Entering the McDonald’s PlayPlace as a kid in the mid 90s, greasy fingers smudging the clean metal of a new Happy Meal toy, my breath would catch when I saw it. The life-size, full-color Ronald McDonald statue with his striped arm stretched across the top of the bench, one large red shoe resting on his knee, casually looking out at the play area. I would look the other way, run into the open mouth of a plastic tunnel, feeling him looking at me still, feeling the cold, weird burn of his existence sitting behind me on that wooden bench forever. Waist-deep in the ball pit, I could see him through the limp, dirty net. I just didn’t like the look of him—and I was vaguely aware that clowns might be something to fear.
We’d go to Blockbuster often, where each time I would break away from my family, run to the horror section that appeared to my young mind as a candle-lit haunted hallway, and the covers of the VHS tapes were portraits whose eyes followed me. Always I would find it, stand in front of it, IT. Tim Curry’s oblong head painted white, eyebrows as sharp and sinister as fishhooks, thin red lips, those hypnotic, yellow eyes. The cover alone terrified me, which made me want to see it all the more. And I did, way too young of course, the striking-gold of finding it playing on TV with no adults around. That night, I was sure Pennywise would rise at the side of my bed and take me to the deadlights. Still, I knew my fear was irrational in some way. There was no such thing as Pennywise, as an evil force like that. I didn’t yet know about John Wayne Gacy Jr. I didn’t yet know that a real clown really had killed children, and that that was the death knell for the happy clown community.
Fast forward to 2017, where a fear of clowns is not only more wide-spread, but an implication now contained in the clown itself. The remake of IT has smashed previous box office records, becoming the highest grossing horror movie of all time. For most of us living in the US, clowns have become completely associated with horror, much more so than they are associated with laughter and joy. Last year saw a “killer clown” epidemic sweep across the country, with people dressed as clowns holding balloons standing near the woods or walking through cemeteries, trying to scare passersby. The media ate it up, and article after article burned across social media, inspiring teenaged copycats looking for a way to celebrate Halloween season. To be honest, I might have done it too had I been a little younger.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, clowns were generally not looked at with fear. My father enjoyed the mild humor of JP Patches, Seattle’s lovable patchwork clown that appeared on local TV from the late 50s until 1981. JP was a friend of the family, and he often spent time at my dad’s house, visiting with his mother. Not three years before, John Wayne Gacy Jr. became a household name, and the image of him as Pogo the Clown was burned into the public forever.
What we understand as the modern day character of the clown has its origins in Greek and Roman theater, as well as in common life. In BBC’s article, A Surprising History of the Creepy Clown, Fiona MacDonald points to accounts of a clown-like man in Ancient Greece who “performed impressions of the deceased – at their own funerals. The archimimus was allowed to offend even mourning family members. Lucius M Sargent recounts how Suetonius, in his Life of Tiberius, described one at the funeral for the emperor Vespasian. ‘It was his business to imitate the voice, manner and gestures of the defunct,’ writes Sargent. ‘The fellow openly cracks his jokes on the absurd expense of the funeral.’”
This idea of the wise fool continued through the last 500 or so years, within the writings of Shakespeare, and within the life of royals. “The court jester was given licence to say things that might be rude or impolitic or socially unacceptable – even about the king,” says Benjamin Radford, author of Bad Clowns. “He could make fun of a king’s weight or how young his concubines were, and not be put to death for it because of the clown’s role as a truthsayer.”
So, clowns have since their origins pointed to perhaps the scariest thing of all: the truth. Such as when a friend makes fun of you for something you didn’t know was wrong with you. Clowns existed at one time to humiliate, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it applies to megalomaniacal kings, but can feel especially scary when it is us who are being laughed at. The clown holds all the power; already appearing ridiculous, he becomes beyond humiliation because he choses to humiliate himself.
In the early 1800s, a famous performer named Joseph Grimaldi popularized the look we now recognize as the clown: white face, oversized mouth, painted either manically happy or tragically sad. Humans react to certain stimuli with a sense of revulsion, because something give us an “eerie” feeling. One aesthetics theory, called the uncanny valley, states that humans are made to feel uncomfortable by human forms that are not quite human, like dolls, mannequins, animatronics (think of the creepy robots in any older Disneyland ride). The exaggerated human features of the clown might help explain the movement toward a sense of unease.
Also, researchers point out that the fake, dramatic expressions clowns often wear seem to beg the question, what is behind the painted-on smile? Can we trust someone when we can’t really see their face? Humans are instinctually prone to read one another’s faces in order to ascertain whether they are safe or a threat. If we cannot do this, how can we know the danger they might bring to us?
In the 1892 opera titled Paglicacci, a man named Leoncavallo created perhaps the first killer clown. In the play, the clown murders his wife and her lover. Regardless, clowns were not generally considered scary until the late 1970s, when Gacy’s photo as Pogo the Clown covered newspapers and TV news reports. Before that, clowns like Bozo were childhood icons; there was a ten-year wait for tickets to his show that hit its peak in the 1960s. Ronald McDonald was introduced in 1963 to the delight of children.
John Wayne Gacy Jr. was charged with murdering (and sexually assaulting) at least 33 teenaged boys and young men over a five-year period. The bodies were found in the crawl space of his home. Gacy was a valued member of the community, playing the roll of the modern scary clown perfectly, hiding a sinister persona beneath a joyful veneer. He very literally embodied the roll of the clown as well, joining the “Jolly Jokers” clown club in 1975, a group that visited children’s hospitals, fundraising events, and parades. Calling himself Pogo the Clown, Gacy’s make-up strayed from the traditional, some professional clowns have noted. The softer type of mouth, rounded at the edges, appears less intimidating than Gacy’s sharp-pointed mouth.
Gacy was sentenced to death in 1980, but that didn’t stop him from affecting our cultural consciousness. Gacy’s famous prison paintings depicting himself as Pogo the Clown are almost as famous as the photo of Gacy dressed as Pogo.
Come the following year, a full-blown hysteria swept across the nation. In April of 1981, children in the Boston area were reporting men in vans dressed as clowns attempting to lure them with candy. The Boston Public School District sent out memos warning parents to keep a close eye on their children. Shortly after, both the police and the local news were alerted to the apparent danger. The day after the story broke, Boston police were called to a local park where there were reports of clown sightings, including a clown that was naked from the waist down, but they found no evidence of any such person. Calls started flooding in over the next few days in the Boston area, all similar reports of clowns attempting to lure children. Police began profiling clowns, pulling over what ended up being a surprisingly large number of birthday clowns, but nothing nefarious. Police soon realized that all reports of sightings had come from children aged five to seven.
There were reports later in the month from Kansas City, MO, of a clown chasing children with a sword. Then Omaha, Denver, Pennsylvania. They phantom clown sightings lasted throughout the 1980s, with no arrests. It seems that the news of real killer clown, John Wayne Gacy Jr, as well as the evolving understanding of pedophilia that struck the US after several famous kidnappings and murders of children in the late 70s and early 80s (Adam Walsh, Etan Patz, Johnny Gosch, see a piece covering this hysteria here), stirred the nation up into a frenzy, led by the testimony of the imaginations of children.
Soon after, the film Poltergeist terrified audiences with a clown doll come to life, combining two parts of the uncanny valley into one. Then Stephen King published IT in 1986, with the now wildly famous clown Pennywise as its central villain, a villain that embodied the fears of children and fed on their terror and body parts. Come 1990, Tim Curry would play Pennywise in a performance so brilliantly scary, it seemed to seal the fate of clowns forever. And after that, it was kind of a free for all. The fear of clowns, or Coulrophobia, was in, and it never really left. Just look at the at the record sales of the remake of IT. The popular band, the Insane Clown Posse, was founded in 1989 and continues to be popular to this day. Fans of the band, known as Juggalos, have embraced the idea of the killer clown and live a lifestyle in which they often don scary clown makeup in their everyday lives.
Membership in professional clowning groups is certainly suffering, with the US based group World Clown Association losing members rapidly. "It all started with the original IT," the president of WCA, Pam Moody, stated. "[IT] introduced the concept of this character. It's a science-fiction character. It's not a clown and has nothing to do with pro clowning." Clown International, a UK based clowning group, has lost more than 90% of its membership since the 1980s.
The University of Sheffield in England conducted a study in which they polled 250 children to gather their opinions about how a hospital should be decorated. All 250 children, who were aged four to 16, stated that they disliked clowns as a possible part of the décor, and many said they outright feared clowns.
So, I think its safe to say that the fate of clowns has been solidified in our modern world. Social media only serves to inflate fears around clowns, with the sharing of stories of evil clowns standing at the entrance to local woods, with the viewing of American Horror Story, and other shows and movies that demonstrate the evil behind the smile.
I think of the idea of the killer clown scares us for another reason, and will long stick around because of it. I recently had a really bad experience in a dark, empty subway station, where a man started touching me on the escalator without consent. I ran up the stairs away from him, screaming at him, trying to let someone know I was unsafe, while also going into the angry tirades I can be so good at sometimes. All the while he rode up the escalator, smiling and laughing quietly at me. That was scarier than feeling his hand on me, scarier than turning around and finding him standing so close. It was the idea that someone can commit an evil act and then find something similar to joy in others' pain. The maniacal laugh of a being that finds pleasure in your fear. Sound familiar? It’s textbook serial killer psychology. Maybe killer clowns have satisfied a definition for us in their metaphor: they are the type of people we must look out for the most in our day to day lives. And they aren’t always dressed as clowns.
For more on the clown panic, listen the “Phantom Clowns” episode of our podcast, American Hysteria.