Naturalism and Supernaturalism in Stephen King’s IT

In Stephen King’s IT, why do kids see IT, whereas adults usually do not (with notable exceptions)?  On page 535, Stephen King appears to offer what may be an explanation:

“…it occurred to [Ben] that kids were better at almost dying, and they were also better at incorporating the inexplicable into their lives.  They believed implicitly in the invisible world.  Miracles both bright and dark were to be taken into consideration, oh yes, most certainly, but they by no means stopped the world.  A sudden upheaval of beauty or terror at ten did not preclude an extra cheese-dog or two for lunch at noon.  But when you grew up, all that changed.  You no longer lay awake in your bed, sure something was crouching in the closet or scratching at the window…but when something did happen, something beyond rational explanation, the circuits overloaded.  The axons and dendrites got hot.  You started to jitter and jive, you started to shake rattle and roll, your imagination started to hop and bop and do the funky chicken all over your nerves.  You couldn’t just incorporate what happened into your life experience.  It didn’t digest.  Your mind kept coming back to it, pawing it lightly like a kitten with a ball of string…until eventually, of course, you either went crazy or got to a place where it was impossible for you to function.”

This reminded me of a discussion in an undergraduate course I took years ago on Christian theology.  We were talking about naturalism, which holds that the world runs according to natural laws, with no exceptions for miracles.  According to my professor, modern naturalism challenged Christianity, which then sought to get around it in a variety of ways (i.e., Lessing said that Jesus’ message was self-evidently true, apart from miracles; Paul Tillich frequently refers to interruptions of the natural order as “demonic”;  Schleiermacher focuses, not on miracles, but rather on religion as “God-consciousness”, a recognition that we did not bring ourselves into being; etc.).  She also said that the Enlightenment presented pre-modern people—such as those who lived in the time of Jesus—as more gullible than people in the modern age, which was why they’d be susceptible to alleged miracles.

I then made a point that C.S. Lewis also makes in one of his works.  I asked why we should assume that “pre-modern” people lacked a belief in natural law.  Wouldn’t they, too, be surprised by the miraculous?  A student then responded that pre-modern people believed that the world normally operated in predictable ways, but that they held that there may be times when it did not.  Modern people, by contrast, exclude the supernatural.  In short, according to this student, there was more openness to the existence of the supernatural in “pre-modern” times.

That quote of Stephen King resembled what that student was saying.  And, in my opinion, it may hold the key as to how I should understand certain puzzles in IT—or, more accurately, it may offer me more insight than I currently have.  Allow me to explain.  In the TV movie of IT, believing in IT is what gives the creature its power.  When IT takes the form of a werewolf and chokes Richie Tozer, Richie says, “There ain’t nothing there!”, and IT’s claws retreat.  When IT takes the form of Belch so that he can rescue Henry Bowers from the insane asylum, IT says that he (IT) can only hurt the people in the Loser’s Club if they believe, but Henry can hurt them whether they believe or not.

In light of that, imagine my surprise when I read a scene on page 264 in which IT assumes the form of the Creature of the Black Lagoon and is choking a kid named Eddie:

“‘You’re…not…real,’ Eddie choked, but clouds of grayness were closing in now, and he realized faintly that it was real enough, this Creature.  It was, after all, killing him.”

So Eddie not believing did not stop IT from killing him.

Stan Uris as a kid held sentiments that resembled Stephen King’s description of adults and how their minds exclude the supernatural.  On pages 429-430, King talks about how Stan was actually offended after he saw the ghosts of dead boys (who were actually manifestations of IT):

Offended, yes.  It was the only word he could think of…[T]here were things that were not supposed to be.  They offended any sane person’s sense of order, they offended the central idea that God had given the earth a final tilt on its axis so that twilight would only last about twelve minutes at the equator and linger for an hour or more up where the Eskimos built their ice-cube houses, that He had done that and He then had said, in effect: ‘Okay, if you can figure out the tilt, you can figure out any damn thing you choose.  Because even light has weight, and when the note of a trainwhistle suddenly drops it’s the Doppler effect and when an airplane breaks the sound barrier that bang isn’t the applause of the angels or the flatulence of demons but only air collapsing back into place.  I give you the tilt and then I sit back about halfway up the auditorium to watch the show.  I got nothing else to say, except that two and two makes four, the lights in the sky are stars, if there’s blood grownups can see it as well as kids, and dead boys stay dead.’  You can live with fear, I think, Stan would have said if he could.  Maybe not forever, but for a long, long time.  It’s offense you maybe can’t live with, because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are live things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down in that dark, and after a while you think maybe there’s a whole other universe down there, a universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five, and some of them have five raised to the fifth power of sides.  In this universe there might grow roses which sing.  Everything leads to everything…Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream.  Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me.  It would look like an offense.”

Stan was an orderly person, and he wanted the world to be ordered.  On pages 499-500, Bill Denbrough speculates that this was why Stan committed suicide as an adult, right after Mike Hanlon called Stan and asked him to return to Derry to fight IT: “Maybe it was just too much when Mike called.  He saw his choices as being only two: stay alive and get dirty or die clean.”

But my hunch is that, even though Eddie and Stan did not entirely believe in monsters or ghosts, their worldview did not utterly exclude the supernatural.  They believed that the world ordinarily worked a certain way (and Stan, as an orderly person, desperately wanted for it to work that way), but they were more open to exceptions-to-the-rules than adults were.

Page 329 is also telling.  When Bill tells Richie Tozer that the picture of his dead brother Georgie winked at him, and he wonders if there is a ghost in the picture, Richie thinks the following: “The idea of ghosts gave his child’s mind no trouble at all.  His parents were Methodists, and Richie went to church every Sunday and to Thursday-night Methodist Youth Fellowship meetings as well.  He knew a great deal of the Bible already, and he knew the Bible believed in all sorts of weird stuff.”  The passage proceeds with Richie getting part of the Bible right, and part of it abysmally and humorously wrong (i.e., Jesus asks a man with demons what his name was, and the demons told him to join the Foreign Legion; on page 332, Richie refers to a book of the Bible called “Second Babylonians”).  But Richie’s idea is that, since the Bible is true and acknowledges the existence of weird things, why dismiss the possibility that ghosts could exist?

This brings me back to the opening quote.  I realize that even adults can believe in the supernatural.  That’s why there is religion, and also spiritualism, both of which have existed for a long time.  Does that poke a hole in Stephen King’s statement that adults would go mad if the world were not orderly—that they would have a hard time knowing how to incorporate a supernatural experience into their understanding of reality?  Yes and no.  There are adults who believe in angels, demons, ghosts, etc.  But my hunch is that they wouldn’t believe in a supernatural entity who assumes different forms to scare children.  They probably also wouldn’t think that monster movies reflect real life.  They are not utter naturalists, but there seem to be limits on what they will accept as real.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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