It may be hard to imagine, but at one time, clowns were seen as simply happy entertainers of children, a wholesome aspect to birthday parties and circuses, known for silly antics and bringing smiles.
Nowadays, though, clowns are used often to up the “creep” factor for almost anything. A scary story is bad, but a scary story with a clown? Even worse.
So what happened? How did clowns go from entertaining to terrifying?
The answer is a lot more complicated than just the bone-chilling clown creation of Stephen King’s Pennywise from IT. In fact, it’s an answer that begins more than 200 years ago, and is currently exemplified by the murderous Twisty the Clown from American Horror Story: Freak Show. It is even further exploited by the recent wave of an apparent wandering band of outlaw clowns spotted in Wasco, California.
According to The Atlantic, “clowns are anarchic figures who defy the boundaries of normal social conduct, even before Heath Ledger’s Joker just wanted to watch the world burn.” In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe wrote the story Hop-Frog, which was about a deformed court jester who, after constantly finding himself to be the target of practical jokes, convinces the king and the entire court to dress as tar-covered orangutans… and then gleefully sets them all on fire.
The Atlantic explains, “The unpredictable nature of a clown’s behavior, and his or her tendency to transgress acceptable standards of behavior (by, for example, throwing pies in each others’ faces, or squirting water on an innocent bystander with a trick buttonhole flower), probably makes us wary of what other lines they might cross.”
Certainly there is that, but it’s more than that, too – it’s the way they look as well.
Joseph Grimaldi, an English entertainer in the 19th century, expanded the role of the clown, and is the one who popularized the traditional clown make-up. This consists of a white base with exaggerated, bright red cheeks and lips that are done in such a way as to create a face that is grinning far part the point of normality — and into the realms of a rictus. Alternatively, the makeup can create a face that is exaggeratedly sad.
Cultural critic Mark Dery wrote in his book The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: America on the Brink, At its roots, clownaphobia springs from the duplicity implied by the frozen grins and false gaiety of clowns. The clown persona protests too much; its transparent artificiality constantly directs our attention to what’s behind the mask. The frozen smile of a clown makes his or her true expression impossible to read—yet another factor that leads us to ponder whether or not they can be trusted.”
(Spoiler alert: clowns cannot be trusted.)
Despite the earlier stories in which clowns play the protagonist (there’s even an entire opera, Pagliacci, about a clown who murders his wife and her lover), clowns maintained a spot in a positive light for quite some time. It seems that the turning point for clowns, the moment they went from entertaining to evil, was the arrest of the infamous serial killer, John Wayne Gacy… otherwise known as “The Killer Clown.”
Gacy often performed as a clown named Pogo, appearing at parades and parties as well as charitable events. Of course, he only appeared at these celebrations when he wasn’t sexually assaulting and murdering a whole bunch of people. In fact, Gacy was eventually found guilty of 33 murders and sentenced to serve 12 death sentences and 21 natural life sentences.
He was executed on May 10, 1994. But while awaiting his execution, Gacy painted a series of clown portraits – many of them depicting himself as Pogo the Clown. He claimed that he wanted the paintings “to bring joy into people’s lives.”
It’s a safe bet to say that he failed.
So what do you think of clowns? Harmless or horrible?
[Images via scaryforkids.com, Miama New Times, and Tumblr]