a man who was taunted for being too short.
Incredibly, the production ran for 52 episodes. Mohla and Baretto took liberties with the narrative: Georgie meets his demise in a swimming pool, not a sewer.
9. John Wayne Gacy painted a portrait of Pennywise.
Gacy, who was brought to trial for a series of more than 30 brutal murders in early 1980 and garnered headlines for his stint as party clown, was executed via lethal injection in 2018. Prior to his demise, he passed the time in prison by painting. Among his works: a portrait of Pennywise.
10. Pennywise will return on HBO Max.
Proving that the maniacal jester has staying power, HBO Max has plans to revive Pennywise for an ongoing series. In March 2022, the streamer announced plans for a prequel show titled Welcome to Derry set in the It universe that explores how the clown terrorized the Maine town prior to the events depicted in It. Andy Muschietti, director of the It movies, will produce the show alongside wife Barbara Muschietti. Perhaps this time there will be a turtle.
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