Stephen King, “Stand by Me,” and the Terror of Being Young


It’s funny how people perceive things.

I saw the movie Stand by Me, which turns 30 this month, around the time I turned 7, right after the film was released on VHS. I remember the person behind the counter telling my babysitter who was helping me pick out movies that they’d just gotten the film in the day before. When we showed her the movie we’d picked, my stepmom asked if it was scary when we told her the movie we got. “No,” my babysitter replied. “I think it’s just about a bunch of kids in the woods or something.”

Her assumptions were off. I know that now. 

It wasn’t just about a bunch of kids in the woods, at least it didn’t seem that way as I ended up watching the film by myself in the basement. I’m pretty sure my babysitter was upstairs smoking pot with her friend as I sat there alone in the dark, totally terrified by the movie, but unsure exactly what it was that had me so upset.

Ten years later, in 1997, at the age of 16, I’d read the Stephen King novella the film was based off, The Body. It wasn’t the first time I actively sought out the literary basis of a film I loved, and not my first King book read after the movie version. I picked a copy of It off the bookshelf in a friend’s living room when I was 12. I remember hoping that maybe looking at the story that was still giving me nightmares – based off Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise in the made-for-TV movie – in a different light would quell my fears. It didn’t; it only intensified them. But it was one of the few times where I’ve never been able to decide whether like the movie or book more. I wanted to read The Body because I love Stand by Me, but what I got was a deeper appreciation for King. I started to like him more as a writers and not just some guy with a deep imagination who could scar you for life with his creations. What hits me now that I’m older and I’ve read the novella twice and seen the film countless times is that King is also writing about how damn scary childhood – particularly those last days before you’re a teen – can be, that you might not have realized it then, but as you age you realize there was always something lurking around the corner. It probably wasn’t a monster waiting to devour you; it was something more abstract, and it doesn’t matter what era you grew up in. It’s the darker side of the coming of age story — the anticipation, frustration, and the fear of the unknown.

In Aaron Burch’s Stephen King’s The Body: Bookmarked, the author lays out a similar scenario to mine. From what I gather, Burch comes from that same weird blurred moment in time as me where it’s difficult to relate to Generation X, but you’re also not really a Millennial (or you are, according to some social scientists, but not according to others). Being born in the early-half of the 1980s means you’re born into a time that wasn’t really the air-raid drills part of the Cold War, but still having it planted in your head that the Soviets want to destroy us. You weren’t alive to see the Vietnam War but probably heard stories about from somebody who served. You weren’t alive for JFK or MLK being assassinated, didn’t experience Watergate, and you were maybe just old enough to hear the echoes of Ronald Reagan promising to shine America back up so it looked like a proper “shining city on a hill.” You also maybe remember all the nostalgia. America was so damn nostalgic in the 1980s: we wanted some return to a supposedly bygone simpler ‘way things were’ era, but also wanted everything that we could put on a credit card. Some people longed for another time when we could just ignore all the drugs and death and problems other countries were having probably due to America. They missed those simple Eisenhower era days when we’d just won the war and America was supposed to be the symbol for all things great. Some people would have you convinced those were ‘normal’ times (spoiler: they weren’t), but something I’ve realized about King’s work, especially the stories that don’t feature killer clowns or vampires, is that nothing was ever “normal.” Burch, who is obviously attached enough to King’s book and the movie that he’d teach it and write a book about it, writes that, “The story itself doesn’t just work because of general nostalgia for the past, but is itself about nostalgia.” He’s right, but I can’t help but think that while the rest of 1980s culture seemed fixed on nostalgia as a good thing, King was doing more than just looking back in time to the good old days. 

Another thing is location. Castle Rock, Maine, is the place that, as any King reader knows, pops up throughout almost all of his work. The rabid dog Cujo terrorizes it, the demonic Leland Gaunt sets up shop there in Needful Things, and all sorts of other creepy, supernatural events take place there. It’s almost like Sunnydale in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; a town where all sorts of messed up things happen, but people just go about their lives like everything is totally normal. There’s something obviously wrong with Castle Rock, like it’s a vacation spot for pure evil, and that’s probably why there’s such a sinister feeling running throughout The Body even though it’s not considered one of King’s horror stories. Because even though there are no otherworldly creatures chasing the boys, the story is set in Castle Rock, and nothing good ever happens there.

Whether you read the book or watch the film, the story of Gordie Lachance and his friends going on a journey into the wilderness to find a dead body is a morbid set up, sure; but it is also an innocent one. It’s a book about fear more than it is about horror: a story about kids on that terrible verge of becoming teens. They come from bad families and think they’ll finally get some respect if they find the body of a boy from another town who is presumed dead. They don’t know anything, really. They think they do, but they don’t. That period in our lives, when we think we have some idea of what is ahead of us, but we don’t. We want to think we’re strong, but we’re helpless. We’re just kids; even if we really do know what’s best, adults will probably hold us back. It took me 30 years to figure that out, but I finally get what freaked me out so much. 

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