I hate clowns. No, let me rephrase that. I DESPISE clowns. I have since childhood and chances are pretty good I’ll go to my grave hating the darn things. And I’m not alone in that sentiment.
Millions of people all over the world suffer from “coulrophobia,” or an excessive fear of clowns. In fact, fear of clowns is one of the most widely known phobias in the western world, alongside snakes, heights, and Sharknado movie sequels. But how and why did something so seemingly innocent as a man or woman dressed in polka dots, a funny wig and a big red nose become such an example of evil, a depiction of demonic, and a symbol of sinister?
It all began in our childhoods, where most traumas usually begin. In a 2008 study done by the University of Sheffield, England, 250 children between the ages of four and 16 were asked how they felt about clowns. Most of the children disliked them, and even feared them, including images of clowns, claiming that they were “odd” and not funny and also felt “unfamiliar.” No kidding. Most of us have been to the circus as kids and the clowns no doubt gave us the creeps, even if we did find some of their antics a bit silly. Clowns cloak themselves behind make-up and strange clothing, which, as children, sends a direct signal to our brains that “this is not someone I know,” and therefore, should have fear of. It’s pretty simple, according to one child psychologist. “Clowns are scary.”
Not to mention the fact that many clowns are more garish and gaudy than silly and funny, and their exaggeratory movements also cause children to recoil, not knowing what to expect or how to react. Clowns are obnoxious and annoying.
In another study (yes, people get paid to study clowns!) done by a psychology professor at California State University, Northridge, children were found to be “reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face.” This probably explains the love/hate relationship most kids have with Halloween, too, ya think? Other studies point to the inability of children, and most adults, to read a person’s facial expressions when covered in make-up and masks, thus giving a sense of distrust to all things clownish. Not being able to gage the person’s emotions or intentions behind the face paint creates a sense of anxiety and uncertainty, and on the flipside, allows the clowns to engage in manic behavior they wouldn’t even think of without the cosmetic coverings to hide behind.
Yet children continue to ask for clown birthday parties and flock to McDonald’s. Go figure. Perhaps it’s the balloon animals and greasy French fries.
But adults hate clowns, too, and no doubt it’s the deep trauma to the psyche they experienced in the past, a continuation of fear of unfamiliar, masked beings that often appear to be happy, yet tragic…nice, yet homicidal. In fact, clowns might even remind us of our own dual psyches and serve as mirror images for society in general, and the ongoing battle between good and evil, known and unknown, revealed and hidden, ugly and beautiful. They also serve as an archetype to the Peter Pan within us all, and the fear of “adulting.” The director of talent for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus is quoted in a 2013 Smithsonian magazine story called “The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary” as saying, “So in one way, the clown has always been an impish spirit…as he’s kind of grown up, but he’s also been about fun, but part of the fun has been a bit of mischief.” This mischievous side of clowns often manifests as manic behavior and buffoonery that possibly reminds us of the darker aspects of ourselves that refuse to grow up.
But aside from the perspectives of child psychologists are researchers, clowns also have a dark side to their history. Dating back thousands of years, most cultures have some sort of clown, trickster, jester or joker that employed masks, make-up, wigs and bizarre clothing. Often, as with the pygmy clowns of Egypt in 2500 B.C.E., they were meant to entertain royalty, such as the pharaohs, or to serve as comical relief for an Emperor or King through song and dance routines. Ancient Greeks and Romans incorporated clowns into their theatre as “rustic fools,” characters that behaved and played as children or peasants did.
Native Americans have their own clowns, called “tricksters” who represent the mischievous Coyote spirit and are considered sacred to the community. Native clowns usually don masks instead of make-up and each one has a part in the greater mythology of the tribe.
The first known use of the word “clown” comes from the English “clowne,” meaning “rustic, boor, peasant,” and often clowns were considered clumsy, poor heathens in the 16th century. Shakespeare included such fools in some of his works, such as “Othello.” In the 17th century, clowns took on a more jester or harlequin appearance and were a mainstay of English theatre, when the word “clown” began to be assigned to the fool characters the way we might call someone an “extra” or “sidekick.”
More modern clowns don the recognizable red nose, big shoes, crazy colorful clothing and wigs, with features hidden behind makeup, and are comical in nature. Think Bozo and Ronald McDonald, certainly not sinister clowns in appearance. Known as Auguste, or “red clowns,” these happy clowns originated in the 19th century world of theatre and variety shows and all tend to look the same in general, and have separated themselves from what we know as tricksters, jesters and fools (each having their own distinct look and mode of dress). On the other hand, the French clown blanc or “white clown” was a more distinguished character, and often portrayed as sad and tragic. The 19th century also introduced the circus, originally in the form of a riding school in England that incorporated clowns to amuse spectators during the breaks between equestrian events. Soon, rodeos and variety shows featured either clowns or clown-like mimes, tramps dressed as hobos and bums, and eventually marionette/puppet versions.
Clowns usually perform routines without dialogue, but often involve props such as today’s squirt guns, unicycles and tricycles, hoses, fake flowers and hoops.
Today, clowns run rampant through our pop culture, with television, movies and novels offering up everything from Red Skelton’s tragic Dodo the Clown in the 1953, “The Clown,” to the popular 1960s television show, “Bozo the Clown,” to the guy who sits on benches in front of millions of McDonald’s franchises, Ronald.
But when the heck did clowns become so…EVIL?
Over the evolution of the clown, the exaggerated movements and increasingly garish make-up and clothing began to take on a more sinister tone. Some people blame Stephen King’s 1986 novel, “It” for putting clowns in the sewer, literally, with his horrific “Pennywise,” and others say it was that nasty clown doll in the movie “Poltergeist,” but clowns-gone-bad have a deeper history. We can look to the work of great authors and playwrights for evidence of evil clowns afoot, such as the notorious murderer “Pagliacci” in the Italian opera of the same name by Ruggero Leoncavallo. “Pagliacci,” which means “clown” opened in 1892 in Milan, Italy and told the story of a tragic character who takes in a homeless girl, only to be betrayed by her with his best friend. Today, most people only know of Pagliacci from the hilarious, yet anxiety-provoking “Seinfeld” episode where “Crazy” Joe Davola, obsessed with Elaine, plays the character in an opera the gang are going to see.
Many historians and writers point to Joseph Grimaldi as the father of modern clowns. Andrew McConnell Stott, Dean of Undergraduate Education and English professor at University of Buffalo, New York wrote in his “The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi” about the famous pantomime of the early 1800s Regency London stage, Joseph Grimaldi, whose theatrical portrayals of a clown are celebrated every year in an East London church where congregants dress as clowns in his honor.
Grimaldi wore bizarre costumes and stark white face paint with bright red cheeks, and a blue Mohawk. His physical comedy was masterful, with leaps and handstands mixed in with hilarious satire. But behind the scenes, his life was downright tragic and depressing. His first wife died in childbirth, his father drank himself to a young death, and because of his physical performances, Grimaldi lived in constant pain. He died a penniless alcoholic in 1837, Charles Dickens edited Grimaldi’s memoir and presented a portrayal of a bleak figure behind the colorful comedic mask. Dickens is sometimes credited with the first real “scary clown” story.
Grimaldi was followed by a more sinister clown figure in France in the early 1830s, that of Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s “Pierrot,” a white face clown with garish red lips and black eyebrows that mimed his performances. Deburau may have added to his clown portrayal’s dark nature when he (Deburau) killed a young boy with his walking stick in 1836 after the boy shouted insults at him.
Modern media allowed for new interpretations of the clown/joker/trickster archetype and spawned plenty of comic book characters such as the Joker from the Batman series, Bobcat Goldthwait’s pathetic and alcoholic Shakes the Clown, professional wrestler Doink the Clown, the Insane Clown Posse band, Sweet Tooth from the Twisted Metal video game franchise, the horribly campy “Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and Sideshow Bob in the “Simpsons” cartoon series. Horror movies in particular love to take liberties with clowns, turning them into psychopathic ghosts (“All Hallow’s Eve,”) or interdimensional ancient demons stealing children (“Sinister”), and perhaps the creepiest of all, the terrifying Twisty of “American Horror Story” fame.
Twisty was, in fact, so horrifying he spawned a formal statement in 2014 by the Clowns of America International group, who distanced themselves from this more brutal, negative portrayal of clowns in the media. President Glenn Kohlberger stated, “We do not support in any way, shape or form any medium that sensationalizes or adds to coulrophobia or ‘clown fear.’”
Being afraid of fictional clowns is one thing. Being terrified of real clowns is quite another. Plenty of urban legends exist of phantom clowns that terrorize towns all over the world, usually men dressed as clowns standing on the side of deserted roadways, or knocking on doors of lonely single women. In 1981, an actual “clown panic” occurred when a group of children in Brookline, Massachusetts reported men dressed as clowns trying to entice them into a van. As the panic spread like a virus, new reports turned up years later as far away as Phoenix, Arizona; Orange, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois. More recently in England a highway clown continues to terrorize drivers, even though all he does is stand on the roadside holding a single balloon.
In May of 1990, a Wellington, Florida woman opened her front door to a man dressed as a clown holding balloons and flowers. He shot her in the face, killing her, and drove off in a white Chrysler LeBaron, as per a story in the May 26th Sun Sentinel. The clown killer was never identified.
In 2014, towns across France experienced a wave of teenagers dressing as clowns and harassing people. Some clowns have gone further, such as the axe-wielding clown arrested in Besancon, France, or the clown who beat a 35-year-old man during an attempted robbery in Montpellier. Clown crimes have also occurred in Spain and the U.S. These are perfect examples of people preying on the public’s fear of clowns, despite psychologists insisting that the percentage of people who dislike clowns is low. I beg to differ.
The clown crimes in France gave rise to a whole new breed of vigilantes known as “chasseurs de clown,” or clown hunters, who stay on the lookout for aggressive clowns and costumed criminals. In Mulhouse, five teenagers were arrested after forming an anti-clown resistance with tear-gas, baseball bats, batons and brass knuckles. These vigilantes triggered an official warning by the Police Nationale that anyone, either clown or clown hunter, found with any kind of weapon, would be arrested. No word on whether clown crimes are down in France!
But perhaps the most notorious evil clown of all is John Wayne Gacy, Jr., the serial killer who also went by the name, “Killer Clown.” Between 1972 and 1978, Gacy raped and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men in the area in and around Cook County, Illinois. He did his dirty deeds inside his home, luring his victims, or taking them by force. His mode of death was strangulation or asphyxiation, and he buried many of his victims in the crawlspace of his house in Norwood Park Township. Other victims were discovered in a nearby river. Gacy was convicted in 1980 and executed by lethal injection in 1994.
Gacy created a character named “Pogo the Clown,” and would dress up for parades, children’s parties and local fundraisers in his clown costume, which, since his death, has become a popular Halloween costume annually. Gacy’s story has spawned a few movies and even “Gacy” Halloween parties where people dress up as Pogo the Clown. Luckily, all they do is drink and not actually murder anyone!
The association of clowns with the most horrific and brutal of crimes was solidified by Gacy, because he made real the imaginings of fictional stories. Up until Gacy, we could be afraid of clown killers, but figured we might never actually encounter one. That was the stuff of movies and comics and television shows. Gacy made the phobia ever more real to us all.
But not all clowns evoke dread. In a study published in the January 2013 issue of “Journal of Health Psychology,” the presence of “therapy clowns” actually helped reduce pre-operative anxiety in children being prepped for various surgeries. Another 2011 study in the “Natural Medicine Journal” showed significant improvement in children with respiratory illnesses after they played with therapeutic clowns. I looked up therapeutic clowns and they apparently use gentle play, spontaneous humor and fun activities, as well as less garish make-up and clothing. They also engage the children in wearing costumes and make-up to create less of a barrier between the clown and the child.
But I still don’t like them. They are still clowns.
Our collective fear of clowns is a basic part of our human psyche. We fear, and just plain don’t approve of, anything hidden or masked. We cringe at the inconsistency of a colorful clown with a terrible frown (forgive the rhyming!). We respond on a deep subconscious level to our childhood anxieties of the unknown, especially humans that don’t look normal. Think grown up stranger-danger. And we recoil at the modern media’s distortions of happy, bumbling clowns into diabolical, horrific, pointy-teethed killers who lurk in sewers and inside closets.
Then there are those clowns that really exist in houses just like the one next door, stealing our innocence with crimes of such brutality, it makes the mind spin.
“Clowns are frightening and unknowable,” Dr. Penny Curtis of the University of Sheffield says. They are an exaggeration of what we deem normal, and in that sense, an aberration.
Especially when they’re found under your bed.
Marie D. Jones is the author of several books about the paranormal, metaphysics, and cutting-edge science (many coauthored with Larry Flaxman), including PSIence, The Déjà vu Enigma, Destiny vs. Choice: The Scientific and Spiritual Evidence Behind Fate and Free Will,11:11 The Time Prompt Phenomenon and Mind Wars. She has appeared on more than 1,000 radio shows worldwide, and on television, most recently on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series. Her website is mariedjones.com.