Serial killers. Terrorism. Spiders. There are plenty of things in this world to be afraid of. However, clowns tend to top that list for a lot of people.
Some of those who research this phenomenon believe that as many as 12% of adults in the US suffer from a condition known as coulrophobia – a condition defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “an abnormal fear of clowns”.
Though it doesn’t appear specifically in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is usually grouped under diagnosis F40.298 – Other Specified Phobia.
This number does not include people who are made merely uncomfortable or anxious by clowns, so this statistic is potentially a fraction of those actually affected. However, fear or dislike of clowns seems almost universal.
According to an article published by NBC News in 2012, 20 out of 83 people who commented on a Facebook post about a 95-year-old clown called ‘Creeky’ specifically used the word “creepy”, and many others admitted to being uncomfortable with the concept. And adults aren’t the only ones who are feeling the bad vibes; children are getting it, too.
In a study conducted by the University of Sheffield in 2008, researchers interviewed 250 children of ages ranging from 4 to 16. The children were asked how they would react to clown imagery being used in the decor of a children’s hospital ward.
The study’s findings indicated that the idea of clowns was almost universally disliked, and some children even found them frightening.
So everybody hates clowns. But why? What are we afraid of?
The earliest appearance of a clown is in 2400 BC, in Egypt. Clowns also appeared in Greek and Roman societies in the same time period.
These early archetypes would evolve into the court jesters of the Middle Ages – these were professionals who were paid to openly mock sex, food, drink, and the reigning class of the area, all while behaving strangely to get a laugh from the audience.
Shakespeare’s work often features the archetype of the Fool – this is a jester sort of character who Shakespeare often charges with speaking the truth because, historically, jesters were exempt of punishments for their mockeries.
The Modern Clown
The modern clown, the figure that gave birth to Pennywise and The Joker, is said to have been invented by an entertainer from London named Joseph Grimaldi in the early 1800s.
His alter ego, Joey, would perform physical comedy while wearing white face paint with red patches on the cheeks, along with his bizarre, colorful costumes. Ironically, the man was known for being despondent outside of his routines; his father was abusive and his first wife died during childbirth.
At around the same time, France was falling in love with Pierrot, a clown-like character created and portrayed by Jean Gaspard-Deburau. Pierott had a white face, blackened eyebrows, and red lips – he takes his place in history as one of the first professional silent mimes.
The character was beloved in France until he struck and killed a young boy with his cane in 1836, claiming that the boy had mocked him while he performed. Though he would eventually be acquitted of the crime, the ‘killer clown’ stuck in the public consciousness – perhaps an omen of what was to come.
Clowns got even more publicity after an Italian opera called Pagliacci – literally “clowns” – became popular. The main character, Canio, is a clown who murders his cheating wife on stage during the play’s final act.
It premiered at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on May 21, 1892, with Fiorello Giraud as Canio. The play’s composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo, wrote that he based the storyline on the murder of one of his family’s servants, Gaetano Scavello.
He was murdered by Gaetano and Luigi D’Alessandro as a result of a series of perceived romantic entanglements involving Scavello, Luigi D’Alessandro, and a village girl with whom both men were infatuated. The opera is still staged to this day.
Welcome to the Circus
By the late 19th century, circus acts and clowns blossomed as an entertainment in America. Three-ring circuses that traveled the country by train would popularise “hobo clowns” – sad, scruffy clowns that wore tattered clothes.
The most famous of these was “Weary Willie”, a character portrayed by Emmett Kelly. These clowns had morphed to portray the mindset of the Great Depression, and are often touted as the least frightening of all clowns – their sad and scruffy appearance makes them more sympathetic, and their behavior is less wild and unpredictable.
One of the earliest portrayals in mass media of the clown as a psychopath is actually The Joker, Batman’s archnemesis who first appeared in Batman #1 in April 1940 – this is only a year after Batman’s debut in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939).
The initial origin story for the character is that he fell into a vat of toxic chemicals that gave him his undeniably clown-like appearance; he is disfigured and driven insane.
His techniques for killing were modeled on classic clown tricks such as a lapel flower that sprays acid.
Initially, he is a ruthless serial killer who murders his victims with “Joker venom”, a toxin that leaves the bodies smiling grotesquely.
However, after the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, DC Comics was forced to make the Joker into a goofy bank robber whose crimes were more prank than malice – they took the bite out of the world’s deadliest clown in order to make him appealing to children.
Clown on TV
By the 50s and 60s, clowns began to be silly characters aimed toward child audiences – thanks to the new TV phenomenon, clowns like Bozo the Clown – first portrayed by Pinto Colvig – found their way into every living room in America.
For a while, there was a feeling of positivity towards clowns. They were stars in commercials and children’s TV shows, beloved by their innocent fans. McDonald’s cashed in on this in 1963, when they introduced their new brand character, Ronald McDonald.
John Wayne Gacy
The shift came, in part, because of John Wayne Gacy. Gacy, a successful contractor and businessman, was registered as a clown named “Pogo”, and regularly performed at children’s parties and in hospitals.
In 1978, he was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting and killing more than 35 young men; 27 bodies were found in the crawl space beneath his home.
Though he has never been reported to have lured his victims or killed them as Pogo, this little detail about Gacy stuck in the public consciousness, and he was dubbed “The Killer Clown” by the press. His most famous quote is this creepy remark to police: “You know… clowns can get away with murder.”
Bizarrely, Gacy’s design for Pogo’s face is abnormal, even for clowns – the triangles around the eyes and sharp points on the mouth denote evil and frighten children, and are a no-no in clown design. Gacy was executed in 1994, but he continues to darken clown history.
Stephen King and It
In 1986, Stephen King would capitalize on the growing anxiety towards clowns with his iconic novel, It.
The novel describes a sinister creature that lures children into its clutches, often in the form of a creepy character called Pennywise the Dancing Clown, and eats them.
The novel was so popular that it was turned into a TV mini-series in 1990 that featured Tim Curry as Pennywise, and it was recently made into a full-length movie in 2017, starring Bill Skaarsgard as the now-iconic creepy clown.
It’s believed that a lot of the horror-movie clowns that have emerged are direct descendants of Pennywise. Films like “Saw” and “Clownhouse” capitalize on this trope, and the clown has also appeared in many contemporary horror novels, such as Nick Cutter’s “The Deep”.
Where Are We Now?
It appears to have been the killing blow for the jovial, harmless clown. Despite surviving a dark and bloody history to enjoy a golden age in the 50s and 60s, clowns are now a terrifying presence in the horror community.
And another phenomenon has arisen from this widespread fear – clown panics. In 2016, the USA was plagued with sightings of terrifying clowns behaving in menacing ways. The first sighting was in South Carolina, when sightings of clowns attempting to lure children into the woods were reported.
The panic quickly spread, with thousands of sightings being reported across the United States. Though there were no serious injuries or deaths resulting from the panic, there were several measures taken against the clown.
A Connecticut school district banned clown costumes, claiming that they were a “symbol of terror”. A false report of an armed clown put a Massachusetts college on temporary lockdown. In a way, the panics are a symptom of something that’s been happening for hundreds of years – the happy, jovial clown transforming into a symbol of terror.