A BRIEF HISTORY OF CLOWNS AND WHY THEY ARE SO SCARY
Clowns are no strangers to the horror genre, with many films over the years featuring a homicidal face-painted antagonist. However in recent years their notoriety has grown, and even spilling into reality with a craze for dressing up as evil clowns, lurking behind bushes and peering in windows. Since the remake of ‘IT’ has been released this year it is smashing box office records and everyone seems to be talking about it. After going to see it myself I began to wonder, what is it about clowns that everyone finds so terrifying? After all, they are supposed to entertain children and be fun personified, so how did it all get so twisted?
If you look back through history there have always been clowns that have provided entertainment, as far back as Ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece and Asia. Although in ancient times they were known by other names, such as jesters and harlequins. Some of the most famous clowns in British history were the medieval court jesters (right). These clowns were employed by the royal courts to perform comedic routines. They were also often employed by noble households, and would entertain royalty at their residence. Clowns later became synonymous with the travelling circus and it is argued that one of the very first clowns as we know them in modern day was called ‘Mr Merryman’ who performed with Phillip Astley’s circus in the 1700s. Overtime the clowns make up and costume became more and more exaggerated in order for it to seen from the very back of the circus tent.
The fear of clowns is actually now a recognised phobia called coulrophobia however clowns have provided the paying public with entertainment for centuries, so it begs the question when and why they became a symbol of fear. Psychologically speaking the happy image of the clown masks the true emotions of the man behind it. There have been many documented cases of famous clowns that in real life have led anything from happy lives. Charles Dickens penned the memoirs of a very well-known 19th Century clown named Grimaldi who died an alcoholic having suffered several tragic losses in his life. The pressure on the clown to make people laugh is immense and in medieval times it was not unusual for jesters to have the muscles cut upon their faces to make frowning impossible leading to a permanent smile spread across their face. The clown is also unnerving to many people because the human face is distorted by the exaggerated make up, but still recognisable. They look just far away from normal to be disturbing. Perhaps this is why children often find them unsettling. When Stephen King was asked how he came up with the character of Pennywise in his novel ‘IT’ he revealed that he asked himself the question, what scares children the most in this world? And the answer he came up with was clowns.
Many of the horror films that feature clowns portray them in a homicidal manner, raising the idea that clowns can not only be psychologically scary but perhaps physically too. There have been a few incidents over the years that may have planted the seed of killer clowns for novelists and film makers. Notable examples include a famous 19th century French mime named Jean-Gaspard Deburau (right). He was approached by a young boy who taunted him so he hit him with his walking stick, causing fatal injuries. He was charged with murder but was later acquitted. In more modern times American serial killer John Wayne Gacy was sentenced to death in 1980. It is believed he killed as many as 33 teenage boys and young men. What makes this case all the more disturbing is that he was in fact a children’s entertainer and had created a clown alter-ego called ‘Pogo’. As recently as August this year a 27 year clown murder mystery was solved. In 1990 Marlene Warren opened her front door to discover a clown carrying a bunch of flowers and balloons. The clown offered her the flowers before shooting her in the head from point blank range. In August 2017 Sheila Warren (nee Keen) was charged with her murder. Sheila was Marlene’s husband’s lover, and after her death the pair had got married.
The list is endless when it comes to scary clown movies but examples of the creepiest ones out there of course include Stephen King’s ‘IT’ the 1990 and 2017 film versions both equally as terrifying in different ways. With the main character Pennywise, Stephen King really painted the picture of a twisted version of the children’s entertainer feeding on our fear and paving the way for the classic evil clown character frequenting the horror genre. Rob Zombie’s ‘House of a 1000 Corpses’ (2003) depicts a brutal murderous clown named Captain Spaulding whose gruesome antics continue in the sequel ‘The Devils Rejects’ (2005). Clownhouse (1989) is another terrifying offering worth checking out. A young boy is gripped with a phobia of clowns and his worst nightmare comes true when three killer clowns pay him a visit. The films ends with this fitting narration – ‘No man can hide from his fears; as they are a part of him, they will always know where he is hiding’. Not typically thought of as a clown movie, Poltergeist (1982) actually has one of the scariest supernatural clown scenes. A manically grinning toy clown can be seen coming to life in the darkness, the stuff of nightmares!
These films and the history, myths and legends behind the ‘evil clown’ and have even led to a ‘killer clown craze’ breaking out here in the UK and abroad (above). There have been many sightings of people dressed as evil clowns scaring the living daylights out of the passing public. This phenomenon although terrifying has mostly been harmless but some clown encounters have led to arrests due to the threat of violence and the brandishing of weapons. It is believed the craze originated in Northampton in 2013 when three aspiring film makers terrorised the town with their clown character appearing on street corners and knocking on doors. The creepy clown even had his own Facebook page and would leave clues as to where he would appear next.
I vividly remember having a clown at my 7th birthday party (right), and even then I recall finding him truly fascinating. He performed magic tricks that filled us all with wonder and had us all in fits of giggles. However there was also a lingering feeling that something wasn’t quite right, with the manic smile and gleaming eyes. No one should be that happy all the time... right? And that is the curse of the clown. We live in a society where we are bombarded with one bad news story after another, and we live under constant pressure financially, socially and environmentally. To find joy and wonder in life constantly does not seem natural, and the symbol of the clown has morphed from something that once uplifted and entertained us into something more dark and sinister. Clowns walk on a tightrope of finding the right balance between chaos and fun, where any fear they illicit has to be masked by their buffoonery.
They're not fooling me though...