This seems to be the year of creepy clowns. Along with numerous reported sightings, there’s a new version of It in the works. Of course, creepy clowns have been with us in film for a long time, and have lurked in our subconscious for even longer. So what is it with our fear of clowns, anyway?
Stott credits Dickens with watering the seeds in popular imagination of the scary clown—he’d even go so far as to say Dickens invented the scary clown—by creating a figure who is literally destroying himself to make his audiences laugh. What Dickens did was to make it difficult to look at a clown without wondering what was going on underneath the make-up: Says Stott, “It becomes impossible to disassociate the character from the actor.” That Dickens’s version of Grimaldi’s memoirs was massively popular meant that this perception, of something dark and troubled masked by humor, would stick.
Meanwhile, on the heels of Grimaldi’s fame in Britain, the major clown figure on the Continent was Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s Pierrot, a clown with white face paint punctuated by red lips and black eyebrows whose silent gesticulations delighted French audiences. Deburau was as well known on the streets of Paris as Grimaldi was in London, recognized even without his make-up. But where Grimaldi was tragic, Deburau was sinister: In 1836, Deburau killed a boy with a blow from his walking stick after the youth shouted insults at him on the street (he was ultimately acquitted of the murder). So the two biggest clowns of the early modern clowning era were troubled men underneath that face-paint.
Like many, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with clowns-as a kid, Bozo and Ronald McDonald were familiar figures as phosphorous dots on a small TV screen. But even then, there always seemed to be something just a little bit off about them-after all, why would a grown man dance around in a red wig, yellow suit, with characters dressed as fast food? And clowns just seemed to get weirder as I got older.
Clown fears seem to go hand in hand with childhood-perhaps because they represent what scares kids about grownups, the idea of a big, goofy person in your face. That fear gets carried over into adulthood, ranging from classic clowns like Pagliacchi, a sort of Shakespearean character in clownface, to the aforementioned Pennywise as the incarnation of a demonic creature that disguises itself as Tim Curry in clown shoes and a morbid sense of humor. And of course, there’s the Joker, who, while not a clown in the actual sense, borrows much from the scary clown tradition as Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime. The Joker himself was, coincidentally, based on Victor Hugo’s more tragic figure Gwynplaine of The Man who Laughs. Before that, court jesters acted as both comics and satirists, and later medieval fools often told uncomfortable truths about their upper class hosts. Charles Dickens recognized the unhappy life of nineteenth century clowns. So while clowns might represent childhood fantasies, they may also represent the end of childhood and our adult fears. Thus, we have creepy clowns, whose image wasn’t helped by real life creeps like John Wayne Gacy.
So, the creepy clown-lost innocence in adult form? Or just our own neurotic paranoia catching up with us, mocking our own clown shoes?