BY Lauren Sarner, for Mental Floss
Stephen King’s novel It, first published in 1986, is known for its whopping page count and multigenerational horror saga. Thanks to a new film adaptation, buzz around It has spiked again recently. It will be the novel’s second trip to the screen, following a 1990 television miniseries.
If you only have a passing familiarity with the story, you might think it’s simply about a killer clown. But there’s far more to the sprawling saga of The Losers’ Club and the fictional setting of Derry, Maine. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the bestselling book of 1986.
1. THE NOVEL WAS INSPIRED BY A NORWEGIAN FAIRY TALE.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff, a classic Norwegian fairy tale about three scrappy goats outsmarting a bridge troll, might sound like a far cry from a 1000-plus page horror novel, but Stephen King cites it as a primary inspiration. He expanded the bridge to encompass an entire city, and the troll morphed into the terrifying demonic entity known as IT.
“I decided that the bridge could be the city, if there was something under it,” King wrote on his website. “What’s under a city? Tunnels. Sewers … I thought of how such a story might be cast; how it might be possible to create a ricochet effect, interweaving the stories of the children and the adults they become. Sometime in the summer of 1981 I realized that I had to write the troll under the bridge or leave him—IT—forever.”
2. STEPHEN KING SPENT FOUR YEARS WRITING IT.
King is notoriously prolific, with more than 50 novels to his name. In fact, when It first came out, it was part of a wave of four books King published in the span of just 14 months. Between 1986 and 1987, King published It, The Eyes of the Dragon, Misery, and The Tommyknockers. Given that kind of productivity, it would be easy to assume that King seamlessly produces doorstoppers in mere months. But appearances can be deceiving: It took four years to write.
3. IT’S KING’S SECOND LONGEST NOVEL.
4. THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL SCENE IN IT IS TOO DISTURBING FOR ANY ADAPTATION.
It contains an infamous sex scene. In it, the main group of 11- and 12-year-old kids—known as The Losers’ Club—gets lost in the sewers after temporarily defeating IT. In order to find their way out, they all have sex with the lone female member of the group as a sort of ritual. “Mike comes to her, then Richie, and the act is repeated … she closes her eyes as Stan comes to her and she thinks of the birds,” King writes in It.
“I wasn’t really thinking of the sexual aspect of it,” King later explained of his intentions in writing the controversial scene. “The sexual act connected childhood and adulthood … Times have changed since I wrote that scene and there is now more sensitivity to those issues.”
5. IT WAS WRITTEN UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF COCAINE.
King has been sober for over three decades now, but in his youth he suffered from addiction to drugs and alcohol. His prolific writing career did not halt during this time; he simply continued writing under the influence. “I was a heavy [cocaine] user from 1978 until 1986, something like that,” King told Rolling Stone. According to King, The Tommyknockers—which he published after It—was the last novel he wrote before cleaning up.
6. IT COMES TO TERRORIZE DERRY IN 27-YEAR INCREMENTS. THE ADAPTATIONS OF IT ALSO COME IN 27-YEAR INCREMENTS.
In the novel, the creature known as IT is not a clown; IT is a malevolent entity that takes on forms tailored to the person it’s terrorizing. Although its most common form is a clown, IT also appears as creatures like werewolves and vampires, wreaking murderous havoc on the fictional town of Derry every 27 years. Oddly, the new film adaptation is hitting theaters 27 years after the 1990 miniseries. Since the film’s production has stalled and changed hands several times, this is pure coincidence.
7. THE FICTIONAL TOWN OF DERRY IS A STAND-IN FOR THE REAL TOWN OF BANGOR, MAINE.
It is set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. According to King, it’s a stand-in for the real town of Bangor, Maine, where he has lived since 1979. King and his wife were debating between moving to Portland or Bangor; King was in favor of Bangor because he considered Portland “a yuppie town” and that Bangor was “a hard-ass working class town … and I thought that the story, the big story, I wanted to write, was here … all my thoughts on monsters and the children’s tale Three Billy Goats Gruff.”
8. PENNYWISE TAKES ON A CLOWN FORM BECAUSE KING THINKS CLOWNS ARE WHAT SCARE CHILDREN THE MOST.
King has stated that his goal with It was to blend all of the scariest monsters together. “But then I thought to myself, ‘There ought to be one binding, horrible, nasty, gross, creature kind of thing that you don’t want to see, [and] it makes you scream just to see it,’” he explained. “So I thought to myself, ‘What scares children more than anything else in the world?’ And the answer was ‘clowns.'”
9. KING ONCE HAD A CREEPY CLOWN ENCOUNTER—WITH RONALD MCDONALD.
In a 2005 interview with Conan O’Brien, King shared that his own creepy clown experience was with Ronald McDonald. King was on an airplane and Ronald McDonald came to sit next to him, in full clown attire. “You think, ‘What if this plane crashes? I’m going to die next to a clown,” King said.
10. KING CONSIDERS IT HIS “FINAL EXAM” ON HORROR.
Although King is widely considered to be the master of horror, he’s previously said he doesn’t have an answer when people ask what drives him. It was his answer to these inquiries. “I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t you write a final exam on horror, and put in all the monsters that everyone was afraid of as a kid?'” King told TIME in 2009. “And I thought, ‘How are you going to do that?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to do it like a fairy tale. I’m going to make up a town where these things happen and everybody ignores them.'”