Stephen King's 'IT,' Homophobia, and Charlie Howard
The Real Life Incident That Inspired Pennywise's Homophobic Attack
** Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers for the novel IT by Stephen King **Trigger Warnings for: Homophobia, Violence**
Stephen King has never been one to shy away from hard hitting topics. One of his most famous novels, IT, is no exception. Today I would like to talk about one scene in particular, or rather the real life story that inspired it.
Let's begin in the 1980s with a man called Charlie Howard. In 1984, Charlie moved to Bangor, Maine after a failed relationship. He was an openly gay man and was discriminated against because of it. He endured many homophobic experiences such as being tormented by high school boys, having slurs shouted at him in a market, being asked to leave a nightclub for dancing with a man, and waking up one day to find his kitten strangled on his doorstep.
Finally, on July 7th 1984, Charlie was walking to retrieve mail at around 10 PM with his friend, Roy Ogden. As Charlie and Roy crossed Kenduskeag River Bridge, a car pulled up beside them containing teenagers Shawn Mabry, Jim Baines, Daniel Ness and two girls. They had been buying alcohol for a party using one of the girls' fake ID. Seeing Charlie, the three boys got out of the car and chased him whilst the girls remained in the car.
Once they caught up to him, Charlie was brutally beaten, called slurs, and began having an asthma attack. Jim Baines shouted to throw Charlie off the bridge, which they did. Charlie clung to the railings and begged for his life, telling the boys he couldn't swim. They ignored him and pried his hands off the railings. The boys then returned to the car, which the girls were trying to start.
Roy ran to pull the nearest fire alarm, the emergency services quickly arrived, and a hunt for Charlie began. By the time his body was found at 1 AM, Charlie had drowned. He was 23.
The car of teenagers went to a party where they bragged about what they had done. The boys each served under two years at Hancock County Jail and the girls faced no charges.
Today, a short distance from where Charlie was murdered, there is a memorial that reads "“May we, the citizens of Bangor, continue to change the world around us until hatred becomes peacemaking and ignorance becomes understanding.” July 7th is now 'Diversity Day' in Bangor. In May 2011, vandals spray-painted graffiti and an anti-gay slur on Charlie's memorial. Family and friends cleaned it up and rededicated it.
Stephen King was born in Portland, Maine. He says that this crime was the thing that made him realise the extent of the violence faced by LGBT+ people. He also said that, as a straight man, he had the privilege of not having to think about this kind of issue and it was this kind of complacency and ignorance that led to Charlie's murder.
King included a scene in IT featuring a gay man called Adrian, who was brutally beaten and thrown off a bridge as his boyfriend watched. Adrian hardly survives the fall when Pennywise crushes his ribs, bites him, and taunts his boyfriend before dragging Adrian into the sewers. This scene directly mirrors the real life hate crime that ended Charlie Howard's life.
But the scene shows so much more than a recreation of a real life crime. Pennywise is drawn to fear, suffering, and hatred. At multiple points during the novel, he is fueled by acts of racism, antisemitism, sexual violence, domestic abuse, and child abuse—prying on people who are already terrified and at their weakest. These acts were not started because of Pennywise, they were started because of other humans and their ability to hate. From a symbolic standpoint, Pennywise is the embodiment of evil who represents the horrors that children and marginalised people have to face on a daily basis. Whilst he is monstrous in every sense, he is by no means the only monster in the novel. Stephen King included a scene which directly mirrors the real life murder of Charlie Howard to emphasise the pure evil of homophobia and the murder of an innocent gay man.