I. Epigraphs and Titles
“And as Eddie’s picture of what It was began to fade, It began promptly to change into something else.” —Stephen King, It (1986)
“It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats.” —Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (1972)
“All too often in the relations between the ego and the id [das Es, the It] we find the picture of a less ideal situation in which the rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction it itself wants to go.” —Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1932)
It Follows (2015)
It Comes at Night (2017)
It Devours! (2017)
“Didn’t they see it at the end as it really was, with all its masks cast aside?” —Stephen King, It (1986)
II. Teaching Poetry
A few weeks ago, I talked with my online students about the importance of tracking pronouns through lyric poems. My example: William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (included in their textbook).
“It” is important here:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when IT alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! IT is an ever-fixéd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
IT is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears IT out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
As I told my students, if a reader misses that the IT of lines 3, 5, and 7 refers to “Love,” the first two quatrains would be horribly confusing. Identifying the antecedent is crucial to following Shakespeare’s sense, even if his sound is itself delicious (as in line 11: “Within his bending sickle’s compass come”). Indeed, IT is to blame, I imagine, for a great deal of anxiety for students of poetry who have not yet learned to accept that a poem’s meaning (or even its prose sense) need not be immediately apparent…
…but to what does the IT of line 12 refer? Does Love bear itself to the edge of doom? Does the “his” of line 11 also refer to Love or to Time? Is Love a he and an IT? Has IT become something else—something Love bears “even to the edge of doom”?
III. Thinking Horror
Pronoun-antecedent anxiety and its mobilization—the mobilization of IT—seems to be fundamental, elemental not only to lyric poetry but also to genre horror. I have nothing novel to say about IT in horror fiction or films, but I feel compelled all the same to note that a certain pattern has been emerging in my life, and I’d like (simply) to note it and to give it the faintest sketch.
This summer, I’ve been reading Stephen King for the first time and have been drawn to contemporary horror films for a few years.
I’ve also been feeling the lure of philosophical pessimism—dark ontologies, “a coherence which is no more our own, that of mankind, than that of God or the world” (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition xxi).
This might not be very good for me.
I find myself toying with a few observations (none of which will be new to fans, lovers, philosophers, or critics of horror):
- The moment when IT is given an antecedent—when the horror reveals ITSELF—is a tricky one that often leaves me as a reader or a viewer disappointed.
- The best horror seems to strike a balance between stoking the reader’s or viewer’s expectation of a reveal and withholding a clear sense of what IT wants, what IT might look like, what IT (the IT that haunts, stalks, eats, kills) actually is.
- There is not an IT. There is just us. There is simply the material world and there are good explanations for why I might feel haunted or followed.
- This truth, that there is no IT, is often disappointing.
- This truth, as a fiction podcast like The Black Tapes dramatizes, can feel more unsatisfying than a lame reveal.
- We want there to be portals and possessions.
- Evidence of evil gives us chills but also gives us comfort.
- If the disappointment of the desire for evil is thought through to the end, as it is in the film It Comes at Night (2017), then we are left with a rather grim, bleak, and boring world indifferent to our survival.
- Nothing is coming for me.
- Whether or not the revelation of a monster or a demon or a serial killer or a zombie or an alien or an evil neighbor is satisfying, there is some comfort in the idea that there is an IT out there on which to blame our pain and fear and around which we can gather and fight collectively—at which we can throw our stones, unleash our silver dollars, collectivize and oppose and unmask the source of our dismay, terror, and anger.
- There’s a lesson here about how we demonize one another—how easy it is to mobilize groups of people after identifying for them the antecedent to the IT that comes at night, that follows, that breathes and heats and eats.
None of this quite gets at what I want to say. But perhaps it’s a start. Perhaps it’s something that connects quite a few of my preoccupations.
Reading on . . .