Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Everybody Loves a Clown, So Why Don't We?

At the same sale I bought the toaster in my previous post, I found this Mattel Jack in the Box featuring some of the most horrifying clown images I've encountered.  I have to admit, I bought it solely to scare my youngest daughter (Yeah, I'm that kind of dad.  Hey, she's old enough to take it!)

How this was anything but the source of night terrors for a young child is beyond me.  But it got me thinking. There are copyright dates of 1951 through 1963, so this was a successful toy for Mattel. People bought it. Children enjoyed it. When did we stop seeing clowns as lovable, comedic entertainers and begin seeing them as terrifying psychopaths?

First, let me say, I never did like clowns.  I don't mean I was afraid of them, I just never found them funny.  I recall seeing them in parades and they would approach me making silly faces and I would avert my eyes so as not to engage them in their shenanigans. Also, further disclosure, in second grade my best friend and I dressed as clowns in full makeup and walked the streets of his subdivision doing cartwheels in front of cars. I have no idea why, but we thought we were hilarious.

So that brings me back to my question: when did we decide clowns were something other than funny? There's even a term for it: "Coulrophobia" (although it's still not accepted by the World Health Organization who are clearly in deep denial).

Even the Smithsonian has examined the phenomena placing the origins with real-life clowns like Joseph Grimaldi, whose life was more tragic than scary, and the writings of Charles Dickens.   But I don't agree with their assessment that the cause lies in drunken clowns, either fictional or real. Clowns as funny, light-hearted entertainment, Bell System heart-tuggers or even as major fast-food restaurant mascots persisted well into the 20th century.

Personally, I blame Hollywood, specifically Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. The first time I recall a clown being used in a deviant, if not demonic, manner was 1982's "Poltergeist".  I believe the use of a child's toy stuffed clown for the purpose of tormenting a little boy truly horrified audiences at the time.  Today, we would expect no less whenever a toy clown makes an appearance is in a movie.

Even comedies contributed to the cause and effect like 1985's "Pee Wee's Big Adventure".

And prior to 1986's "It", no actual clown was ever portrayed as someone that might hurt children. Some speculation has been made that "Pennywise" was inspired by real-life serial killer John Waynce Gacy, however, King himself gives credit to the Norwegian fairy tale "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" and a lonely walk he took on bridge in 1978.

"It" was adapted to the 1990 2-episode TV mini-series (Yes! Television! ABC introduced this nightmare to children of all ages during prime time!) with Tim Curry filling both Pennywise's oversized shoes and young minds with nightmare fuel; the link between clown and horror had been firmly established.

Movies such as "Killer Klowns from Outer Space" and even the Simpsons reinforced the scary clown culture.

Beginning last August, sightings of people dressed as clowns appearing in "incongruous" locations launched a full-blown clown panic.  While most of the sightings were found to be hoaxes or pranks, the scare resulted in school lock-downs and parental anxiety.  The retail market was also impacted with Target stores pulling clown masks from their racks ahead of Halloween.

And closing perhaps the final curtain on clowns as entertainment, in January, after 100 years, Barnum & Bailey Circuses announced they were closing. And though they cited rising costs, criticism of the use of animals in their acts, and declining ticket sales, I'm sure the clowns weren't helping.


  1. i always thought that the modern downward slide for clowns started with John Wayne Gacy, who worked as one at local kids parties.

    i never got into them, either, apart from Blinky on local TV in Denver. god i loved that guy (did every major city have a local clown-based show loved by the preschool set?). i wanted so very badly for him to mention me on my birthday, but that never happened... word is he was quite the grump, as real-life clowns tend to be. (hello, Krusty the Clown impersonation!)

    oh look, here he is!

    1. I discounted the John Wayne Gacy connection due to the fact that he didn't dress as a clown when he did his dirty work.
      Here in St. Louis, we had Mr. Patches, who by all accounts (except for one incident involving me and an appearance by him at the local Famous Barr department store) was very nice.

    2. well, i don't think Gacy had to be *wearing* his outfit... just the fact that he was once a clown who went on to a murderous history cements the two in most people's heads. i sort of think that's where the clowns in Poltergeist and King's "IT" came from.

    3. Not sure about Poltergeist, but King insists he wasn't inspired by Gacy.

    4. Collector's Weekly has a really excellent, extensive post up right now about the history of clowns. they maintain that hatred/fear of clowns as we think of it didn't hit until the 1980s -- they even have a pic of Gacy as Pogo, but they don't really attribute it to him. but he certainly didn't help.

    5. Reading that article, I had completely forgotten about the clown dream in Pee Wee's Big Adventure. That preceded Pennywise by a year. Must...update...BLOG!


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