The Enduring Power of Beverly Marsh in ‘It’
In a genre typically considered “for the guys,” it’s time to give a nod to the ladies. Uterus Horror is a subgenre of horror films that focuses on the uniquely female experience of puberty and the act of coming into their sexuality, using horror elements to emphasize and/or act as a metaphor for that experience. These films are often ignored in theaters, but quickly develop cult followings. Columnist Molly Henery, who named and defined the subgenre, tackles a new film each month and analyzes how it fits into this bloody new corner of horror.
In the final Uterus Horror article of 2020, I discussed how lycanthropy is the perfect metaphor for young womanhood in When Animals Dream. Now it’s 2021, and I want to start the year off with something special. It’s time to talk about IT. And yes, I mean EVERY version of IT.
Most horror fans are likely very familiar with IT, Stephen King’s best-selling novel first published in 1986. From there, it was given a two-part TV miniseries in 1990, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch) who also wrote the teleplay with Lawrence D. Cohen (Carrie). Most recently, director Andy Muschietti (Mama) brought fans two films, IT and IT Chapter Two. The first film was written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation), and Gary Dauberman (Annabelle Comes Home), with Dauberman returning to write the second film.
While there are variations between each version of IT, they all have the same basic story. A group of misfit kids, six boys and one girl, who call themselves the “Losers Club,” come together one summer when they realize they are all being hunted by the same evil clown. As outcasts in the small town of Derry, Maine, the group learns to lean heavily on each other. When they realize the nightmarish creatures they’ve seen are all the work of the sinister Pennywise, they risk their lives to defeat him.
The kids believe they successfully banish the clown, but have to return to Derry as adults when Pennywise begins killing youths again 27 years later. Every version of IT tells a fantastic horror story about monsters and growing up. It is generally considered a classic coming-of-age story along with films like Stand By Me and The Goonies. Both versions – miniseries and movie – use life-changing experiences as a metaphor for the male protagonists’ journey through adolescence.
But It does not belong to the boys alone. As a collection of films, the Uterus Horror canon is meant to level the cultural playing field for non-male horror fans just as it brings attention to horror stories that highlight experiences unique to young women. While IT consists primarily of boys becoming men, there is one character who gives some feminine insight: Beverly Marsh. This superb character has been played by some great actors including Emily Perkins (Ginger Snaps), Annette O’Toole (Smallville), Sophia Lillis (Gretel & Hansel), and Jessica Chastain (Crimson Peak).
In each adaptation, Pennywise attacks his victims by manifesting the thing they fear the most. For the boys in the Losers Club, that fear includes werewolves, mummies, lepers, evil paintings, and even giant birds. When we finally see Bev’s fear, it is something a bit simpler and much more rational than any of the boys. The thing she fears most manifests as blood.
The first time Pennywise comes to Bev, an explosion of blood covers her entire bathroom. Despite her screams, her father is unable to see it, leaving Bev (and the Losers Club, depending on the version of the story) to clean it all up. And so the blood becomes a representation of the fear of her impending womanhood.
To put it bluntly, the blood Bev sees is period blood. She is afraid of going through puberty and becoming a woman. She fears this because of her abusive, misogynistic father and the fact that boys and men already sexualize her. Her father constantly asks Bev, “Are you still my little girl?” There is an implication of sexual abuse, more evident in some versions of IT than others. His disturbing question and treatment of Bev also indicates that once she does become a woman, she will no longer be safe around him.
“Safe” is a relative term considering the way he already treats young Bev, but that makes the other possible abuses she could be subjected to even more terrifying. Boys in school sexualize her. Rumors spread, with the IT miniseries going so far as to imply sexual abuse from the bully Henry Bowers and his gang. She is taught very early in life that being a woman is a frightening thing.
When Pennywise comes to Bev as an adult, there are differences depending on which IT you are consuming. Bev goes to visit her childhood home, quickly learning from its elderly resident that her father had passed away years earlier. It’s revealed this is Pennywise himself, disguised as an old woman and, in the miniseries, Bev’s father. Based on her fear of the blood, it makes sense that adult Bev would now be afraid of the decaying old woman.
This is an extension of her fear of aging, evolved into a fear of becoming old and withered. Seeing her father shows that, even though she left home at a young age, the impact of her father’s abuse has lasted her entire life. Since he made her afraid to grow out of being his “little girl,” it’s understandable she would still fear him as well.
Of all the members of the Losers Club, Bev has the most rational fear. While the boys fear monsters and imaginary things, Bev is afraid of her own biology. Despite it being inevitable, she is terrified of growing up. Much like Carrie, IT is another prime example of Stephen King bringing an uncommon degree of insight to the concept of Uterus Horror. The practicality of Bev’s dread also makes her stand out from her friends. There is a group of boys experiencing their own individual coming of age stories, but Bev’s battle with Uterus Horror becomes the most memorable of the group.
From the ‘80s to today, fans are continually drawn to Beverly Marsh. We needed her story then, and we need more stories like hers for young women who want to see themselves in the horror genre.