US: AIDS, It, and the Horror of the 1980s

1988 was a weird time to be a 14-year-old gay kid in America. One could find representations of gay men all over the place. They were profiled in Peoplemagazine, discussed in segments on the national news, and interviewed by a doggedly sympathetic Phil Donahue before a live studio audience.

But they were also dying.

I sat next to my parents in our living room as we watched a sobering television news report detailing how Provincetown, Massachusetts, a queer utopia we had once visited, was being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. My classmates and I were herded into the Nashua High School auditorium to listen to a gay man, an earring dangling from his right ear, tell us about the precautions we needed to take in order to avoid contracting the virus that was attacking his body. When I first held a boy from school in my arms, I became convinced that somehow our chaste intimacy would kill me. If earlier generations of gay youth had associated sex with anxieties about loneliness or social rejection, our sexuality in the 1980s emerged alongside a palpable fear of death.

Stephen King’s It was published in 1986, and although it was a shape-shifting killer who tormented the youth in the novel, the fear of AIDS provided a chilling backdrop for the terror afflicting Derry, Maine—a town which, according to the novel, housed its own “small gay community.” Homophobic graffiti in Derry’s Bassey Park adhered to a standard hateful script (“STICK NAILS IN THE EYES OF ALL FAGOTS (FOR GOD)!”), but it was supplemented with a contemporary spin: “AIDS FROM GOD YOU HELLBOUND HOMOS!!” When a suspect is interrogated by a police officer in one of the novel’s early chapters, the cop comments, “I’m going to put them in the slam, my friend, and if I hear they got their puckery little assholes cored down there at Thomaston, I’m gonna send them cards saying I hope whoever did it had AIDS.” It was not only God, evidently, who meted out AIDS as punishment in the 1980s.

The recently released film version of It brings the story’s 1980s setting and thatmoment’s anxiety about AIDS even more forcefully into the foreground. Whereas most cinematic nostalgia for teen culture in the 1980s has tended to gloss over the existential angst adolescents faced during a time when sexuality was intimately connected with death, It’s open-faced engagement with adolescent fear provides a perfect setting for reminding audiences of the lived experiences of those coming of age during an epidemic.

In the film, a section about the main characters’ youth moves from the book’s 1958 setting to 1988, placing its central cast of young teens within a milieu where paranoia around blood is difficult to distinguish from anxiety around AIDS. The central characters’ self-described “Loser’s Club” is intimately familiar with blood, as they have been subjected to nearly operatic forms of bullying on a daily basis. They externalize their social rejection through a series of neuroses and tics—they stutter, wheeze, overeat, and endlessly worry—but their lives are structured by fear of bloodshed and pain. As school lets out for summer, the film’s sadistic bully cautions good-hearted Bill Denbrough that his vacation is “going to be a hurt train for you and your faggot friends.” He is not, as it turns out, wrong. Read more via Slate