What I Learned from Stephen King: IT & Other Childhood Demons

Tim Curry as Pennywise in the 1990 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s It.

No book has had a more profound impact on me than Stephen King’s It.

For one thing, It is the book that introduced me to Stephen King. In 1990, I was 10 years old, and like many kids my age, I was entranced by the clown in the storm drain I’d seen on prime time television. You can bet your fur that every kid at school was talking about Stephen King’s It the night after it aired, but like most things that captured our imagination as children, it faded from the periphery of playground conversation within a day or so, only to be replaced by more common maintains like debating who should be the villain in the next Batman movie, or when we would get another Gremlins or Ghostbusters.

I, however, found the story much more difficult to shake. Perhaps because, for me, It’s impact wasn’t just about the clown. It was about the Losers, and how very much I could identify with them. It was about the town of Derry in which they grew up, a place eerily like my own hometown of Columbus, Indiana. It was about kids who were bullied and adults who looked the other way. It was about fear. No, it defined fear. I don’t know how at 10 years old I knew that, but I just did. I knew there was something much more spiritual beneath the surface of the story, something that not only defined fear itself, but explained it—where it came from, how it manifests, and at what price.

It seemed to me that the story of Stephen King’s It, as portrayed by the miniseries, was about so many things. You can imagine my shock at how many more things the novel itself was about when I raced out to pick up a paperback copy that weekend at our local bookstore. I would eventually acquire the hardcover, as well. The novel was about prejudice. It was about racism and homophobia and misogyny and child abuse. It was about the creation of the universe, or what King referred to as a Macroverse. It was about the forces of good and evil, and what role they play in our lives. It was about bridges. My God, was it ever about bridges! Have you ever noticed how many references to bridges there are in It? From the Billy Goats Gruff nursery rhyme from which King derived his inspiration (Who’s that trip trapping on my bridge?), to the bridge from which Adrian Mellon gets thrown into the river, and least we forget the bridge that separates the children’s library from the adult’s library in Derry. It is about the bridge we walk from childhood to adulthood, and the monsters we must face along the way.

I first read It in 1990, and I read It again in 2017. Constant Readers of this column will remember past installments in which I have touched on this. In one past entry, I wrote of the day the Losers helped me to fight one of my own bullies, as I lugged the 1,138 page novel across his jaw. In another, I detailed a certain letter I wrote to Stephen King after having been introduced to It, and the response he sent me that changed my life. Yes, I’ve mentioned It many times in this column, but what I have yet to do is share what I learned from this particular novel. And well, as that is the name of our column, I suppose I had better do just that. To do so, I think it best to share with you what I learned from It when I first read the novel in 1990, and how it affected me again when I revisited the novel 27 years later.

1990

Sechrest’s paperback copy of Stephen King’s epic novel with Tim Curry’s face glaring at you from the cover.

I’ll never forget the shock on my teacher’s face the first day I brought It with me to school. Even as a paperback, the thing looked thick enough to be a doorstop. Tim Curry’s gruesome face glared from the cover at every person who passed by me as I held it, and as terrified as I was by Pennywise, I also felt some strange sort of protection just holding it.

“Doesn’t look like a very nice story,” my teacher sneered, looking down on me as I sat reading the opening pages about the little boy in the yellow slicker racing his newspaper boat in a rain storm. “Aren’t you scared to read that?”

I was scared all right. Scared of a lot of things. Things much more real than Mrs. Beecher could possibly know about. Things waiting down the hall after class, and outside for me at recess. Things waiting around every corner in my very own neighborhood.

“That’s half the fun,” I smiled up at her.

“You going to read that whole thing?” she persisted.

“I am,” I said with confidence.  

“Well,” she sighed. “If you finish it, you can do a book report on it for extra credit.”

I did finish It, but I never wrote that book report. So hey, Mrs. Beecher, here goes nothing.

It taught me a whole lot of important life lessons as a child, but the chief among them—the most important of all and the one I have never, ever forgotten—is this: If Pennywise takes the form of whatever it is you fear the most, then there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. Fear is the only real enemy. Fear doesn’t just keep us from living our truth, it eats the shit for breakfast. It eats away at the truth inside of us—the ability to love and the willingness to dream. It looks like the friendly clown at your best friend’s birthday party, but if you engage it, it will swallow you. Fear gnaws from the inside out with razor-sharp teeth. Fear is what cages the bird until it no longer yearns to be free. Until it forgets it can sing because it has forgotten its own song. Until it mistakes captivity for security, mistakes its prison bars for protection, and finds comfort watching life go by from a lone perch of newspapers and a worn dusty swing.

Young Jason growing up in Columbus, Indiana.

Children are the best lie detectors in the world, and as such they are also the best truth detectors. Even as a child, when I read It my truth detector was sounding loud alarms, blinking a red as bright as Pennywise’s nose, all of which seemed to say to me that what I was reading was gospel. It was true. It might not have been real, but it was true. If there is such a thing as a dark force in this world—whether you call it Satan or just negative energy—that dark force is something that is sustained by us. Feeds off of us. Feeds off of the fears we choose to give into. If there is a single reason I am consistently drawn to It, it is because a piece of my soul seemed to understand somehow that Stephen King was telling the truth. As he is often quoted as saying, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” It might not be that there is a Pennywise the Dancing Clown—even at 10 years old I realized that—but I also knew that what Pennywise represented was very much real.

There was an almost Biblical tale being told in the passages that discuss the Macroverse. In the story of how Pennywise came to be, there is nearly a “big bang” which hurls Pennywise towards Earth. Meanwhile, the Turtle—a force of goodness who represents the opposite energy force that is Pennywise—cannot really interfere, because if it did, it would take away our free will to face our fears and fight against the beast.

I was scared of Pennywise as a child, but it was most of all because of what Pennywise represented; the authenticity inside the artifice that made it ring true. That’s the second thing Stephen King’s It taught me: The power of metaphor.

I don’t think I had ever really thought about metaphor or knew the word at 10 years old, but you can bet that I knew it, understood it, and internalized it by the time I was finished with the book’s 1,138 pages. That you could use a character like Pennywise to symbolize something so much greater, that you could use a story to tell a profound human truth is what made me at 10 years old want to become a writer. Never before had I so completely understood the power of the written word to both entertain and teach a lesson, to tell a story and in its very telling shift one’s perspective and make an impact upon one’s life.

The whole idea of It just seemed so grand. It was not just a clown. It was Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy—whatever your greatest fear, that is what Pennywise had the power to become. And what could be scarier than that?

Well, to a 10-year-old boy, only one thing could be scarier than that. The bullies. The ones at school and the ones at home. Those real-life horrors that live right in our own backyards, the ones that at such a tender age have us looking constantly over our shoulder or taking the long way to class so as to not to be pummeled, beaten, or bruised in crowded hallways that echo with mockeries of laughter.

The Loser’s Club as children prepare to do damage to Pennywise.

It made me feel like I wasn’t alone. That is, I suppose, the third thing I learned from the novel. I grew up in a very small town and if I wasn’t the most picked upon kid in my school, well then it must have been a hell of a close race. It helped me to realize that the town I was living in was not unlike other towns, and that the kids in my town were not unlike other kids. There were those who bullied, those who got bullied, adults who tried to help, and adults who looked the other way. It made me feel like I wasn’t the only Loser in the world. With every page I turned, it was as though Stephen King were forcibly grabbing my arm and saying: Hey listen kid, you’re not alone. There’s others like you out there. Seven others in fact, right here in Derry, you see? We all fight the same fight, and I’ll tell you something else, kid—childhood is hell, but childhood is short. There’s a light at the end of this tunnel, and when you get out of it—when you reach the other end of that bridge between the Children’s Library and the Adult’s Library—man, you’re gonna swing. You’re gonna knock ‘em out of the park. So just hang in there a few more years and hey, look. Some kids… they got it even worse than you.

That was true, also. It gave me perspective. I might have been bullied everyday at school and called a faggot so many times the word rang like an infection in my ear, but I wasn’t being sexually abused at home like Beverly Marsh was. I may have had a bully pull a switchblade knife on me once, but he didn’t start to carve his name into my stomach like Henry Bowers did to Ben Hanscom.

I thought, if these poor kids can survive, then I can face another day.

And I did.

2017

It is said that Pennywise rises to feed every 27 years. In the book, the seven children who make up the members of the Loser’s Club reunite as adults 27 years later to fight against the beast one last time.

When I picked up It and decided to give it a second read in 2017, I did not realize it was exactly 27 years later. But when I did, I couldn’t help but laugh, thinking to myself: Well, there really are no coincidences. So, I went back to Derry. And as I did, I made plans to revisit my own hometown of Columbus, Indiana.

The Loser’s Club reunite as adults to once more fight against the beast.

Like the Loser’s, I had made it out of that little town. I was now living in Los Angeles, California. I had found love and success, and I understood what rare and precious commodities both of those were. Gone were the fists that had waited around every corner. The days of “faggot” being hurled at me as a disparaging word were long behind me. I was living as an openly gay man, in a community of my peers, where such diversity was not just accepted, but wholeheartedly embraced.

And yet, It was still there. Prevalent among us all. Perhaps resting all those 27 years. Hibernating. Waiting to rear its ugly head, to torment at just the precise moment. And so I, like so many, continued to look over my shoulder. I, like so many, built walls around myself to keep the world at arm’s length. Because we all know those bullies don’t ever really go away. Not until you face them.

You see, just because the bullying stops, doesn’t mean it ends.

I had made it out of my small hometown, but the repercussions of what I went through there were still very much alive in me.

I had been made to feel shameful about who I was my whole life. I had been trained to believe that whatever I was, it was something wrong. When you are being ridiculed or beaten day in and day out just for being who you are, there is no possible way that you can come out of those years without having a fundamental belief that you are in some way bad. Of course, we know we’re not bad. We know differently in our hearts. But does it really matter? The heart may know truths more profound than the mind could ever imagine, but the mind plays tricks on the heart as memories linger, and our shame will always sour our truth.

I was visiting Columbus, Indiana in 2017, showing my husband-to-be all of my old stomping grounds with bittersweet nostalgia. Some of my family still lives there, in or near Columbus. It was good to see them again.

I did not see my father.

Three years earlier, while visiting for Christmas, my father asked me to go for a drive with him. Once I was strapped in by my seat belt and the doors were locked, the car started its unavoidable drive, and I had no way of escaping the conversation that followed. My father, normally a gentle and non-confrontational man, told me that if I continued down the sinful path of homosexuality, I would most assuredly be damned to hell. He said that he had spoken directly with God about this, and that God told him this is not who I really am. He told me I was under no circumstances ever to bring up the subject under his roof. He told me that I was not right with God. He told me a few other things, too. Things I’d rather not say.

Now, as I mentioned, my father is a very non-confrontational man, so this was especially startling to me, and whether or not I want to admit it, his opinion held a great deal of weight. 37 or 7, he’s still my pop.

And so, in that moment, I was reduced (quite literally I’m embarrassed to say) to a shaking, crying 10-year-old boy. When he finished his sermon and I gathered the strength to respond, I told him that I respected his belief system and that I had no intention of trying to change it, or him. And that I wished he could afford me that same luxury. I told him that I would never deem to say what is or isn’t right by God, but that as a spiritual person, I do have a relationship with God. I told him that I believed this to be an opportunity for him. A chance for him to become more open, more tolerant, and more compassionate; a more caring and unconditionally loving man.

Three years later, my father’s feelings had not changed, and now I had returned to Columbus with the man I was going to marry. I pleaded with my father to meet him. He told me that while he would be happy to see me, he had no interest in meeting my future husband, and that I should know better than to ask considering his feelings on the matter.

I suppose I could have seen him on my own—and perhaps I’ll do just that in future years—but on this particular trip, in which I was reading Stephen King’s It back in my hometown, I had the profound realization that the universe had presented me with an opportunity—exactly 27 years later, no less—to do what I’d not had the courage to do all those years ago. It was time for me to stand up for myself. It was time for me to live my own truth. It was time for me to grow up.  

Jason Sechrest and husband, filmmaker Justin Messina, in Central Park.

Reading It the second time around made me do more than just face my childhood demons, it made me face what they had done to me. You see, as long as there is a part of you that believes you’re bad, wrong, corrupt, or evil, you can never really give your love freely. The walls I had constructed around myself needed to come down, especially before I committed my life to another human being. If I believed, on any level, that I was somehow bad, I could never really love myself, much less another human being. If you think about it, loving yourself is an essential part of that ancient and blessed equation known as the Golden Rule: To love thy neighbor as thyself. In fact, to love yourself is in the most profound sense of the term, to love God, as you are God’s creation.

If there is a negative energy or entity—again, call it Satan or call it Pennywise—that feeds off of our fears, well then it is that very same entity that makes us doubt our own inner perfection, that makes us feel the superior or inferior to another, that makes us doubt God’s love for us, and that makes us feel self-righteous enough to tell another human being how to live their life.

“If you want to see me on this trip, you’re going to have to see Justin too,” I told my father.

He did not relent. But at least for the first time, I stood my ground. My father is a good man, by the way. He has a big heart and kind a soul and tries his best to live the life he feels the Bible has told him to live. He’s not the demon here. The demon was the effect bullying had on me as a child. The circumstance with my father was just an opportunity for me to stand up for myself. In doing so, I discovered it was not my father’s beliefs causing me pain, but what they mirrored in my own. A sort of self-hatred that I had somehow come to internalize as a child, and that I would need to learn to let go of, if I was to give my husband a better version of myself.

“I can stand here and say that It has a cohesive and thematic core,” King once said during a lecture in the 1990s. “You cannot be an adult in this, or any society, until you are finished with your childhood.”

In 2018, just months before I was to be married, I finished It, and along with it my childhood.

Heal the child, they say, and the adult will appear. Perhaps even as adults we are all nothing but wounded children, but Stephen King taught me that the universe will always offer us an opportunity to heal those wounds.

Even if it only comes along every 27 years or so.

“What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. Most recently, he writes his own horror fiction, and pens articles on Stephen King, horror, and sci-fi, which can be found at his official web site, JasonSechrest.com. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.

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