The opening scene of IT Chapter Two may be the horror franchise’s most disturbing — and so little of it is due to the presence of Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The scene, which is ripped right out of Stephen King’s 1986 novel, features Adrian Mellon (Xavier Dolan) and Don Hagarty (Taylor Frey) enjoying their night at the Derry carnival. As they talk about getting the hell out of Dodge (or, rather, Derry), a group of bullies descends upon them, hurling homophobic slurs. They beat the men relentlessly until one bully declares they’re going to hurl Adrian off the bridge. As Don screams in horror — Adrian has asthma and needs his inhaler, he pleads — Adrian tumbles into the river. Adrian doesn’t drown but, instead, meets a grim fate when he’s found by Pennywise.
The scene sucked all the air out of the room in the screening, and for a good reason. In a movie where most of the horror is carried out by an evil clown/demon/thing, this gay-bashing scene is a frighteningly realistic event. In fact, King based the death of Adrian on a real-life hate crime. In 1984, Charlie Howard, a gay man, was killed by a group of teens in Bangor, ME. Howard was thrown off the State Street Bridge into the Kenduskeag Stream canal, where he drowned.
“Unfortunately, [homophobic] attitudes in certain places are the same as they were in the ‘80s,” screenwriter Gary Dauberman tells Refinery29 when asked about the scene at the IT Chapter Two junket. “Pennywise is something that sprung from Stephen King’s imagination, but [this hate crime] is something that happens. It happened then, and it happens now. Unfortunately, I didn’t have to change much to make it feel appropriate for 2019, and that is the thing that scares me most.”
There are differences between the version of this scene that King wrote and the one Dauberman interpreted for the screen. King’s novel was written in the ‘80s and set in that time. IT Chapter Two is rooted in 2019, iPhones and all. The couple in the carnival doesn’t feel the need to hide their relationship: They hold hands and kiss because, in 2019, they feel safe doing so. The hate crime suggests that, even in 2019, they could be wrong.
It’s a disturbing notion, especially in an America that is rolling back protections for LGBTQ+ people. In June, the FBI put out a report claiming that anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes are on the rise. The couple IT Chapter Two are white cisgender men, for trans women of color, the threat of violence has not changed much over the years.
“I probably wouldn’t have included it if it wasn’t in the book, but it was very important for Stephen King. When he wrote it, he was talking about the evil in the human community. He was talking about how dark humans can get in a small American town…For me, it was important to include it because it’s something that we’re still suffering. Hate crimes are still happening. No matter how evolved we think society is going, there seems to be a winding back, especially in this day and age where these old values seem to be emerging from the darkness.”
IT Chapter Two reminds us of the threat against the LGBTQ+ community, but do we needed to see King’s version of the hate crime depicted precisely this way? To see them brutally attacked, and for one of them to be killed, doesn’t send a hopeful message for queer people watching this horror film. I hoped that there might be some subversion to this aspect of King’s story. If the homophobic attack had to happen, was there not a way for Pennywise to go after the hateful bullies instead of the victims?
The hate crime lays the groundwork for a later plot point in IT Chapter Two, which is Richie (Bill Hader) grappling with his sexuality and feelings for friend Eddie (James Ransone). Given the attitudes of Derry, still prevalent in 2019, it’s easier to see why a person like Richie might be terrified to come out. Still, for an audience viewing IT in 2019, seeing only bleak depictions of queer visibility might be the most disturbing thing about the movie.