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Creepy Clowns: Terrifying Menace, Humorous Farce, or Instructive Case Study?

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Don’t panic. Or, if you find the whole thing a bit silly, try not to laugh. But it’s official. The Creepy Clowns have made their way to Britain, just in time for Halloween…

This latest bout of malign mummery began in South Carolina in late August. Like a horror movie come to life, children told of a group of clowns that tried to lure them into the woods, loitering near an abandoned house. Panic ensued, and shots were reportedly fired into the trees by local residents. No trace could be found of the horrific harlequins, however. Regardless, the hysteria subsequently swept across the US, with incidents being reported in the majority of states.

It seems like a frivolous story, although scary enough for those caught up in the panic. Yet it sheds interesting light on the persistence and transformation of tales that capture the popular imagination, and of the complex interaction of the mass media and of more spontaneous, local forms of communication, such as folk tales and urban legends.

It is now taken for granted in everyday conversation, popular entertainment and internet humour that clowns are creepy, and a lot of evidence suggests the feeling is in fact widespread. 1 This is partly down to aesthetics. The phenomenon of the ‘uncanny valley’, where a figure is close to human, yet slightly wrong, causes unease. Clowns’ exaggerated make up and large appendages, such as their oversized shoes, transmit this feeling. On top of this, their masked faces suggest they could be hiding something.

This contrast of humorous entertainment and a sense of danger is longstanding. Clown-like figures have appeared across various cultures for millennia, often with sinister undertones. In many cases they were a means of telling truth to power and highlighting the absurdity of overindulgence. Still, the lack of restraint can lead to a threatening air of unpredictability.

The modern concept of the clown, and the distinctive make up, originated with Joseph Grimaldi. His central role ensured clowning acquired a dark reputation. A precursor of celebrity culture, he was hugely popular in early nineteenth-century London.

Yet away from the stage he led a tragic life: his wife died in child birth, and his son, who followed him into the profession, died an alcoholic aged 31. Grimaldi was left to suffer from depression and physical impairment from the hardships of his performances. His fame ensured this all became common knowledge, aided by a biography written by a young Charles Dickens. He acknowledged the darker aspects of his persona, quipping on stage: “I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you laugh at night.” 2

Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s Pierrot was the second major nineteenth-century clown. Rather than being tragic, his story was downright sinister. After being taunted by a boy while walking down the street, he turned and smashed him over the head with a stick, killing him. Much later, another real-life killer clown cemented the archetype. John Wayne Gacy murdered at least thirty-three people, and, although he wasn’t in costume during his attacks, he often appeared at children’s parties as Pogo the Clown. 3

The following decade saw a slew of fictional horror stories drawing on the imagery of murderous clowns, the first prominent example being the doll from Poltergeist in 1982. The most iconic creation was undoubtedly Pennywise the dancing clown, from Stephen King’s 1986 novel IT. He was brought to screen in a 1990 TV miniseries, with Tim Curry’s performance and hideous make up being widely lauded for their power to horrify.

Real life reports of sinister clowns soon began surfacing. Phantom clowns became a common urban legend, often driving white transit vans, tempting kids with candy. This was during the period of social unrest which also birthed the Satanic Ritual Abuse moral panic, and the two sometimes merged. However, unlike the satanic scares, where hardly any evidence was unearthed, the clown stories eventually inspired copycats, a trend which has become more pronounced over the decades.

Bouts of creepy clown mania have recurred across the media ever since, caused by a number of intertwined, self-reinforcing processes. As the media continues to push the trope, more people link their own unnerving experiences to it, or actively seek to use the imagery to cause mischief. In turn, these stories provide more fodder for further commercial and cultural endeavours. Indeed, some claim the recent outbreak was sparked by promotional campaigns for two forthcoming horror movies. All the while, the ‘creepy clown’ has become one of the definitive horror icons. 4 As one commentator recently noted, any other archetypes that may one day surpass the clown in the creepiness stakes ‘have big shoes to fill’.

The internet adds to the phenomenon. Previous manifestations of clown panic were limited to spreading by word of mouth or in the media. Although the idea of sinister clowns is novel enough to ensure journalists have always been tempted to run with it, there was still an editorial filter in place limiting the extent of the coverage and controlling how the stories were framed. 5 The internet allows urban legends to spread much more rapidly. Videos increase the visceral impact. It is likely some of those dressing up to join in the mayhem are moving online trolling behaviour onto the streets.

The end result has been a panic so widespread that Stephen King, one of those most responsible for establishing the trope, felt it necessary to take to Twitter to urge people to calm down. Unfortunately for those that see them as the stuff of nightmares, Benjamin Radford, author of a recent book on the phenomenon, warns that this is unlikely to be the last we hear of those creepy clowns.

 

Aaron Ackerley is a Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Sheffield. His research examines economic knowledge and ideas as cultural constructions, and charts how economic narratives were constructed in the newsroom, presented in print and consumed by readers during the interwar period. You can find Aaron on twitter @AaronAckerley and @RaidersFilmBlog.

Notes:

  1. In two interesting examples, a University of Sheffield study about the use of clown pictures in children’s hospital wards found that the images were almost universally disliked, while the music festival Bestival cancelled their fancy dress theme of Clowns back in 2006 as so many people complained.
  2. This tragic aspect of the clown figure was reinforced by the 1892 opera Pagliacci. This, in turn, was the inspiration for The Miracles hit song, Tears of a Clown. More recently members of the Fools’ Guild were hilariously depicted as tragic figures in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.
  3. A sign that distrust and fear of clowns wasn’t yet widespread was hinted at as he chilling told police officers: ‘A clown can get away with anything’.
  4. It is telling that in a number of movies that feature an ensemble cast of horror classics such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Cabin in the Woods and Goosebumps all have clowns. Meanwhile, in Zombieland, a zombie clad as a clown is the ultimate test of bravery.
  5. Those in charge of the letters page at newspapers used to refer to the stranger missives they received as green ink letters. It’s likely that those that used to write their letters in that strange choice of colour will now use the internet to spread their theories and reach a wider audience, free from the meddling clutches of editors.
Aaron Ackerley

The author Aaron Ackerley

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