Given the recent epidemic of sinister clown sightings across the United States, as well as the fact that I recently sat down and watched the 2014 Eli Roth-produced movie Clown, I thought I would research why the idea of an evil clown is so pervasive to our culture.
In the Beginning
Clowns have appeared in most cultures throughout history. The earliest documented clowns go back to ancient Egypt, some time around 2500 to 2400 BCE. Clowns were also around in ancient Greek and Roman societies. These clowns would eventually evolve into the court jesters of medieval Europe, who “would openly mock sex, food, drink, and the monarchy, all while behaving maniacally for a laugh.”
Andrew McConnell Stott, Dean of Undergraduate Education and English professor at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, has researched the idea of dark clowns and is considered something of an expert on the subject. Of the court jesters, he said, “The medieval fool was continually reminding us of our mortality, our animal nature, of how unreasonable and petty we can be.” He also speaks on the jesters of Shakespeare, saying of them that they “were often linked to death and dark truths. King Lear’s fool wanders around reminding everyone that they’re not as clever as they think they are while talking in contorted double speak to undermine our sense of what we think is going on.”
Steven Schlozman, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, also comments on the court jester and how it might feed into the modern vision of a scary clown. He said, “Clowns in the Middle Ages, if they didn’t make the king laugh, they paid a pretty steep price. A lot of the jesters were mutilated to make them smile all the time. They would have the muscles cut that enabled the mouth to frown.”
The modern idea of a clown is attributed to Joseph Grimaldi. Grimaldi created the classic image of a clown, with the white face makeup and colorful hair, and used a lot of physical comedy in his act. However, outside of his act, Grimaldi’s life was a series of hardships. He suffered from depression, his first wife died in childbirth, and his son, who was also a clown, died of alcoholism at the age of 31. In addition, Grimaldi’s slapstick routines had left him disabled and permanently in pain. He once famously said, “I am grim all day, but I make you laugh at night.”
After his death, Grimaldi’s memoirs were edited by Charles Dickens. Dickens put his own spin on the lives of Grimaldi and his son, and his version of the account became popular. Andrew Stott claims that Dickens’ take on the Grimaldis was the beginning of the idea of the scary clown.
France’s counterpart to Grimaldi, Jean-Gaspard Deburau, known by his stage name Pierrot, was also likely responsible in part for the scary clown image. In 1836, he hit and killed a boy with his walking stick for shouting insults at him, though he was ultimately acquitted for the murder.
By the late 1800s, clowns had become a staple in circuses. French literary critic Edmond de Congourt said of them 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 remind one of the courtyard of a lunatic asylum.”
Andrew Stott points out that clowns have had a dark side to them from the very beginning, and the modern version of an evil clown is simply another manifestation of that darkness. David Kiser, the director of talent for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus agrees, saying that there has always been a darker edge to clowns. He continues that the characters always reflected society’s perversion, with their brand of comedy coming from their appetites for food, drink, and sex, as well as their manic behavior.
In modern times, many things have contributed to the image of clowns being scary. One contributor was the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who notoriously was also a registered clown by the name of Pogo. He was nicknamed the “Killer Clown” though he didn’t actually commit his crimes while wearing his clown costume. He embraced the nickname, and while in prison he painted many pictures of clowns, including some self-portraits of him dressed as Pogo. Gacy famously said, “You know…clowns can get away with murder.”
Some researchers believe there was an increase in cases of coulrophobia in the 80s and 90s. During this period, Stephen King’s novel It was released and turned into a TV miniseries. The idea of a killer clown in media has continued into the modern day, with movies like 2014’s Clown and TV shows like American Horror Story: Freakshow. In American Horror Story’s case, the portrayal of the murderous clown Twisty was evidently so offensive that it sparked outrage from Clowns of America International.
Many theories point to the fear of clowns being linked directly to their face makeup. Wolfgang M. Zucker, author of the article “The Image of the Clown,” pointed out that there are similarities between the appearance of clowns and cultural depictions of demons. Stott also has opinions on the subject of clown faces. He has said, “Where there is mystery, it’s supposed to be evil, so we think, ‘What are you hiding?'”
It has been found that adults who are scared of clowns find the inability to read emotions through the clown makeup unsettling. Dr. Ronald Doctor, a professor of psychology at California State University, says, “Kids around two or so are very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face. This early negative response to a clown can lead to a lifelong fear through to adulthood.”
Clowns also may fall under the uncanny valley effect. Steven Schlozman says, “The uncanny explains a lot of horror tropes, where you look at something and it’s not quite right – like a human face that’s decomposing. It’s recognizable, but just enough away from normal to scare you.” British horror writer Ramsey Campbell has said, “It is the fear of the mask, the fact that it doesn’t change and is relentlessly comical.”
Stott has also said that the idea of “stranger danger” has contributed to people’s fear of clowns in general. He says, “We’ve come to question the sexual motivation of somebody dressing as a clown, of grown men who choose to dress in a full clown costume. There’s something tragically unfunny about the vast majority of people who do clowning.” He adds, “Many phobias are built from this braiding together of various different ideas of the unknown that are also connected to the traumatic experience in childhood. The idea of a reckless anarchic clown has mixed in with our fear of strangers around children.”
Dr. Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, has said of the fear of clowns, “You don’t really see clowns in those kinds of safe, fun contexts anymore. You see them in movies and they’re scary. Kids are not exposed to that kind of safe, fun context as much as they used to be and the images in the media, the negative images, are still there.”
Though history and childhood trauma might explain the pervasiveness of the image of the evil clown, there has also been precedent for the specific sightings that have been occurring as of late. Benjamin Radford recently wrote a book called Bad Clowns, which traced the history of evil clowns and coulrophobia. He believes the most recent sightings are a case of “phantom clowns.”
The phantom clown theory was coined by Loren Coleman in 1981, during a similar wave of clown sightings in Boston that had several things in common with the current sightings happening all across the United States. The main things all phantom clown sightings have in common are that they occur in the months leading up to Halloween, reports between regions are similar, and the only evidence is eyewitness reports.
Radford also says that the widespread use of the Internet and social media has given birth to the “stalker clown,” people who dress up as clowns and scare people as a prank. These pranks are usually recorded and spread over social media. One notable example of this is the Northampton Clown. In Northampton, England, 22-year-old Alex Powell stood around dressed as a clown creeping people out for about a month in 2013. He and two friends ran a Facebook page documenting it.There are many possible contributing factors to the image of scary clowns, and it’s unclear whether one factor is responsible over others. The one thing that is certain is that scary clowns are here to stay.