Clowns in the Moonlight
The Rise of the Evil Clown
Cole Porter once famously wrote "all the world loves a clown"...but do we?
We live in age of smashed illusions. Iconic emblems, once beacons of respect and tradition have been exposed and found wanting. From the Royal Family to the priesthood, a veil of awe has been ripped away and the stark humanity behind is now all too visible. Could it be that modern audiences are too cynical to take anything at face value any more…even the seemingly innocuous vision of a clown? Over the past few decades there has been a steady growth in the public perception of the clown as an object of menace and suspicion.
While associations of clowns with creepiness may not be a recent concept, what is new is the way the evil clown has become popularised. There can be little doubt that the bad clown is now firmly entrenched as a cultural icon. There’s even a new word, coulrophobia, invented in the 1990’s, to describe a fear of clowns. It seems people everywhere are coming out of the closet with their secret horror of clowns. Distorted versions of the classic circus clown now appear widely in popular culture, from cartoons such as The Simpsons ascerbic Krusty the Clown to horror rap duo, Insane Clown Posse and Stephen Kings terrifying shape-shifting monster Pennywise the Clown from the horror novel IT. In the modern visual lexicon there are few visions as disturbing as a clown gone bad.
Where has this new cultural shift come from? Prior to Bob Kane’s disturbing clown-like Joker in the Batman series, an evil clown image could scarcely be found. Is it a media driven phenomena or merely an unmasking of a latent phobia? In seeking an answer, there are perhaps three main areas worthy of exploration; the decline of the circus, an underlying psychological aversion to and suspicion of the ‘mask’ and a modern cynicism, manifested by a social attitude of scornful or jaded negativity toward entrenched cultural icons. Partly shaped by popular culture and partly by our own fears, it appears bad clowns are here to stay.
First Macdonalds commercial. Note the evil clown. (Poor quality)
The Degradation of the Big Top
The traditional circus is no longer in vogue. Once emblematic of optimism, fun and entertainment it now carries an air of shabbiness and decay. By association, some of this negativity may reflect on the image of the clown. The 1950’s were probably the last heyday of the great travelling shows when the trapeze was in full flight and clowns were emblematic of fun and positivism and enjoyed widespread popularity. The MacDonald’s Corporation launched its hamburger chain television commercials in 1963 with Ronald MacDonald, the world’s most recognizable clown [played by Willard Scott of Bozo the clown fame]. Since then there has been a slow decline in the popularity of the circus, in large part due to competition from a diverse range of entertainment along with a growing public aversion toward animal acts, once a mainstay of the circus.
A hundred years ago almost all clowns worked in the circus. With the decline of the circus, clowns have lost their natural home and have been cast adrift, left to appear occasionally as children’s entertainers at fetes, parties or as an adjunct to advertising campaigns. Yet even here the clown is losing popular ground. Popular media representations of the evil clown have influenced public perception. For example, there is an episode of The Simpsons where Homer builds Bart a “clown bed”-- a bizarre, garish construction with a clown’s face for a bedhead. Scary enough, but when night falls, shadows play upon the bedhead and the clown becomes a terrifying and nightmarish image. A clown outside its performance context can appear odd and menacing. As actor Lon Chaney once said, “ there is nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight”.
Like carnivals and gypsy caravans, the circus has long carried the mythology of the outsider . It is often perceived as a world unto itself, possessing the faint whiff of seediness and the bizarre. Circus people were seen as a strange, nomadic tribe of acrobats, trapeze artists, clowns and itinerant workers, belonging to nowhere in particular. The old cliché “run away to join the circus’ was suggestive of escapism—a departure from the weight and responsibilities of reality and normality.
Sadly, the veneer of show biz glamour the circus may have once possessed has eroded and it is now regarded as a quaint anachronism rather than a compelling source of entertainment. Although it still survives in its various guises, in some cases given new life by a new formula [Circus Oz for example], as popular entertainment, it has in large part lost both its status and its commercial cachet.
The circus then, and by association the clown, is increasingly perceived as a phenomenum of the past, in danger of irrelevancy and thus obsoletism. However in the case of the clown, there may not be a danger of dissappearance so much as morphing into a new, less amiable identity. The strong visual cues of the clown image seem now to ellicit an alienating, rather than an amused response, from children.
The Clown and His Mask
There are few clowns who would deliberately sport a mask of evil. Rather, the evil motif is something dreamt up independently of real working performers. A clown’s make-up is his trademark, subject to copyright and depending on the act, can range in expression from the pathos of melancholy, through to mischievous, grimacing or exaggeratedly happy.
Modern images of classic clowns can be traced partly back to the 16th century Italian Comedia del'Arte , an improvisational theatre group which created clown characters such as Arlecchinno [or Harlequin]. The figures of the Comedia del’Arte, though comical, and sometimes grotesque in style [often based on carnival masks], were also oddly elegant and lacked the garishness and obvious clumsiness of modern clowns.
Apart from the Comedia del’Arte influence, classic modern clowns, of which the evil clown is a distortion, developed from three main types emerging in the late 18th, early 20th centurty; Whitefaced, based on the French Pierrot a nd specialising in dexterous juggling and acrobatics, Auguste, exaggerated both in features and clumsiness and the American sad tramp/happy hobo, exhibiting pathos or mirth.
There are of course some famous clown performers who developed an individual style, such as Harpo Marx and Charlie Chaplin. However, neither of these figures inspired the same fear as the classic clown, perhaps because they didn’t rely upon a stylised, mask-like makeup to convey their characterisations. Evil clown representations appear to be confined mainly to the distortion of emblematic circus clowns, which are easily identifiable. Clown types present the audience with a mask of false emotion.
Some psychologists suggest that clown features are too extreme to instill comfort. “Because reading facial expressions has long been a key to survival, our inability to discern a clown's expressions (and true intentions) underneath the accoutrements raises automatic suspicions” [Psychology Today Magazine]. This can be particularly true if a clown is encountered out of context. At a circus or carnival the intentions of a clown are more easily understood—he is there to entertain, to play the fool, according to type. A clown cannot be easily read beyond his performance value—the impression becomes that of an impenetrable mask.
In his essay The Uncanny , Sigmund Freud discussed the emotional motivations behind that which elicits creeping horror or dread; "the uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar". The clown is familiarly human and yet is in some aspect inhuman or a grotesque parody of human. He is “ the familiar made strange”. In appearance he is absurd and distorted and in action he represents disorder, creating mayhem and violating taboos …and yet he is us . From a Freudian perspective, coulrophobia or a feeling of 'uncanniness' towards clowns, stems not from the alien, but from the deeply familiar, rendered alien, thus posing a threat to identity and causing a rattling of our repressed and unconscious cage of fears.
A recent study of 255 children aged four to sixteen by the University of Sheffield found that clown images painted on and the walls of a hospital ward were universally disliked by the children, with even the oldest children finding them scary. According to the study, some children perceived the images as ”frightening and unknowable”. The children saw clowns as belonging to another era and felt far more comfortable with more contemporary designs. Nor does a fear of clowns extend only to children. In 2006 the Isle of Wight arts and music festival in Britain abandoned its clown theme because ticket holders were apparently afraid of clowns. At present, there seems to be an almost schizophrenic relationship between clown and audience; that of the traditional fun entertainer and the newer ‘evil’ motif, with the latter rapidly gaining ground as the predominant paradigm.
A Cynical World: Suspicious Minds
The American Heritage dictionary describes modern cynicism [as opposed to the ancient Greek version] as: an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others . Certainly it does seem that few things are taken at face value anymore, at least in the Western consciousness. There is a generalised suspicion and distrust of entrenched institutions like government, the church, media and at least a questioning, if not mocking, of past values and practices. Whether this apparent cynicism is due to a developing psychological sophistication or merely a greater emphasis on self-interest or some other factor, is unclear, but there is an evident need to scratch under the surface of the matter. People are more inclined to wonder about hidden agendas and look around for the sub-text.
As entertainment, the average clown act is relatively unsophisticated. It relies upon slapstick antics and visual gags and may have become too childish for modern tastes, which are being met by ever more complex modes of amusement. We may simply have outgrown the old fashioned version of the clown. On top of this, as a profession, clowning is no longer lucrative, [except perhaps for those few enterprising enough to capitalize on the evil clown vogue]. It is, in general, low status and low paid.
The question then arises…who would want to be a clown? The stock answer, to make people laugh, is not entirely accepted at face value. Rather there is a lurking suspicion that behind every clown is a middle-aged man with problems. Of course this is largely a media generated image and not necessarily a true representation of clowning at all. Yet it has stuck. So much so that the whole profession is now shrouded in a growing climate of coulrophobia. Clowns have a PR problem.
In the last few decades there have been some isolated but heavily hyped crimes that have provided some meaty grist for the evil clown mill. Foremost among these is the high profile case of John Wayne Gacy, also known as Killer Clown . During a three-year-period in the 1970s, Gacy tortured, raped and murdered more than thirty young men. Until this discovery Gacy had been lauded as a community conscious, generous man who often dressed as a clown to entertain children at local hospitals. During his fourteen years on death row, Gacy produced several oil paintings, many of them disturbing clown portraits. While John Wayne Gacy may not have single-handedly ushered in the evil clown era, his story did perhaps confirm everyone’s worst fears about clowns. Not long after, Stephen King published his enormously successful book IT, which featured a terrifying clown called Pennywise who lived underground and accessed children for evil intent through a system of drains. This further played into a danger–beneath-the-surface meets clowns-with-a-hidden-agenda theme.
Australia too, has not been without its clown scandals. Former Peter’s Ice-cream representative and childrens entertainer Jack Perry , aka Zig , of 1960’s Zig and Zag fame, was compelled to stand down from a 1999 Moomba festival after it emerged he had pleaded guilty to a charge of raping his granddaughter. Clowns were fast gaining a reputation in the media for suspect intent, rivalled only by Catholic priests. More recently, the Internet has spawned a plethora of evil clown websites, further cementing the bad clown meme in cultural folklore.
Images of malevolent clowns are now so commonplace they may soon lose their shock value, if they haven't already. Those sublimated clown fears, which may have been hovering around the substrata of human consciousness have been exposed and turned inside out. Most evil clown imagery lacks all subtlety and belongs in the camp, horror/schlock genre, generating more amusement than terror. While it seems very unlikely this transmutation of clowns from good to bad will ever be complete, it has nonetheless left its mark on our perception and had some significant ramificarions for clowning as a profession.
The future of the classic circus clown is uncertain but in all probability the clown motif will retain it’s split personality and become a widespread and colourful metaphor for good and evil. True clowns will survive the barrage and don’t require gesso and bootblack to define them. Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx, and Mr.Bean are all clownish perfomers whose act transcends these superficial cultural markers of what it means to be a clown. The fool in comedy will remain with us, because, although all the world may not love a clown.... we do like to see our flaws and foibles through a humourous lens. It helps us cope...
Berger, Peter Ludwig. Redeeming Laughter : The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (1997)
Bellinger, Martha Fletcher. A Short History of the Drama . New York: Henry Holt and Company (1927)
Bruce Fife, Tony Blanco, Steve Kissell, Bruce Johnson, Ralph Dewey, Ed Harris, Hal Diamond, Jack Wiley, Lee Gene . Creative Clowning, (London, Piccadilly,1992)
Carlin, Flora. Psychology Today Magazine , Jul/Aug 2006, Article ID: 4184
Ryman, Glen. Issues in Contemporary Circus. Master of Arts Thesis (Drama), Queensland University (1995)
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny . [Penguin, 2003]
Willeford, William. The Fool and His Sceptre: A Study in Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience (London: Edward Arnold, 1969)
Dr. Penny Curtis, SPACE TO CARE: Children's Perceptions of Spatial Aspects of Hospitals. Research Report. University of Sheffield Ref.No.000-27-0765, Page 19Web Resources
Crime Library. HYPERLINK "http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/notorious/gacy/bibli_8.html"http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/notorious/gacy/bibli_8.html
“Diamond” Jim Parker. Clown Alley. HYPERLINK "http://www.folkvine.org/parker/index.php"http://www.folkvine.org/parker/index.php