It Chapter Two and the Horror of Anti-Gay Bigotry

We examine the hate crimes in It Chapter Two and the importance of making Bill Hader’s Richie Tozier gay.

This article contains major spoilers for It Chapter Two and Stephen King’s novel. 

Despite what internet memes have been saying for years, it turns out Pennywise the Dancing Clown was not an ally or supporter of LGBTQ causes. This should not come as a shock, yet for many, the level of bruality the child-eating space clown reserved for a gay character in It Chapter Two’s opening was nothing short of horrifying. As the introduction to a sprawling finale of Stephen King’s ode to childhood joys and traumas, and the adults who repress both, this amount of cruelty is glaringly uncomfortable, even for those who had been prepared by a novel that’s even more steeped than the movies in the agony of hate and the suffering it ferments. But there is a method to this intolerant madness throughout the film, since the true terror of Pennywise is far realer when it comes with a sneer at Richie Tozier’s closeted gay lifestyle, or beneath the Derry bridges, than it ever can due to a computer generated Paul Bunyan monster.

In the film’s best moments, It Chapter Two finds tasteful ways to further accentuate the genial warmth and humanity of the Losers’ Club, while also being more inclusive and aware of a gay community which is starkly victimized in the movie’s first scene. This is fairly remarkable since It Chapter Two and its predecessor often downplay how the scariest monster in the source material is neither a clown nor a giant spider; it is the ground level hatred that resides in the humans occupying Derry’s killing fields.

Andy Muschietti’s It movies only truly go there once during the opening sequence of the second film. In the movie’s most terrifying sequence, audiences are briefly introduced to a loving, openly gay couple comprised of Adrian Mellon (Xavier Dolan) and Don Hagarty (Taylor Frey). Shown enjoying a night out at the Derry summer carnival, their romance is cut tragically short when they share a kiss (and an “I HEART DERRY” hat) in front of a group of homophobic teenagers. They’re stalked by these Neolithic rednecks to one of Derry’s several bridges above the canal, where Adrian is beaten within an inch of his life for daring to talk back to the bullies. They then dunk him in the canals where he briefly meets Pennywise, who transforms him into literal meat—biting into his flesh while mocking the sole witness, Adrian’s lover, with a flock of red balloons.

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It is perhaps the most disturbing sequence in the films outside of Georgie’s death at the beginning of It Chapter One, which in itself evokes child predators attempting to seduce innocence into the shadows. But whereas Georgie’s death worked as disquieting allegory, Adrian’s is explicitly a hate crime, and in fact is meant to parallel Georgie’s own demise on both page and screen. The first chapter in the book is the death of a child at the hands of a supernatural clown in the past, and the second is the death of a young gay man in the present—a murder at least instigated by real life monsters. By making this the first scene of It Chapter Two, Muschietti repeats King’s desire to put the hatefulness of Derry’s residents front and center. It also places our own real-life horrors in an ostensibly fantastical one.

It is well-documented Adrian Mellon’s death is inspired by the murder of Charlie Howard in King’s hometown of Bangor, Maine. The event actually happened during the writing process of It when in 1984, Howard and his boyfriend Roy Ogden were stalked by a group of teenagers, and Howard was then beaten and thrown over the bridge. He drowned not because of some extraterrestrial force, but real evil ones.

The terror of Pennywise or the many forms It takes is not from Its supernatural guises, but how it embodies so many variations of the human condition’s capacity for evil. Ignore all the mythology, and you have a stand-in for all childhood traumas, be it the father who leers too long at his daughter, as experienced by Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain and Sophia Lillis), or the blatant racism that Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa and Chosen Jacobs) endures in his day-to-day life. And honestly, none of the adaptations of It have directly addressed these themes beyond Mellon’s death. Even there, the film uses the shock and horror to suggest that It has grown more aggressive in the 27 years between Georgie and Adrian’s deaths, but the film doesn’t show the aftermath like the book: The three teens are arrested by the local cops and prosecutors who have no problem sending them away for a murderous hate crime—but still cannot hide their own disdain for Hagarty and Mellon’s gayness.

When that scene was published in 1986, it was during the height of the AIDS crisis and so uncomfortable for mainstream audiences that it was totally excised from the 1990 miniseries. But even in 2019, studios and filmmakers still don’t want to linger on the full consequences and complicity of Derry, which extends throughout the rest of the movies. Indeed, Adrian Mellon is hardly the only one.

The novel It is overstuffed with detours, subplots, and chapters literally entitled “Interludes” that sketch out the history and mythology of Derry in a way that cannot be compressed to even five hours. This includes It wiping out the entire first settlement of Derry in 1741 and causing a father to go the full Jack Torrance and murder his family in 1851. But one of the early nastier crimes didn’t directly involve It at all. An old-timer named Egbert Thoroughgood recounts to Mike Hanlon the tale of Claude Heroux, who in 1904 exacted a terrible vengeance on the men responsible for murdering his presumed gay lover. While the early 20th century hate crime had the additional complications of a business rivalry gone bad, it is heavily implied Heroux was in a deeply romantic relationship with a man who was cut up piece by piece by locals and thrown into the river. Heroux responds to the crime by cutting all of the perpetrators down with his lumberjack axe in a Derry bar. None of the witnesses acts the wiser or interferes, including Pennywise in the back.

This is chronologically just the earliest of several hate crimes buried deep in Derry’s bloody soil. While in the movie It Chapter One, it is revealed that Mike Hanlon’s father and mother died in an apparent freak accident apartment fire, the literary scene it is based on is no accident, nor did it claim his parents. Mike’s father survived and has a vivid memory of the Maine Legion of White Decency, a “gentleman’s organization” that King describes as a New England version of the Ku Klux Klan. After several white women attend a black nightclub his father’s friends opened, locals burn it down with all the people of color inside. The images of burning, African American hands trapped in the flames is a hate crime overseen by a giggling clown on a hill in the distance.

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Mike himself is bedeviled by a Henry Bowers driven more explicitly by racism on the page. Henry’s father, who in the book is a useless drunk farmer, has spent his life jealous of Mike’s more successful farming family, who he has tormented and attempted to terrify in the past. And Henry learns these lessons too well, as he demonstrates by pursuing Mike with language that is unequivocal. Just as Pennywise uses the N-word while haunting Mike (as opposed to terms like “crackheads” or “madman” in the movie), Henry shouts it freely and frequently.

read more: It Chapter Two Easter Eggs and Reference Guide

All of these disparate elements combine to paint an unsavory landscape. Derry is complicit in allowing Pennywise’s murders, because they themselves are corrupted and influenced by Its delight in drawing on hate and prejudices already present in human beings. And we don’t see this due to It making them sway like marionettes on a sunny afternoon, but because they are raised to share the same kind of nasty prejudices as their parents, generation after generation. Taken as a whole, the real horror of It is how It isn’t just what scares us as children, but what scares us as adults. From Henry Bowers’ overt racism to fellow bully Patrick Hockstetter being a burgeoning serial killer on the page (he tortures dogs in his spare time by locking them in abandoned refrigerators), the overriding horror of the story is the hate we see in our day-to-day life and too often try to ignore and pretend isn’t there… like by deleting Adrian Mellon from the 1990 miniseries.

Still, King is ultimately an optimist about humanity and the innate goodness of most people. It’s why many of his stories have happy endings despite all their horror, and how the Losers’ Club manages to defeat It twice. And also in its way, It Chapter Two finds subtle ways to improve on this theme. In the book, LGBTQ characters are either just victims or implied parentheticals in Derry’s ancient history. It Chapter Two, however, makes one of the heroic Losers gay, and does so in a way that feels subtle and primarily devoid of condescension (although one does wonder why Richie does not come out and verbally state his feelings in the denoumont).

Richie Tozier as portrayed by Bill Hader is suggested to be gay, albeit neither he or the film put an exact label on it. In a flashback to 1989, we learn that one of Richie’s most painful memories is the time Henry Bowers and a cousin used a gay slur against him for wanting to spend time with another boy at the arcade. After remembering this moment, Pennywise appears in a vision to Richie in the present, mocking the now nearly 40-year-old man by saying, “I know your dirty little secret.”

Richie being in the closet, even in the film’s 2016 setting, is sadly very plausible. While he might be a successful stand-up comedian on the coasts, he still lives in a modern landscape where liberal enclaves and media personalities exercise “discretion.” Kristen Stewart revealed just last week that she was told she’d only get a superhero role if she was quieter about her relationships with women. And someone who grew up in the era of homophobia being household language could still mightily struggle with what that means.

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That comes to a head at the end of the movie when Richie’s dear friend, and possibly the first boy he had a crush on, dies saving his life. After watching James Ransone’s Eddie Kaspbrak get slaughtered by It, Richie has a genuine breakdown that carries all the way to his final scene in the movie. For most of the film, Hader is the movie’s comic heart, but it’s his vulnerability in the third act that most elevates the film above its problems. Surrounded by his forgotten childhood friends, he cries for Eddie and maybe for himself and the life he has hidden from due to formative horrors in this town.

Here is a man whose foundation of bullying in Derry—in the swamp of humanity’s worst impulses—caused him to live in the closet, and he can only confront that pain after losing someone he might have loved as more than a brother. This epiphany is done with nary a word. More than Ben and Beverly finally consummating their January embers romance, this is what brings a sensitive grace to It Chapter Two’s ending.

read more: How It Chapter Two Differs from the Book

At the end of the day, the films of It and Stephen King are optimistic about the qualities of most people, but that only comes by staring into how dark, mean, and truly hateful the abyss within some can be. That void in others can leave lifelong scars, as seen by how Beverly cannot let herself escape her abusive father when she marries a man just like him, and it can push a wiseacre to make the unwise decision to live a life of self-denial. But it can also offer the grace of fellowship, community, and love to allow even those whose lives were fractured to recover… and maybe find acceptance when they can accept the past in all its beauty and ugliness.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.