IT and Modern Theodicy: The Big Black Blob Problem

I have a hankering to dig deeper into an issue that came up in a recent Moby Dick post, but is an example of a larger issue in media.

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In that post, I talked about theodicy, the practice of explaining why there is evil in the world when God is supposed to be both all-powerful and benevolent towards humanity. The one I talked about there was an ancient theodicy, from the book of Job. But today, I’d like to talk about the modern form this has taken, as best exemplified in the Stephen King novel/miniseries/film IT.

So, in the opening pages of IT, and in the opening scenes of IT: Chapter Two just recently released in theaters, a gay man is beaten by a random gang of thugs and thrown into a river, where he is then devoured by the titular evil clown/eldritch abomination, Pennywise. Through the book and movies, the “evil” of the town is all traced back to this entity, living beneath it, even before the area was colonized. Every 27 years, IT emerges and causes mayhem, both directly and indirectly, feeding off the fear and hatred of its human victims.

This is a pretty common premise for a horror or fantasy story, honestly. All the problems of a town being traced back either to one individual or to some sort of malevolent alien entity subtly influencing everyone. Think of the ooze in the subway tunnels in Ghostbusters 2. It’s a sort of reverse Fisher King situation, where the influence held over the larger geographical area is malign on purpose rather than being a tragic accident or whatever.

Ah, I should probably explain the Fisher King briefly, it’s not super well known, even for all the influence it holds over storytelling to this very day. The basic gist is that there’s this kingdom that is having all sorts of problems, there’s a plague and the crops won’t grow and the sun never shines etc etc. It turns out that the king is sick and/or injured, living alone in an otherwise abandoned castle, spending all his time fishing to survive. Then some knight or hero or whatever comes along and helps heal him, and the land is revived, everyone is happy again. Basically: monarchs are important because their personal condition is reflected in the land they rule over, and thus they must be obeyed/protected/worshiped etc. There are a lot of variations on this story, I think sometimes the knight has to help the king catch a certain fish or something? I dunno, I’m not an expert.

This is relevant here because it is a similar type of magical thinking in relation to the origin of suffering. They are both a kind of theodicy, but without even a need to bring God into the problem. The question is a more general: why do bad things happen to innocent people at all, if the people are not to blame?


To get back to IT for a second, Stephen King doesn’t want to blame the good, simple people of Derry, Maine for these horrific crimes. How can it be possible for such evil things to happen in a place that is so inherently good? There must be some sort of outside cause, some sort of heart to this darkness that can be stabbed or fed to a giant space turtle or whatever, and then everything will be okay. Surely, these simple, salt of the earth, rural Americans couldn’t actually have any hatred in their heart? No, no, it must be the evil clown from outer space.

This relates directly to a problem I have that is less high-minded and philosophical and more just a matter of personal taste. If I may be permitted to be an old man yelling at clouds for a moment:

I fuckin’ hate when the big villain of a fantasy story ends up being just a sort of vague, non-human, Big Black Blob of Evil. It can take a lot of different forms, but it seems to be a thing that’s on the rise in the past couple decades. It’s not always literally a big black blob, and it can be done well, but whenever the problem turns out be just some sort of representation of capital-e Evil, I can’t help but roll my eyes. Something that can’t speak, doesn’t have any motivations, just kind of exists to destroy and kill for no real reason.

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The Archdemon, from Dragon Age Origins

The ur-example to me, because I played this game when I was an impressionable college student, is in Dragon Age Origins. The villain in that game is the Archdemon, a big evil dragon leading the Blight, a sort of invasion from another dimension of evil goblins and trolls and whatnot that just sort of wash over the land every now and then. The backstory is super interesting, mortals invaded Heaven, got kicked out, then God stopped talking to them and instead sends this big army every now and then to try and cause the apocalypse. But in the actual game, the villain is a big blank. It’s just a big dragon, you only see it at the end, your character is ~fated~ to kill it, and you do.

There are some interesting things done with the concept in that game. A large part of it is about people reacting to this big existential threat in different ways, many of which are counter-productive. There are other minor villains to deal with along the way, but in the end the main thing you’re fighting is just sort a vague concept of Badness.

I suppose this is more relevant to Moby-Dick; or, the Whale than I first realized, as these authors are doing the same thing Ahab does: attaching all the evils of the world to some external thing so that you can just kill it. But that book makes it very clear that this is a stupid and bad thing to do! Heaping all this meaning onto a big angry whale ends up getting everyone on the Pequod killed in the end. Focusing so intently on the supposed cause of his pain leads Ahab not only into more pain, but does nothing to prevent the tragedy from repeating on a larger scale.

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Jeyne Kassynder, the epitome of evil from Dungeon Siege III

Let me just say it as bluntly as possible: Saying that evil is caused by some outside, alien force is inherently excusing those bad actors who perform evil acts in the real world.

It is an attempt to avoid the uncomfortable subject that racism and homophobia and child abuse and all these other evils of the world do exist in small town America. They are inherently part of the same culture that produced all these fuzzy feel-good memories of the ’50s. It is born of an unwillingness to examine your own life and culture and actually separate out the good and bad things, and try to be better.

This is, somehow, even worse than the old “a few bad apples” excuse, because it’s not even allowing for there to be truly evil individuals. No, everyone is pure and innocent until something literally alien to human life and from outside our whole plane of reality has to come in and make people bad.

The modern theodicy is working from an assumption that people are inherently good. Children are innocent and pure and free of all blame, and only become bad when some sort of evil is thrust upon them. This leads back to the whole transcendentalist notion of the purity and goodness of the natural world and the natural condition, the Noble Savage myth, and back up to modern trends like the paleo diet.

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The titular Dragon, from Dragon’s Dogma

A separation of that which is untouched and pure, and therefore morally Good, and that which has been corrupted by some sort of outside influence, and therefore Evil. The conflation of purity and goodness is one of the most insidious, horrific things in our modern culture. You know who really loves purity? Racists. Eugenicists. Nazis. People who prefer playing rhetorical games rather than dealing with the real world.


Like all theodicies, the modern one espoused in IT is basically a load of shit. I’ve come to realize that I really don’t believe in “evil” as an abstract concept. It is just another cultural concept that has little bearing in reality. It is a way of dismissing humanity and underlying problems because you don’t want to have to deal with them.

Instead of thinking about the underlying problems of suffocating toxic masculinity that give rise to homophobia, how it is still to this day baked into the culture on a deep level, Stephen King just chalks it up to an evil clown.

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I still prefer Tim Curry

Now, there is a counter-argument to be made that the story is more of an allegory and that the clown itself represents all these underlying problems, as it does literally lie under the town itself. But this isn’t the way you’d write that. If that was the case, you’d have the secretly evil clown be some sort of beloved figure that even supposedly good people are willing to defend. It wouldn’t be some nameless horror coming up from the sewer, inhuman and inescapable, it would be a part of the fabric of the town.

The reason that IT isn’t an allegory about the evils of the world is the same that the creature is represented as the source of these evils in the first place. IT is a theodicy: it is meant to explain a fact about the world, and it is a cheap cop-out.


Okay, yes, I am exaggerating just a bit to make my point. The point of IT is more that the clown is exacerbating existing evils rather than being their sole cause, it’s more of a soft theodicy not an all-encompassing one. But my point is that it is an example of a larger trend of seeking to explain away evils in this way rather than looking at their true causes.

I, too, am acting in imitation of Captain Ahab, piling up all my resentments onto the back of a single piece of media. They are all gathered from diverse, distributed sources, and only concentrated here by way of convenience. As with the aside about Dragon Age, a lot of this resentment is more about stories that lack a strong antagonist, which is frustrating for a whole different, more subjective reason.

Still, I hope you will take something from this: do not be so quick to externalize a concept as vague as “evil”. Everything in this world is complicated, and by simplifying it you lose a lot of important context.

And context is everything.

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