This Isn’t Real: Simulated Fear In Modern Movies

I’m a sentimental cinephile. I have a tendency to find the metaphor in any film I see, applying it to whatever I’m experiencing in my own life. While some look at recent films like Spider-Man: Far From Home and It: Chapter Two and see headlines about box office records or think-pieces about the future of film, I see stories that are special to me. Stories with deep themes about loyalty, belief and the idea that we each have something to give.

A central theme of both of these massively successful films is fear—a villain that can be a lot scarier than Mysterio and Pennywise. Bill Skarsgard’s killer clown and a jilted computer geek played by Jake Gyllenhaal are representations of something greater: a mounting sense of fear that feels all too real. But for what appears to be an R-rated horror adaptation and a fun superhero romp actually disguise hopeful messages about defeating personal demons.

Spider-Man: Far From Home presents Mysterio, a pathetic villain using illusion technology to convince Peter Parker what he’s seeing is real when it’s not. He doesn’t have infinity stones or venom, but something just as dangerous: the power to get inside your head. Peter busts through his illusions and breaks them open from the inside, creating a metaphor for how we come at our own personal conflicts—and whether they’re actually real, or something we made up in our minds. 

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) – source: Sony Pictures Releasing

It: Chapter Two takes a more direct approach: 27 years after they first faced him, Pennywise quite literally transforms into whatever the adult “losers” are most afraid of. They see things that aren’t really there, and the more terrified they are, the easier it is for him to attack. Fear itself is the villain in the sequeland the beloved losers club must take away its decades-long hold over them before they can kill it.

There are plenty of meaningful metaphors to unpack in the lengthy running time—the way trauma can resurface after you think it’s long gone, years after you’ve left town and forgotten; the way it shows up in unexpected, less obvious places than it did when you were young. But the best aspect of It: Chapter Two is the way the losers diminish Pennywise’s power simply by belittling him. We might never be able to defeat our own doubts and anxieties, but they won’t be popping out of sewer drains to haunt us anymore if we recognize how small and insignificant they are. 

It’s not a new concept in modern cinema. Tris Prior looks fear in the face during simulated scenarios in Divergent and says, “This isn’t real.” Harry Potter asks Dumbledore if everything is happening in his own head, to which the venerated professor tells him, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” And in Far From Home, MJ uses the George Orwell quote, “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” 

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) – source: Sony Pictures Releasing

The beauty of using this truth-bending trope in film is the metaphor it creates. Sometimes, what you think you’re experiencing in your own life isn’t real. It’s manufactured—by someone else, by circumstances, by the doubts in your own mind. For Peter, it’s created by a villain with a powerful computer. For the losers club, a killer clown taunts them with past trauma or long-buried insecurities. For us, it might be something smaller—a different kind of villain using a different kind of keyboard. Words that seem very real but are far from it—just artificial simulations of the truth. In both cases, a threatening antagonist serves as a vehicle to make you believe something about yourself or your life that isn’t true. But in both cases, intuition is what separates the real heroes from the wannabes in costumes. 

Eventually, we become strong enough to differentiate between what we know to be true, and what others want us to believe is true. A “Peter tingle” for Spider-Man. An ancient ritual for the losers club. If we’re still figuring out what that thing is for us, maybe it’s as simple as a night at the movies. 

Maybe that’s a sappy way of looking at it. Maybe it’s all just an illusion created by Disney and Warner Brothers. Maybe these are just big popcorn box office hits designed to generate an audience, but they sure do feel real to me.

It: Chapter Two (2019): source – Warner Bros. Studios

This essay was originally published on The Simple Cinephile and is posted here with permission.

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