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September 18, 2017

JONES | The It in Our Community

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There’s a moment about halfway through Andrés Muschietti’s new film It, an adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name, where the band of kids (“The Losers”) are discussing the monster that’s been haunting them. The monster is a being that takes various shapes but prefers that of a demonic clown, and the kids realize as they listen to each other that it has been appearing in the form of whatever they fear the most. Mike, whose parents burned to death, sees their charred arms struggling to get past a door; Eddie is a hypochondriac due to his mother’s emotional manipulation, so he’s stalked by a leper; Beverley, who has a sexually abusive father and is afraid of how the arrival of her period will challenge her father’s insistence on her remaining “daddy’s little girl,” faces a sink erupting in a fountain of blood. Finally, Richie, the comic relief of the group, is asked what he is most afraid of. In response, he pushes his glasses up his nose, shivers and mutters, “Clowns.” Rough luck, Richie. This response is different from the rest for two reasons. The first is obvious: Richie’s primary fear is exactly the same shape that the monster prefers. However, Richie’s fear also stands in contrast to the other children’s fears: Richie’s is a general and somewhat irrational fear, while the other children are terrified of their own experiences. In fact, most of the Losers’ fears stem from adult misbehavior or absence.

I read the monolithic novel back in junior high, and although the filmmakers stick pretty closely to its plot, they did make some judicious cuts by excising the metaphysical backstory of the monster and the inexcusably weird child-orgy scene. (For an insightful and very funny record of reading It, check out the Verge article by former Arts editor Kaitlyn Tiffany ‘15). Something I had forgotten from the book is that the monster is not the only source of evil in the town. Many of the inhabitants of the town — the pack of bullies that are the Losers’ adversaries, Eddie’s mother and Beverley’s father — are monsters of much more recognizable types. Racism, violence, and sexual and domestic abuse are rampant. In one scene, the group of bullies are about to cut up one of The Losers with a knife when an adult couple drives by the group in a car, glaring stonefaced through the window at the boys as they glide by without braking.

Whether the adults’ neglect and abuse is a spell stemming from the monster or simply human ugliness, it is a recognizable evil that serves as a reminder to the audience that, for some, “terror” is not of nightmarish beasts but of the person who wants to hurt you because of the color of your skin, and of the person who ignores you when you tell them to stop touching you.

Watching the scenes of sexual and racist violence in the film, it was impossible not to think about the racist assault in Collegetown last Friday morning allegedly by members of Psi Upsilon fraternity. This fraternity was originally suspended by the university because of a very public sexual assault case, after which the members created 2016 Slope Day tanks that read “Too Big to Fail.”

While the administration has been more forceful and clear in its condemnation of Psi Upsilon this time around, I can’t help but feel that something is still missing. In It, hatred and violence run rampant in the community not only because of a supernatural being, but also because the adults who might make a difference do not acknowledge that there is something wrong in their town, and with they way that people in their town behave. Despite dealing with a murder rate that is inexplicably far above the national average, the residents of Derry, Maine convince themselves that they live in normal, small-town America.

I see a parallel to the way that several administrations during my time here have chosen to ignore the problem that Greek life inherently creates on campus, instead treating cases like these as individual errors by individual members. Sure, not all fraternity brothers are rapists or racists. But I am convinced that fraternity culture naturally aids and shields behavior that would otherwise be punished, and that the administration is complicit in this shielding. Like the adults in Derry, I think that those running the university — those whose job it is to make this place a safe and liveable space for all of its students — need to take a look at where they live, and acknowledge that something is very, very wrong. And the fact that this is not only a Cornell problem but a problem nationwide should only encourage the administration to make our school an exception and an example.

I don’t know or understand much about the laws or university policy that apply to the Greek system — as far as I can tell, the university avoids dealing about as much as possible with what actually happens inside frat houses. What I do know is possible is a statement from the administration that makes clear that it does not see Friday’s assault and the many sexual assault cases that it deals with as individual acts.

President Martha Pollack sent an email on Sunday evening that proposes several steps to address the circumstances that allowed and created Friday’s assault, including a direction to the Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils to “develop a substantive and meaningful education program for all their members.” This is a start: it implicitly acknowledges that Friday’s assault is not a single incident but part of a larger problem that needs addressing in the Greek community. But implicit criticism is not enough. The administration needs to acknowledge something that I think it must know by now, and that much of the student body certainly knows — that fraternity culture in and of itself allows and causes horrible things to happen, and that by nature of its alumni funding and its group-defense strategies it is allowed to run itself with a degree of freedom that no other group on campus has, despite the fact that no other group has a monster at work in it quite like the one in fraternities.

 

Jack Jones is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jackjones@cornellsun.com.