'It Chapter Two' proves how important sequels and repetition are to pop culture narratives

“It Chapter Two” is obsessed with repetition and callbacks, not just to 2017's “It” but to a range of other horror narratives.
Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise in "IT Chapter Two."
Pennywise has plenty of scares left to give in "It Chapter Two."Brooke Palmer / Warner Bros. Entertainment
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Noah Berlatsky

Stephen King's 1986 novel “It” functions as its own sequel. It's the story of a group of kids who fight an evil clown, and then grow up and have to fight the evil clown again. As a result, the “It” film franchise is one of the few franchises in which the second movie — “It Chapter Two” — is truer to the source material than its predecessor. In fact, the movie is really about how serial fiction and repetition are central to pop culture narratives, something that’s feels especially relevant in the current Hollywood landscape of franchises and reboots. “It,” that generic title, demonstrates that in pop culture, there is always a second chapter. There's no such thing as just one evil clown.

“It,” that generic title, demonstrates that in pop culture, there is always a second chapter. There's no such thing as just one evil clown.

The first movie "It” (2017) is set in the town of Derry, Maine in the 1980s. A group of seven kids who live in Derry and call themselves the Losers’ Club discover the town is haunted by a kind of fear vampire who manifests as the clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). The second film is set some 27 years later, when the now grown kids learn that the evil they defeated as children has come back. (Almost) all the friends return to Derry, where they revisit their memories while being stalked by a series of jump scares.

Get the think newsletter.

“Chapter Two” presents itself as an exploration of nostalgia and memory. The adults magically forget their childhood adventures when they move away from Derry, and the movie is about them reacquainting themselves with their past friendships and with their true selves upon their return.

It works as a movie plot, but it doesn't make a lot of sense. As the kids themselves note in a flashback, for most people, middle-school friendships aren't the most important relationships in their lives. The protagonists say "we'll always be Losers" several times, and it's presented as a rallying cry and a triumph. But is it really brave or touching to define yourself by your middle-school years for your entire life? What's so great about arrested development anyway?

But while the movie isn't convincing as a representation of growing up, it makes a good deal of sense as an examination of how readers interact with sequels and serial fiction. The grown kids in “It Chapter Two” are called back to Derry specifically to re-enact the plot of the first film, just as readers come to a sequel to recapture the feelings and pleasures of the original. More, “Chapter Two” includes several flashbacks to the first film, as well as some new scenes involving the characters' younger selves. The first movie haunts the second, just as expectations and memories always are embedded in later installments of a franchise.

Want more articles like this? Sign up for the THINK newsletter to get updates on the week's most important cultural analysis

The way that the adults lose their memories of the first film is a nod to the way viewers experience sequels as well. You can see the adults returning to Derry as filmgoers who missed the first installment. The movie both assumes they know what's going on (by starting in the middle) and that they need to get brought up to speed (by providing them with flashbacks and exposition about what they missed in the first film.) A franchise is always addressing both those with background information and those without. It speaks to people who, like the adult Losers, both know and don't know what's already happened.

The first movie haunts the second, just as expectations and memories always are embedded in later installments of a franchise.

“It Chapter Two” is obsessed with repetition and callbacks, not just to “It” (2017) but to a range of other horror narratives. The movie is of course based on Stephen King's book. Further, it's strongly influenced by the King-nostalgic television series “Stranger Things,” which is also set in the 80s (“It” the novel was set in the 1950s) and which also stars child actor Finn Wolfhard. The films “The Thing,” “Carrie,” “The Shining” and the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise all get shoutouts as well — and those are just the references I caught during a single viewing. The adult Losers don't just get to re-experience “It.” They get to re-experience the last the last 30-odd years of the horror genre (with an emphasis on other films made from Stephen King's books.)

The whole point of having a horror genre is in fact to be able to re-experience horror. You label a film as "horror" so that fans will know it’s going to provide them with the scares and gore they're looking for. Pennywise could himself be seen as a kind of horror consumer, constantly seeking out new frights to feed upon in hopes that they will give him the same charge as the old frights. Pennywise loved the first “It” so much he wants to re-stage it. When he writes "Come home! Come home! Come home!" in blood, he's expressing the boisterous demands of every viewer who's ever gotten to the end of a movie and wanted more.

Pennywise's feral need for additional scares makes him a metaphor for the ideal pop culture audience. As scholar John Rieder explains in his book “Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System,” pop or mass culture is devoted to "the goal of producing habitual consumers." And if you want people to get in the habit of consumption, there's nothing quite as effective as that final, not final message, "To Be Continued."

One of the running gags in "Chapter Two" is that main character Bill (James McAvoy), a horror novelist, has trouble writing endings. Pop culture in general has trouble writing truly final endings — but that's by design. "No one who dies in Derry ever really dies," as a spooky old woman tells one of the Losers over tea. Hollywood is wise about pennies, which is why its keep bringing Pennywise back to give you what you want: the same pleasurable frightening, or frightening pleasure, over and over.