Let’s be honest here, clowns are f*cking creepy. So much so that there is even a classified word to describe a phobia of those paint faced apparitions -coulrophobia. Granted, this is not a widespread and debilitating phobia like acrophobia (fear of heights) it is still an official phobia. Many people who don’t fear them, simply and irrationally hate clowns. I personally dislike everything about them, seeing a clown at a fair or a parade never fails to give me the creeps.
The original target audience for clowns -children- don’t even like them. They don’t look funny or cute, no, to modern children clowns simply look unfamiliar and threatening.
This culture of clown hate has even leaked into our entertainment, with countless horror movies over the years revolving around killer, psychotic and just straight up evil clowns murdering, and possibly eating and otherwise terrorizing movie protagonists since at least the 1980’s.
What is it about seeing a person in a wig, grease paint and a colorful costume that can strike fear into the hearts of spectators? Or if not outright fear, at least a sense of dread and disgust?
Clowns have been around for centuries, appearing in most cultures worldwide as pranksters, jesters, harlequins and tricksters. It was a way, in medieval times, of allowing people to laugh at the nobility and to be irreverant. However, according to the director of talent for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, clowns have always had a bit of a dark side.
To find out why, perhaps we should take a look at the “father” of modern clowns, Joseph Grimaldi. He was the first recognizable ancestor of a modern day clown and was famous for his performances on the London Regency stage. He was the first to go all out with the face painting. Whereas before, clowns would stick to simply a bit of rouge on the cheeks to exaggerate inebriation, Grimaldi dawned the full white painted face with lurid red at the cheeks and brightly colored costumes to complete the look.
Grimaldi was renowned as a comedic performer, but his real life was not funny in the slightest. He was the son of a tyrannical stage father, he suffered through depression, his wife died in childbirth and his physical comedy caused him to suffer constant pain and even left him disabled. He was quoted as saying “I am Grimaldi, I am Grim All Day”. Not exactly the happy go lucky clown everyone loved to watch fight himself in ridiculous fisticuffs and leap jauntily around the stage. Grimaldi’s own son was also a clown who died an alcoholic at age 31.
When Grimaldi died in 1837 (Coroner’s cause of death? “Died by the visitation of God”) Charles Dickens took up the task of editing the deceased entertainer’s memoirs. Not surprisingly, Dickens put the typical Dickens spin on the story, creating a depiction of something dark and troubled but masked by ridiculousness and humor. That image stuck apparently.
At the same time Grimaldi was famous in Britain, another clown was gaining fame across the Channel in France. Jean-Gaspard Deburau was very well known, even being recognized on the streets wtihout his makeup. Deburau was far more sinister than Grimaldi. In 1836, Deburau killed a young boy with a blow to head from his walking stick after the boy shouted insults at him on the street. He was acquitted of this crime. So, here is one confirmed killer clown in history. Now we begin to see where the darkness seeped in from.
After the heyday of Grimaldi and Deburau, clowning changed venues, going from theatrical to the newer arena of the circus. By the mid 19th century clowns were comic relief from the more death defying circus acts. However, even with the ridiculous slapstick of the circus clowns, clowning was tinted with darkness. Edmond de Goncourt, a French literary critic, wrote in 1876:
The clown’s art is now rather terrifying and full of anxiety and apprehension, their suicidal feats, their monstrous gesticulations and frenzied mimicry reminding one of the courtyard of a lunatic asylum.
But wait, there is definitely more!
In an Italian opera in 1892 called Pagliacci (Clowns), the darkness continues. The main character is a typical Grimaldian clown is cuckolded and murders his cheating wife on stage during a performance. What the hell?!
In the late 19th century, the British circus moved across the ocean to America and they brought their clowns with them. Humor changed over time, but the depiction of sad, tragic and troubled clowns stuck around. For example, Emmett Kelly was one of the most famous “hobo” clowns in the U.S. Hobo clowns are, of course, the men with the sad face painted over a five o’clock shadow wearing tattered clothes and never smiling but somehow remaining hilarious to spectators nonetheless. Kelly’s character “Weary Willie” was created out of his own personal tragedy in the disintegration of his marriage and the failing economy of America in the 1930’s.
Clowns had another heyday of sorts in the U.S with the rise of television and programming geared towards children, such as Clarabell the Clown and Bozo the Clown. Bozo the clown was so wildly popular in the mid 1960’d that a ticket to his nationally syndicated TV show had a ten year wait! In 1963, Ronald McDonald was born to sling burgers at kids for the fast food chain McDonald’s and he has been doing it ever since. This time period was when clowns were redefined, being redirected a child’s entertainment rather than for adults as clowns were pre 20th century.
Enter John Wayne Gacy, possibly the most notorious evil clown to ever exist. While Bozo was entertaining kids across the country on Saturday mornings, Gacy was clowning around the American Midwest as Pogo the Clown. Between 1972 and 1978 “Pogo” raped and murdered more than 35 young men in the area of Chicago. Before his arrest he was quoted saying to an investigator “You know…clown s can get away with murder.”
Gacy, of course, did NOT get away with murder. He was convicted of 33 counts and executed in 1994, but not before he was forever dubbed the Killer Clown by the media.
After Pogo the Killer Clown shocked the nation, clown representation in entertainment became decidedly darker and more sinister. In 1982 the film Poltergeist included a scene with the little boy’s clown doll coming to life and trying to pull him under the bed. That was a menacing scene for sure, anyone who has seen the movie knows what I am talking about. In 1986 the King of horror and this writer’s personal hero Stephen King, wrote It which tells the story of a demonic entity that attacks children under the guise of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. In 1990 that story was made into a TV mini-series with Tim Curry giving a smashingly horrifying performance as Pennywise.
The list goes on and on.
The question is, are we uncomfortable with them because they are in fact creepy? Or is it simply a case of flock mind, so many evil depictions of clowns have created a reality where clowns are seen as something creepy and bad instead of something silly and fun?
Are clowns evil or misunderstood? That is open to interpretation at this point.
Thanks for indulging me and reading this post! You can read more about the psychology of clowns being considered scary here, in this article from Smithsonian.