AIDS, It, and the Horror of the 1980s

Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, and Jack Dylan Grazer in It.

Warner Bros. Entertainment

1988 was a weird time to be a 14-year-old gay kid in America. One could find representations of gay men all over the place. They were profiled in People magazine, discussed in segments on the national news, and interviewed by a doggedly sympathetic Phil Donahue before a live studio audience.

But they were also dying.

I sat next to my parents in our living room as we watched a sobering television news report detailing how Provincetown, Massachusetts, a queer utopia we had once visited, was being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. My classmates and I were herded into the Nashua High School auditorium to listen to a gay man, an earring dangling from his right ear, tell us about the precautions we needed to take in order to avoid contracting the virus that was attacking his body. When I first held a boy from school in my arms, I became convinced that somehow our chaste intimacy would kill me. If earlier generations of gay youth had associated sex with anxieties about loneliness or social rejection, our sexuality in the 1980s emerged alongside a palpable fear of death.

Stephen King’s It was published in 1986, and although it was a shape-shifting killer who tormented the youth in the novel, the fear of AIDS provided a chilling backdrop for the terror afflicting Derry, Maine—a town which, according to the novel, housed its own “small gay community.” Homophobic graffiti in Derry’s Bassey Park adhered to a standard hateful script (“STICK NAILS IN THE EYES OF ALL FAGOTS (FOR GOD)!”), but it was supplemented with a contemporary spin: “AIDS FROM GOD YOU HELLBOUND HOMOS!!” When a suspect is interrogated by a police officer in one of the novel’s early chapters, the cop comments, “I’m going to put them in the slam, my friend, and if I hear they got their puckery little assholes cored down there at Thomaston, I’m gonna send them cards saying I hope whoever did it had AIDS.” It was not only God, evidently, who meted out AIDS as punishment in the 1980s.

The recently released film version of It brings the story’s 1980s setting and that  moment’s anxiety about AIDS even more forcefully into the foreground. Whereas most cinematic nostalgia for teen culture in the 1980s has tended to gloss over the existential angst adolescents faced during a time when sexuality was intimately connected with death, It’s open-faced engagement with adolescent fear provides a perfect setting for reminding audiences of the lived experiences of those coming of age during an epidemic.

In the film, a section about the main characters’ youth moves from the book’s 1958 setting to 1988, placing its central cast of young teens within a milieu where paranoia around blood is difficult to distinguish from anxiety around AIDS. The central characters’ self-described “Loser’s Club” is intimately familiar with blood, as they have been subjected to nearly operatic forms of bullying on a daily basis. They externalize their social rejection through a series of neuroses and tics—they stutter, wheeze, overeat, and endlessly worry—but their lives are structured by fear of bloodshed and pain. As school lets out for summer, the film’s sadistic bully cautions good-hearted Bill Denbrough that his vacation is “going to be a hurt train for you and your faggot friends.” He is not, as it turns out, wrong.

For one thing, the kids come to be plagued by an amorphous blood paranoia disconnected from the actual facts about AIDS. Even in 1988, the relationship between HIV and AIDS was well understood, and the virus’s mode of transmission had been determined. A credible HIV test was available. But the medical facts offer little comfort to It’s young characters who, in an early scene, worry about the disease as they tend to one of their friend’s wounds. “We also need to think of our own safety,” Eddie Kaspbrak, a nervous character who believes he suffers from numerous illnesses, frets:

I mean, he can bleed all over, and you guys know there’s an AIDS epidemic happening right now as we speak, right? My mom’s friend, a New York City guy, by, just by touching a dirty pole in the subway, and enough of AIDS blood got into his system from a hangnail, from a hangnail! […] You guys do know that alleys have open dirty needles, have AIDS, right?

AIDS, like the creature It, shape-shifts and threatens, introducing new sites of irrational fear among all who live in its shadow.

Film adaptations of Stephen King’s novels have routinely mused on the corporeal dimensions of characters’ blood. Think, for example, of the bloody menstrual pads tossed onto the titular character in Brian De Palma’s classic 1976 film, Carrie. The blood in It becomes even more forbidding when its gore is insistently located within the context of the AIDS epidemic’s most terrifying years. Though Eddie’s manifestation of It, which takes the form of each character’s deepest fear, appears as a leprous figure clad in bandages, it is not a far leap to imagine this character’s affliction as representing another sickness that otherwise invokes the adolescent characters’ dread: “He was like a walking infection,” Eddie later informs his friends. As he runs away from this terrifying specter, Eddie turns around and finds himself facing Pennywise, the killer clown, his face masked by a bunch of shiny red balloons clustered in an inverted triangle formation, recalling a familiar symbol in the 1980s after the pink triangle was adapted for an iconic 1986 SILENCE=DEATH poster responding to AIDS’s devastating toll on the gay community.

It is ultimately their triumph over fear that offers It’s young characters their most profound redemption. In a twist towards the end of the film, the “losers” learn that It’s power comes precisely from feeding on their fears; once these have been overcome, the monster starves, unable to harm the youth or sustain himself. The film’s closure thus comes from Bill, Richie, Eddie, Stan, Mike, Ben and Beverly achieving victory over their own fears, rather than by violently vanquishing the terrifying killer plaguing the town.

In light of the characters’ transformation from anxious and hurt “faggot friends” into an intrepid community, the film’s conclusion becomes especially moving. After their final showdown against the sickening clown, the lead characters stand in a circle to enact a pact: Should the terror return, they will come together again in order to repel it. They then engage in a timeworn ritual to commit themselves to this promise (and to the film’s forthcoming second installment), cutting their palms with a shard of glass and holding one another’s hands in a blood oath. Their sharing of blood becomes a sign of their commitment to each other and a testament to having overcome their fears.

And as they stand united in their refusal to live lives governed by fear, the film moves into a close-up of a cast worn by Eddie, the paranoid character who broke his arm in an earlier tangle with the monster. Isolated and fearful of getting his cast dirty, Eddie had no one sign its white plaster surface, up until a town bully inscribed it with a message in black Sharpie: “loser.” As the film draws to a close, the camera lingers on the correction made by Eddie just before he decided to defy his mother and join his friends: The “s” on his cast has been covered by a bright red “v.”

Lover. A term favored by gay women and men living at a time of social stigma, preferred over the clinical “partner” or the exclusionary “spouse.” In the gay and lesbian newspapers of the 1980s, many of those who died were survived by their “lovers.” How many lovers were lost during the height of the AIDS crisis? How many remain?  In the penultimate scene of It, a circle of adolescents hold one another without fear and claim that designation for themselves. Their shared blood and open wounds confirm Eddie’s revisionist graffiti bucking the helpless fear of AIDS that both coursed through King’s novel and infected American culture in the 1980s. It is a small moment, but it is one that many gay kids in 1988 could have used. And even if it comes three decades late, it is one that is still welcome today.