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A terrifying clown walks in a Halloween parade in New York City. (© Gonzales Photo / Demotix / Corbis)

The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary

You aren’t alone in your fear of makeup-clad entertainers; people have been frightened by clowns for centuries

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After Grimaldi and Deburau’s heyday, pantomime and theatrical traditions changed; clowning largely left the theater for the relatively new arena of the circus. The circus got its start in the mid-1760s with British entrepreneur Philip Astley’s equestrian shows, exhibitions of “feats of horsemanship” in a circular arena. These trick riding shows soon began attracting other performers; along with the jugglers, trapeze artists, and acrobats, came clowns. By the mid-19th century, clowns had become a sort of “hybrid Grimaldian personality [that] fit in much more with the sort of general, overall less-nuanced style of clowning in the big top,” explains Stott.

Clowns were comic relief from the thrills and chills of the daring circus acts, an anarchic presence that complimented the precision of the acrobats or horse riders. At the same time, their humor necessarily became broader—the clowns had more space to fill, so their movements and actions needed to be more obvious. But clowning was still very much tinged with dark hilarity: French literary critic Edmond de Goncourt, writing in 1876, says, “[T]he clown’s art is now rather terrifying and full of anxiety and apprehension, their suicidal feats, their monstrous gesticulations and frenzied mimicry reminding one of the courtyard of a lunatic asylum.” Then there’s the 1892 Italian opera, Pagliacci (Clowns), in which the cuckolded main character, an actor of the Grimaldian clown mold, murders his cheating wife on stage during a performance. Clowns were unsettling—and a great source for drama.

England exported the circus and its clowns to America, where the genre blossomed; in late 19th century America, the circus went from a one-ring horse act to a three-ring extravaganza that travelled the country on the railways. Venues and humor changed, but images of troubled, sad, tragic clowns remained—Emmett Kelly, for example, was the most famous of the American “hobo” clowns, the sad-faced men with five o’clock shadows and tattered clothes who never smiled, but who were nonetheless hilarious. Kelly’s “Weary Willie” was born of actual tragedy: The break-up of his marriage and America’s sinking financial situation in the 1930s.

Clowns had a sort of heyday in America with the television age and children’s entertainers like Clarabell the Clown, Howdy Doody’s silent partner, and Bozo the Clown. Bozo, by the mid-1960s, was the beloved host of a hugely popular, internationally syndicated children’s show – there was a 10-year wait for tickets to his show. In 1963, McDonald’s brought out Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy Clown, who’s been a brand ambassador ever since (although heavy is the head that wears the red wig – in 2011, health activists claimed that he, like Joe Camel did for smoking, was promoting an unhealthy lifestyle for children; McDonald’s didn’t ditch Ronald, but he has been seen playing a lot more soccer).

But this heyday also heralded a real change in what a clown was. Before the early 20th century, there was little expectation that clowns had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime clowns, for example, were characters who had more adult-oriented story lines. But clowns were now almost solely children’s entertainment. Once their made-up persona became more associated with children, and therefore an expectation of innocence, it made whatever the make-up might conceal all the more frightening—creating a tremendous mine for artists, filmmakers, writers and creators of popular culture to gleefully exploit to terrifying effect. Says Stott, “Where there is mystery, it’s supposed there must be evil, so we think, ‘What are you hiding?’”

Most clowns aren’t hiding anything, except maybe a bunch of fake flowers or a balloon animal. But again, just as in Grimaldi and Deburau’s day, it was what a real-life clown was concealing that tipped the public perception of clowns. Because this time, rather than a tragic or even troubled figure under the slap and motley, there was something much darker lurking.

Even as Bozo was cavorting on sets across America, a more sinister clown was plying his craft across the Midwest. John Wayne Gacy’s public face was a friendly, hard-working guy; he was also a registered clown who entertained at community events under the name Pogo. But between 1972 and 1978, he sexually assaulted and killed more than 35 young men in the Chicago area. “You know… clowns can get away with murder,” he told investigating officers, before his arrest.

Gacy didn’t get away with it—he was found guilty of 33 counts of murder and was executed in 1994. But he’d become identified as the “Killer Clown,” a handy sobriquet for newspaper reports that hinged on the unexpectedness of his killing. And bizarrely, Gacy seemed to revel in his clown persona: While in prison, he began painting; many of his paintings were of clowns, some self-portraits of him as Pogo. What was particularly terrifying was that Gacy, a man who’d already been convicted of a sexual assault on a teenage boy in 1968, was given access to children in his guise as an innocuous clown. This fueled America’s already growing fears of “stranger danger” and sexual predation on children, and made clowns a real object of suspicion. 

After a real life killer clown shocked America, representations of clowns took a decidedly terrifying turn. Before, films like Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 Oscar-winning The Greatest Show on Earth could toy with the notion of the clown with a tragic past—Jimmy Stewart played Buttons, a circus clown who never removed his make-up and who is later revealed to be a doctor on the lam after “mercy killing” his wife—but now, clowns were really scary.

In 1982, Poltergeist relied on transforming familiar banality—the Californian suburb, a piece of fried chicken, the television—into real terror; but the big moment was when the little boy’s clown doll comes to life and tries to drag him under the bed. In 1986, Stephen King wrote It, in which a terrifying demon attacks children in the guise of Pennywise the Clown; in 1990, the book was made into a TV mini-series. In 1988, B-movie hit Killer Klowns from Outer Space featured alien clowns harboring sharp-toothed grins and murderous intentions. The next year saw Clownhouse, a cult horror film about escaped mental patients masquerading as circus clowns who terrorize a rural town. Between the late 1980s and now – when the Saw franchise’s mascot is a creepy clown-faced puppet -- dozens of films featuring vicious clowns appeared in movie theatres (or, more often, went straight to video), making the clown as reliable a boogeyman as Freddy Kreuger.

Kiser, Ringling’s talent spotter and a former clown himself, acknowledged the damage that scary clown images have done to clowning, though he was inclined to downplay the effect. “It’s like, ‘Oh man, we’re going to have to work hard to overcome that one,’” he says.

But anecdotally at least, negative images of clowns are harming clowning as a profession. Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep track of professional clowns specifically (they’re lumped in with comedians, magicians, and other miscellaneous performers), in the mid-2000s, articles began popping up in newspapers across the country lamenting the decline of attendees at clown conventions or at clowning workshop courses. Stott believes that the clown has been “evacuated as a figure of fun” (notably, Stott is personally uncomfortable with clowns and says he finds them “strange”); psychologists suggest that negative clown images are replacing positive clown images.

“You don’t really see clowns in those kinds of safe, fun contexts anymore. You see them in movies and they’re scary,” says Dr. Martin Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of the Anti-Anxiety Work Book. “Kids are not exposed in that kind of safe fun context as much as they used to be and the images in the media, the negative images, are still there.” 

That’s creating a vicious circle of clown fear: More scary images means diminished opportunities to create good associations with clowns, which creates more fear. More fear gives more credence to scary clown images, and more scary clown images end up in circulation. Of course, it’s difficult to say whether there has been a real rise in the number of people who have clown phobias since Gacy and It. A phobia is a fear or anxiety that inhibits a person’s life and clown fears rarely rate as phobias, psychologists say, because one simply isn’t confronted by clowns all that often. But clown fear is, Antony says, exacerbated by clowns’ representation in the media. “We also develop fears from what we read and see in the media… There’s certainly lots of examples of nasty clowns in movies that potentially puts feet on that kind of fear,” he says.

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