“There’s nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight” –Lon Chaney
I’d like to take a moment to talk about evil clowns. And by evil clowns, I simply mean clowns. One must respect the diverse and proud historical traditions of clowning that date back to the earliest recorded memories of our species (clear records have been found describing ancient clowns in 5th Dynasty Egypt at about 2400 B.C.). No really, one must respect them, unless you want a ludicrously small car arriving at your house and disgorging an improbably large number of angry harlequins on your doorstep. Those water-squirting flowers can take out an eye and the big, floppy shoes are ingeniously designed for superior kicking of the posterior. But somewhere along the way, the comical, self-deprecating clown who invites us to laugh at him, by some accounts institutionalizes acceptable forms of social transgression, and mocking of power (in the form of the court jester), metamorphosized into a powerful object of fear, in short, a monster. So completely has this transformation occurred that very few people can look at a clown without feeling creeped-out (coulrophobia is the semi-official term coined to describe the “irrational” fear of clowns). Yet clowns persist, thrive, and through their crafty, strange occult arts, appear to multiply through symbolically absorptive capabilities, we have only just begun to suspect. As Robert Kennedy’s speechwriter Adam Walinsky observed, “If there are twelve clowns in a ring, you can jump in the middle and start reciting Shakespeare, but to the audience, you’ll just be the thirteenth clown”. Basically, you will be assimilated.
From the traditional whiteface to the auguste, contra-auguste, character clowns, the popular North American hobo, and the Pierrot and harlequin of the Commedia dell’Arte to the ubiquitous Tricksters of mythology, clowns have come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and dispositions. And all of them are scary. In a survey of 250 children, ages 4 to 16, conducted by Dr. Penny Curtis and Dr. Jo Burch of the Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth at the University of Sheffield, all 250 children reported that they found clowns frightening. As do we all. Scholars have begun to take note and search for the source of our growing trepidation regarding clowns. “Clown repulsion is a manifestation of the creeping suspicion that the clown’s happy face is Jekyll to a far darker Hyde: an embittered alcoholic with one foot in the grave, perhaps, or a sadistic sexual predator and remorseless killer. But the deepest (if not the darkest) secret concealed in the clown’s painted-on smile is our own mortality—the mocking, mirthless grin of the death’s head. Clown ‘mouths carved into artificial smiles’ horrify because they embalm a spontaneous expression of happiness; the only other time a human smile freezes is when the mortician fixes it in place, for display in an open casket. Whiteface is just a death mask with a sense of humor” (Dery, 1999, p75). That’s a pretty serious condemnation of clowns suggestive of a traumatic circus experience or backyard birthday gone wrong, nonetheless, it does exemplify the growing paranoia that clowns are out to get us, or as Dave Louapre and Dan Sweetman remarked in A Cotton Candy Autopsy, “What is it about clowns? They seem to be a happy enough bunch delighted to suffer a pie-in-the-face or seltzer-down-the-pants just to make us laugh. But what dark compulsion drives the men to hide behind their painted-on smiles and big rubber noses? What madness turns a man into a clown?”
The past few decades have provided us with a few shining examples of clowns gone wrong (both real and fictional), from serial killer John Wayne Gacy, to Stephen King’s Pennywise, Batman’s Joker, Spawn’s Violator, the Simpson’s Sideshow Bob, to Detroit’s hip-hop horrorcore Insane Clown Posse, all of which either use the clown as a preformed horror meme, or were actually indisputably horrible. The prominence of the evil clown trope in modern media has led many scholars to conclude that the evil clown is an icon of the modern era, but Edgar Allen Poe wrote about evil clowns in the 19th Century, and we all know about Ruggero Leoncavallo’s murderous clown Pagliacci (mostly through Seinfeld’s “Crazy” Joe Davola, it’s not like anybody can actually stay awake through an opera). The evil clown obviously has a suspiciously long history that predates television, a time period we prefer to consider mythological. So, what’s up with this clown? Or rather, these clowns? Why is it that, when we see a clown in public, we don’t think how wonderful it will be for the kids, rather we assume he has some nefarious purpose that involves a machete, a ghastly grin, and cackling laughter?
Perhaps we should turn to a clown for an answer. Jon Davison, Director of Studies at the Escola de Clown de Barcelona (practicing clown and noted clown theorist), in musing on the phenomenology of the clown suggested that “Clown logic does not have an essential meaning other than to contradict the environment in which the clown appears,” be that contradiction of social rules of behavior or the rules of a narrative genre. Clowns know no boundaries. Clowns are the physical representation of transgression. Murder and mayhem are pretty much at the pinnacle of transgression in civilized society. Thus, it’s not a stretch for the clown, whose modus operandi is rule-breaking and stepping over the edge of the normative to get a laugh, to lapse into violation of the “thou shall not kill” kind of prohibitions, symbolically, and enjoy himself all the while. Except of course, for those notably sad clowns, who we sort of expected to snap anyway given years of chronic depression punctuated by instances of public humiliation. Mockery is monstrous, just as the grotesques depicted in the marginalia of medieval illuminated manuscripts often subverted the message of the text, so too does the unbounded clown mock our social norms. And when social norms are in danger of violation, they make themselves a monster. Before you know it, evil clowns are wandering the highways looking for children to kidnap and boundaries to violate. And nobody finds them funny anymore. Of course, the whole question about the symbolic significance of an evil clown is moot, if you happen to encounter one in a dark alley after midnight, best encapsulated by Jack Handy’s admission that, “To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kinda scary. I’ve wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad.”
Dery, Mark. The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1999.