What is it about clowns?
We either love them, or hate them. And it seems we decide which side of the fence we are on pretty early in childhood. It’s a position that never seems to change, even as we grow older. But why do we fear them at all? Aren’t they there to bring us happiness and laughter?
And why does dressing as a scary clown cause so much emotional distress?
Surely it can’t be Stephen King’s fault… Even though those of us who saw the first incarnation of It on television that November of 1990 probably still can’t get the images of Pennywise as played by the incomparable Tim Curry out of our heads…
No, our fear and dread of clowns goes much, much deeper.
And the real explanation is yet another reason why Horror is such a complex, subtext-laced genre – one which has so many tentacles in cultural, social, philosophical, biological, and psychological sciences.
Because if we are going to understand how clowns are connected to our deepest, darkest fears, we are going to have to look at our all-too-human beginnings.
Clown Kachina (Koshari)
The Clown As Trickster
For many primitive cultures, clowns serve a function that is only in part comedic. The comedy of such clowns is meant to be a distraction – a tool for nudging or shifting the attention from the worldly to the spiritual by exaggerating behaviors, mores, and the absurdity of humanity’s natural hubris. But the non-comedic and true purpose of clowns is instruction. And much like the recorded encounters of common people with fairies and beings of folk tale and myth, such meetings are pregnant with danger.
Clowns are spirit-beings, capricious, dangerous creatures who trick hapless humans into seeing the world obliquely, spiritually, respectfully in spite of our personally contrived perceptions of normalcy (with which we continually edit the world to our own satisfaction).
Depicted in ways that exaggerate, mock or distort human physical characteristics or behaviors, our early ancestors saw clowns for what they are: forces of nature that sometimes struggle to imitate an imperfect humanity, but always have an agenda. Their images were rendered as curious, sometimes comical, yet other worldly and never quite human. Often our reciprocal imitation of the clown imitating us is equally disturbing, the use of paint and masks and props meant to communicate that a clown is indeed something to be wary of.
African clown (Ogbo)
Worse, the motives of clowns are always unknown. Sometimes they distract nastier spirits from their intentions against humans – like a rodeo clown distracts the bull. But more often they seek to teach humans by utilizing a rather unsettling series of actions based within a complicated theater of the absurd.
As such, encounters with clowns are better experienced as cautionary tales; because clowns are travelers along the borders of perceived reality and the supernatural one in which all manner of spiritual dangers reside. Therefore within many primitive cultures, such intercourse with the world of spirit requires the presence of and interpretation by shamans, medicine people, priests, and sorcerers. Insanity, possession, and illness can result from these encounters if proper protocols and interpretation are not followed.
What is certain about clowns recounted in this primitive dance is that such beings from the Other World operate according to rules that do not apply to humans, but within the web of which there are serious human consequences. As such, those rules are unknown by most humans; and when recounted, they seem comical and absurd even of themselves. To navigate such meetings then, is a precarious and dangerous affair – something our primitive brains still recognize when we stare at the toy clown sitting in the rocking chair in the moonlight.
In primitive traditions, clowns are simultaneously both sacred and base mischief-makers. But they are always dangerous, their intentions never fully revealed.
Their lessons are always taught by deceit and rough handling. They are seldom sympathetic or empathetic to their human subjects.
The clown is, according to Joseph Campbell, an enduring archetype of myth (Campbell ). And as such, we already know him intimately… perhaps, too intimately for comfort.
The Clown as Allegory
In Literature and film and all of the Arts, the Clown is never just a clown.
It is the very irksome nature of clowns that keeps us off balance enough that we might just learn something in spite of ourselves, and for that reason, writers and artists and playwrights have used them generously in their works.
Some even say that the presence of the clown represents the writer or artist him- or herself. According to E.A. Williams in an essay which addresses the Literary roles of the clown in film, poetry and prose titled “Bakhtin and Borat: the Rogue, the Clown and the Fool in Carnival Film”:
“Defined by their unfamiliar and alien status, these characters are metaphorical reflections…of some other’s mode of being. Consequently, these masks ‘simply do not exist’ beyond their function as outsiders or others; they function only as ‘prosaic allegorizations’ or ‘prosaic metaphors’ that reveal and subvert the falsity of official culture at the same time at the same time as they serve to endorse certain folk truths.” (Williams 110)
In other words, like their handling by primitive cultures, clowns in film and Literature – by their seeming out-of-place and out-of-step – are there to draw the attention of their audience to something else.
“Clown and fool characters instantiate carnival inversions of mainstream culture, but they are less directly connected to their author’s intentions and the world outside their texts.” (111) But they do “’degrade official culture by eliciting the audience’s laughter at the ideologies they parody. But unlike the rogue, neither the clown nor the fool takes pleasure in letting the audience in on the joke…clowns and fools are also distinct from rogues in that they can seem otherworldly” and furthermore “do not understand the extratextual world [;] they clearly do not belong to it, remaining detached from the audience’s reality.”
Clowns remain uncontrollable, yet control the stage upon which they inform their audience. Whether we laugh because the clown makes us uncomfortable, or because it causes us distress over its point can be a mystery even to ourselves. Yet in clowns we tolerate what is otherwise unacceptable behavior or commentary. We readily accept satire and parody, mockery and offensive imitation with nothing more than laughter. This is something comedians understand, something poets like Shakespeare mastered, and something even contemporary writers use often in building supernatural characters. Clowns can give us our voice.
As Williams says, “it is because these characters are ‘not of this world’ [that] they possess their own special rights and privileges for degrading the ideologies of the world’s official culture.” Indeed, these figures continually “espouse offensive or objectionable feelings in their words, actions, and thoughts. Moreover their bizarre behavior distinguishes them from the audience, granting them an exclusive ‘right not to understand, the right to confuse, to tease, to hyperbolize life.’” (112)
Medieval European Clown
This makes the use of clowns in film and Literature invaluable – even when the clown archetype is subverted, hidden beneath human characterization. It is with the use of the clown that Literary motifs can be achieved, hidden symbols revealed, themes punctuated.
Is this why we find clowns neatly tucked into Horror?
Very likely; clowns can be the vehicle through which Literary messages can be coded, where deeper issues can be critiqued and even mocked. But it remains the over-arching and very primal discomfort at the simple sight of a clown that for Horror writers and Horror audiences provides the artistic coup de grâce. This is because we still have Freud…and we still have our primitive minds to thank for the unsettling creepiness of clowns.
Explains Tara Brady in her article, “No Laughing Matter: Why Are We So Terrified of Clowns?”:
“The Freudian id is not the only psychoanalytical trope in play. In his (increasingly voguish) 1919 paper, The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud postulates that we are frightened by something that is simultaneously familiar and yet unfamiliar, a thesis that finds parallels in contemporary neurological research into fear and pattern recognition. Clowns, by this account, are both recognisably human, yet visibly distorted, what with those elongated feet and bulbous noses.” ( Brady)
And indeed it is the very appearance of clowns that is indescribably, primally disturbing…
Yet it is one thing to tuck clowns neatly into boxes lined with fine Literature and theatrical plays – where we can take them out and analyze them in the safety of academia. It is quite another when –as in primitive times – they rise to trick us and unbalance our perceptions right in real life.
Sometimes this occurs with an unwelcome gift from a well-meaning relative, a unexpected find in an antique shop, or maybe by our proximity in being a little too close to a satirized reality… and the absurd truth of the moment.
Yet we seem fixated on the perceived “loss” of the cheerful clown; and in that way, we are made afraid of our “new” obsession with creepy clowns. We fear things have changed within us somehow, and not for the better.
Asks Becky Little in her article, “A Brief History of Creepy Clowns:
‘It’s a mistake to ask when clowns went bad,” he says, “because they were never really good.’” (Little)
And this was true until about 1950.
Bozo and Friends: the Re-Purposing of Clowns & the Illusion of Happiness
It doesn’t help that for many of us, our formal introduction to clowns came at the hands of children’s television shows and as pitchmen for hawking hamburgers. Such re-purposing of the clown from supernatural trickster to camera-ready advertisement could only conclude in disaster for both humanity and the clown in general. Indeed, if there was a plan, it backfired.
Within a brief few generations, we were encouraging our children to love clowns, to trust clowns, to embrace the happiness they were said to represent. Yet many children did not get the message, carrying within their very DNA an unspoken Horror of clowns. For those kids, the world of It makes raw, perfect sense.
In fact, according to one University of Sheffield Study as reported by the BBC in 2008, Researcher Dr. Penny Curtis said: “As adults we make assumptions about what works for children.
“We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable.”
And child psychologist Patricia Doorbar goes on to clarify:
“Very few children like clowns. They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they just look odd.” (BBC)
Still the Public Relations machinery was in gear, and what children they could not bribe with cartoons, prancing poodles, and birthday parties, they sought to lure with a burger and fries.
For some, it worked. But we barely had the opportunity to fall under the spell of the happy clown when it all ended. Almost overnight, the magic of clowns was gone –replaced by the magic of television, and then by the Power of Adults, who could so easily replace one clown with another, one actor with another, one product with another.
The Age of Disposability was upon us.
The last heyday of happy clowning was when children knew the names of their avatars: Bozo, Clarabell, Willie the Hobo, Chuchin, Freddie the Freeloader… Once clowns were officially made back into fools, most of us emotionally checked out.
So is it not surprising that the archetype would rise from the ashes, and to do so wearing the mask of Horror? Clowns have always had dual natures. And they are fickle, capricious teachers.
John Wayne Gacy, 1976
The Return to Creepy
The most disturbing concept of the clown drifted into our imaginations with the rise of a serial killer. John Wayne Gacy murdered 33 known victims from 1972 to 1978 in Cook County, Illinois, and performed as Pogo the Clown for charitable events, parades, and children’s parties. And despite the heinousness of his crimes, nothing stuck in the American imagination like the fact that he performed as a clown for children.
This was in all likelihood the beginning of the Creepy Clown phase in American subculture. And while one can argue that it is much easier to mock what one truly fears, we should also be asking why we found it so much easier to find the clown at fault than the man behind the mask…
True to form, we took our fears to excess. Gone was the “happy clown” who had then existed for a relatively brief historical period. And back is the one that haunted our primitive dreams, presently disguised as a serial killer who surely was more than that, and whose image masked something older, more terrible and insidious – now, when we have so deftly banished shamans, medicine people, priests and sorcerers from our sophisticated lives.
And at the precise moment when circuses – our official “home” for clowns and clowning – were coming under fire for animal abuse by watchdog groups like PETA, the world we had fashioned to contain clowns and what they represented to us for good or ill was also falling, changing, becoming unrecognizable.
Within the microcosm of the falling Big Top, we could see our own failures and losses. The innocence of the circus (and therefore all things American) was being tainted; the idea of carnival workers was becoming a source for assumed criminal behavior – the carnival the last hiding place for misfits, Others, and those who did not belong as seen through so many lenses of inequality (class, culture, race, physical deformity). We liked everything having its place, popping out merely to entertain us and then leaving town. We never imagined it was us under the tent. Indeed, so much more was coming down with the tent poles…
Formerly a place where magic existed, the circus and carnivals became symbolically an entirely different and potent place where magic was twisted to fit a new need: anger, violence, mockery, revenge. Circuses and carnivals with their clowns and costumes, their masks and mischief, suddenly became threatening. And clowns were their spokesmen, the entities of Horror when they did not conjure it.
Yet we left it there –precisely there. After Stephen King’s It, we seemed unable or unwilling to investigate the mystery of the clown further…we were…distracted.
Until suddenly in August, 2016, when the peculiar, occasional “sighting” came to an international head.
According to Becky Little, “Creepy (and fake) clown sightings spread across the U.S. and other countries, creating a kind of viral clown panic.”
Speculation for why clowns began “appearing,” of course, runs rampant. But although one could venture more scientifically or sociologically founded guesses, one also has to consider the far reach of the Internet, the average person’s need for fifteen minutes of fame, the underground popularity of such characters as Slender Man and other fanfic memes, and simple perverse human curiosity.
Although, one peculiar coincidence lingers to tease the American mind:
“Andrew McConnell Stott suggests that the clown epidemic may be related to an orange-haired, rival entertainer.
‘It all peaked during the election period,’ says McConnell Stott. ‘I think if you look at the heightened absurdity in contemporary American political discourse and public discourse, the clues are there. Something I thought fascinating is that scary clowns were sighted primarily in at-risk communities, like rust-belt communities or rural communities; places that have been hollowed out by economic stress. Scary clowns were seen on the peripheries of these communities; they didn’t go up to people and wave knives in their faces. They were glimpsed in windows or stood under streetlamps. Just enough to freak everybody out, but not to endanger them. Reminders of a previous age. The return of the repressed. And then. Donald Trump was elected and the clowns were never seen again.’” (Brady)
(And if that isn’t food for Literary thought, you haven’t been paying attention…)
Still, as we sit on the eve of another decade of clown-induced dread and Horror wrought at the hands of the remake of It… One should consider this:
Anything we cannot understand or interpret, anything wearing a mask and hiding its true intent, anything we cannot see completely or assess the level of threat of (yet has at least momentary power over us), we fear. Peculiar, unpredictable or inappropriate movements, unsettling eye contact, behaviors, and clothing… anything not “right” to our vision, that reeks of the unfamiliar, the “other,” and the “exotic unknown and unknowable”….all of those things summon the image of the ancient clown – the one which made its appearances before campfires to teach us how unimportant we are in the world – that clown scares us.
Because when it comes to supernatural influence, there is nothing at all we can do about that; there is no one we can call. And if it comes from that dark and mysterious place between the two worlds, there is probably no place to run…
BBC News. “Hospital Clown Images ‘Too Scary’” January 15, 2008. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7189401.stm
Brady, Tara. “No Laughing Matter: Why Are We So Terrified of Clowns?” The Irish Times. Sept. 9, 2017. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/no-laughing-matter-why-are-we-so-terrified-of-clowns-1.3209215
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero’s Journey. Pdf excerpt retrieved 10/31/2017 from http://podcasts.shelbyed.k12.al.us/shutchings/files/2015/05/TheHeroJourney.pdf
Little, Becky. “A Brief History of Creepy Clowns.” Sept 13, 2017. Retrieved 10/31, 2017 from http://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-creepy-clowns
Williams, E.A. “Bakhtin and Borat: the Rogue, the Clown and the Fool in Carnival Film.” Philament 20(2015) : Humor. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from http://www.philamentjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/20_WILLIAMS_150204.pdf