A History of Horror #9: Clowns

"The fears of children were simpler and usually more powerful. The fears of children could often be summoned up in a single face... and if bait were needed, why, what child did not love a clown?"

In the 1970s, serial killer John Wayne Gacy assaulted, kidnapped and murdered at least 33 boys and men. After his arrest, Gacy would later be known as The Killer Clown due to his charitable services at fundraisers, parades, and children's parties where he would dress up as a character known as "Pogo the Clown". This is largely the origin for where the coulrophobia phenomenon and the archetype of the "evil clown" was devised.

Traditionally, clowns originate from Roman and Greek theatre as a stock character known as the 'rustic fool'. They were portrayed as childish peasants, labouring for whatever scrap the higher-class folk would give them. These characters would become the basis for  the Shakespearean fool; witty and intelligent commoners that use their cunning to manipulate people of higher social standing. Examples of this archetype can include the Gravediggers from Hamlet or Feste in Twelfth Night. It was around this era that the word "clown" first entered the English language, meaning "rustic, boor, peasant", however it would not come to be associated with the character until Harlequinade was developed in the 17th century.

English actor Joseph Grimaldi expanded the role of the clown in British pantomime. Whiteface make-up and colourful costumes was already used in circus troupes throughout the century, but the actor would then popularise these designs for clown characters in theatre, which would stick in the minds of pop culture fans for many centuries more and up to the present day.

As time shifted into the 20th century, the "village idiot" archetype faded away as new "tramp" and "hobo" characters were developed (Charlie Chaplin's 'The Tramp' being a major player) which were inspired by the Great Depression of the 1930s. At this time, clowns would come to be seen as comic characters aimed at children. In the United States, Bozo the Clown was one used in many different types of television franchising, with the character being featured in dozens of his own shows broadcasted across many different local television stations. Worldwide, Ronald McDonald became the primary mascot of the McDonald's fast food chain.

While there are many different types of these characters, from the athletic Rodeo clowns to the more racist Blackface, the main one we shall be looking at here is the horror-centric 'evil clown' stereotype.

While evil or antagonistic clowns have appeared in literature dating as far back as Edgar Allan Poe's "Hop-Frog" (1849), the modern interpretation can be popularly attributed to Stephen King's IT, published in 1986, which featured an evil otherworldly monster that lures children by using its Pennywise the Dancing Clown persona, before shapeshifting into that child's darkest fear to feed on them. A television film was created in 1990 and a feature film in 2017 (read my review of it here). The idea behind using a clown for Pennywise was that clowns were not yet seen to be evil or scary at the time, and therefore many children would come to trust or be easily tricked by the character.

Another possible candidate for this modern surge of coulrophobia could be due to the popularity of the DC Comics character The Joker, a murderous psychopath whose key features include white skin, red lips, green hair and a permanent fixed smile. As one of Batman's arch-nemeses, Joker has been responsible for some of the most heinous acts ever depicted in a comic book.

With clowns being detached from the comical or theatrical association towards a more bleak, scary context meant that horror creators would begin to use these new abominations in their work. 1980s horror films such as Poltergeist (1982), Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) and Clownhouse (1989) can also be seen as inspired by this contemporary move. Videogames such as Twisted Metal (1995), Payday: The Heist (2011), and Dropsy (2015) have featured clowns or clown-like characters performing immorally destructive actions and this also accompanied a new wave of clown horror movies being made in the 2000s and 2010s, with House of 1000 Corpses (2003), All Hallows' Eve (2013) and Clown (2014) acting as prominent entries for fans of the subgenre.

In a kind of meta-twist, the popularity of the evil clown has also inspired real-life clown sightings. During 2016, reports of people dressed as clowns near schools, forests and abandoned buildings reached a noticeable high. This didn't just happen in the United Kingdom, but across many different nations such as the United States, Canada, Brazil, Germany, New Zealand and many more. While many of these incidents were dismissed as pranks and social media stunts, it begs the question of whether some of the people who participated also had a more sinister motive in mind.

While there's no doubt the appearance is creepy, I think the more obvious factor in how coulrophobia became such a phenomenon over the last few decades is the association of clowns with murder. When you weigh up different things such as Gacy, Pennywise and the 2016 sightings, it's crazy to imagine just how much these stock characters went from farcical comics to representations of evil over the course of fifty years, but that's the sign of how good horror works. If something hardly seen as scary can actually become the face of fear itself, you can understand just how fluid horror culture and phobias can be.

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