How Stephen King Really Came Up With Pennywise

When one delves into the mythology of Stephen King's epically long 1986 novel "It," you might find a massively complicated Theogony of deities that link into numerous ancient creation myths. According to King's novel, the titular creature, most commonly known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, was originally born of the enormous, ineffable void that surrounds the outer edges of the known cosmos. The novel refers to this void at the Macroverse, although in King's "Dark Tower" novels, the same void is called the Todash Darkness. A rogue meteor somehow picked up the creature and it traveled to planet Earth while it was still forming and humans hadn't evolved yet. For millions of years, It slumbered, eventually emerging in AD 1715 to begin feeding on the local citizens. It's implied that It is billions of years old, and It can be a clown or a spider or whatever you're most afraid of. 

The story of It, eventually adapted to a TV miniseries in 1990 and a pair of hit feature films in 2017 and 2019, follows It's awakening in Derry, Maine, now more or less always in the form of a terrifying clown named Pennywise, who stalks and eats local children every few decades. A septet of 12-year-olds will eventually manage to overcome their fears and wound Pennywise in a sewer. They then return many years later as adults to finish the job. 

All of this complicated mythology, however, is but window dressing on a very basic concept. Stephen King, talking at a writer's event in Germany in 2013, said that the initial inspiration for "It" was less riven by cosmic horror, and more akin to "The Monster Mash." King wanted, in his words, "all the monsters."

A horror writer?

At the speaking event, King vaguely lamented that he was considered a horror author, as he had always considered himself merely an author. Most of King's stories may possess an element of horror, but he has written in multiple genres over the course of his threateningly prolific career. In 1986, King struck upon the idea to write a very, very long horror novel that incorporated the popular canon of monsters taken from Universal's heyday of monster movies in the '30s and '40s. King was as good as his word when it came to length — "It" runs a whopping 1,138 pages — but felt he needed to expand the notion of the Monster Mash if he wad to make his new novel the desired length. He said: 

"I had an idea when I was in Colorado that I wanted to write a really long book that had all of the monsters in it. I figured if people think I'm a horror writer — I never considered myself to be that myself, I'm just a writer-writer — I thought to myself, 'I'll get all 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.' But then I thought to myself, 'There out to be one binding, horrible, nasty, gross, creature kind of thing that you don't want to see ... It makes you scream just to see it.'"

That gross creature was none other than Pennywise. Why a clown? King, speaking quite plainly, stated the obvious: children are scared of clowns. They, like werewolves, are simply terrifying. 

The clown took over

Eventually, the "many monsters" idea took a backseat to the singular, pervasive "It" of the book's title. The Monster Mash became a smash of one. The clown was so scary, it superseded all other monsters. The clown, to King, is every monster combined. 

While one may giggle over the notion that clowns are universally terrifying, King had additional ideas as to why clowns might be scary to so many people. On "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" in 2005, King explained a very visceral reaction he had to a trip to the circus. After an initial trauma, King would spend years observing children and their reactions to clowns, finding that no one — not one child — found the clowns to be funny or charming or amusing. Clowns, King concluded are monsters. He said: 

"As a kid, going to the circus, there would be 12 full-grown people that would all pile out of a little, tiny car, their faces were dead white, their mouths were red, as though they were full of blood, they're all screaming, their eyes are huge ... What's not to like? I started to actually look at kids ... Kids are all terrified of them, and the parents are all like, 'Aren't the clowns funny, Johnny?!' and Johnny's like, 'No, get me the hell out of here! These people are all crazy!' Because they are monstrous-looking and children are really afraid of them."

King also recalled a strange experience he had with a clown. While sitting on a plane during a book tour, Ronald McDonald entered the cabin and sat near King. The famous burger clown proceeded to order and gin and tonic. Perhaps not quite the same thing as an ancient cosmic, shapeshifting evil, but perhaps unsettling nonetheless.