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IT True Story: Real-Life Crimes That Inspired Pennywise

Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel IT features a nefarious clown that feeds off of children; here are the real-life crimes that inspired Pennywise.

Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel IT has undergone three vastly different adaptations while continuing to focus on the fear of its terrifying clown, Pennywise, who was inspired by true crime and societal fears. The clown became a symbol of childhood horrors come to life when he published the nearly one-thousand-page story. While it contains various themes of the paranormal, supernatural, and even science-fiction, the real-life inspiration that influenced King’s creation of Pennywise have remained the most horrific.

The novel was initially adapted into a made for television miniseries by Tommy Lee Wallace of Halloween III: Season Of The Witch fame. In 2017 and 2019, Andy Muschietti took on the task of adapting the novel once more for theatrical release. Both have found success among King fans, whether as a cult following in the case of Wallace’s miniseries or with critical acclaim like Muschietti’s. Staying true to the source material, both films follow the “Losers Club” as adults and children as they battle the evil clown known as Pennywise who is murdering children in the town of Derry, Maine.

Related: What Does Pennywise Really Look Like In IT?

Pennywise and his abuse of children is central to the plot line in every adaptation and in the book itself. While King was writing the lengthy book, the influences of his surroundings and the headlines that were plastered all over news stations deeply impacted the creature that would become the heart of his novel. A shapeshifting clown from another dimension is scary enough, but the real-life influences that created him are even more disturbing and add an unnerving depth to the familiar horror icon Pennywise.

John Wayne Gacy was a notorious serial killer and sex offender who often dressed as a clown. He regularly performed at children’s hospitals in his clown attire under the name “Pogo the Clown” or “Patches the Clown.” On December 21, 1978, Gacy was arrested and convicted for 33 murders. He was sentenced to death on March 13, 1980, and executed of lethal injection on May 10, 1994.

While there is some debate on whether Gacy truly influenced the creation of Pennywise, the two are eerily similar as both dress as clowns and target children. When Gacy was convicted of his murders in 1980, King must have begun writing IT. Whether it was a conscious influence or not remains unknown, but real-life horror often bleeds into fiction, especially when reality is much more gruesome. Undoubtedly, the Gacy murders caused an immense amount of fear in the hearts of Americans, and once Pennywise was introduced, he further perpetuated the necessity to fear the people behind the white paint and red smiles.

While Gacy provided the foundation for the horrors Pennywise would cause, Ronald McDonald was the model for his appearance. In various interviews, Stephen King has referred to Ronald McDonald as a trustworthy character that children know and love, making him someone they can trust. By modeling an untrustworthy horror creature after a beloved children’s icon, it created an unsettling divide of who or what can be a source of comfort or terror for children. This does not mean Ronald McDonald was the main source of inspiration for the novel, but his iconic look inspired Pennywise’s appearance.

During the 1980s, a new wave of public fear permeated throughout society. As the epidemic of child murders and kidnappings rose beyond belief, the “stranger danger” panic formed. Former president Ronald Reagan started the campaign for increased criminal penalties for anyone who attempted to or did harm children. During the Reagan administration, family values and safety were at the epicenter of his political platform. With the threat of Gacy and other child murderers, the stranger danger panic grew in severity.

Related: Every Stephen King Book That Hasn't Been Adapted Into a Movie (Yet)

When clowns don their face paint, rainbow suits, and wigs, they are nearly unrecognizable. Because of this fact, all clowns become immediate strangers. With so many children's birthday parties including performances from these actors, the fear of a murderous stranger such as Gacy was an all too real threat to American society. Various moments in King’s novel allude to the stranger danger panic as a partial influence for the book, as the kids who interact with Pennywise often view him as nothing but an innocent party clown.

Ultimately, Stephen King’s inspiration for Pennywise was derived from an array of sources ranging from real life murders to far less sinister clowns. At the end of the day, his main reason for making the central creature of IT a clown was his own fear of them.

More: Every Stephen King Movie Streaming On Netflix

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