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Clowns. Are They Really That Scary? Plus, 4 Famous Ones to Remember

Updated on November 18, 2014

A Fear of Clowns-- why are we scared?

If there is one thing American Horror Story is great at (besides the many other things it is good at) it's the way the stories are able to absorb the specific irrational fears we tend to hold as a world culture and squeeze them out into horrifying tales on television. Haunted houses, captivity, curses and witchcraft - and somehow the show's content is exciting and appealing to a large portion of TV watchers, who are taken in by the thrill and fear factor of every season. As you may have heard, the current season has viewers consumed in terror over one of the most common horrors in the irrational category, circus clowns.

For many years, decades - centuries!- clowns have carried on their traditions and attempts at supplying people with joy and entertainment in their funny clothes, lush make-up and performing special tricks. While clowns have been around since the 1500's the funny clothes and face-paint we are familiar with today was introduced in the mid-1700's when the circus became a popular attraction of wonder and fun. But, somehow in their initiation into entertainment they became a source of fear for many.

A Variety of Clowns

Clowns are supposed to be a source for laughter and fun, which is why when children goof off adults tell them to "quit clowning around!". The clowns of the world are dedicated to their professional alter egos that are not only hobbies but serve as an occupation for many. Each clown provides a different type of comedy that is varied by their chosen clown type and the hierarchy of the clowns.

  • The Whiteface clown who leads the clowning situations. They are fashioned in glitzy costumes that make them the center of attention. In addition to imaginative performances that enthrall the audience they start a story
  • The Auguste clown is an interesting type. They're different from the white face clown in that their makeup is flesh toned. Instead of loose fitting clothes they wear form fitting attire and are an instigator of shenanigans and pull pranks on other clowns in the show, ie. a pie in the face.
  • The Hobo clown is also known as the Tramp or Bag Lady. They look ragged and sad, and their make-up reflects it. After all of the hoopla from the other clowns is over this clown comes through and tidies up the mess.

From these three styles the clowns are free to choose a characterization to make them distinct and different from others. They do this by creating lifestyles for the character like an occupation, and accessories to fill out the costume.

For those outside of the clown population it could be this varied characterization of each clown that causes them uncertainty. When you are unsure of what is really behind the paint and costume it is disconcerting (in the same way mascots and character performers are creepy)- you don't know who's in there!

Pop Culture's Control

In this day and age the clown is generally regarded as creepy and although there are cases of actual Coulrophobia- the fear of clowns- most people just plain don't like them. Since there is so much distaste (and has been for a while) in the leisurely enjoyment of clowns it's a wonder there are still so many people interested in pursuing the lifestyle. There are online clubs and networks dedicated to the love of clowning as well as multiple gatherings that take place throughout the world every year and the formal convene of the World Clown Association that happens annually. These groups strive to bring a healthy appreciation to clowning and celebrate the activity with other like-minded individuals, and to outsiders (like myself) can seem both unnerving and exciting. And popular culture has been no help to counter the feeling of doubt that couples with the jolly clowns.

From Stephen King's 'It', which filled two spaces as a novel AND movie, to the opera Pagliacci featuring the tale of a sad clown with murder and jealousy behind his makeup, and many, many more. These fictional clowns have had a deep psychological effect on the public, so far as to say people take more enjoyment from a circus clown when they are rampant serial killers on a Halloween spree. It's unfortunate for the group of dedicated performers, but I think they still have a good time doing what they love regardless of how film and television portrays them. Even the advertisers thought something profitable could be found in a clown's endorsement. Watch the commercial below for Kellogg's Sweet Krispie's and be thankful they've moved on (from their mascot, and that cereal- it sounds not so good..).

And now, after you regain your composure from the commercial, think about this bit of clowning information about what makes a clown a clown, and take a gander at a few notable clowns of the circus and television from the last 200 years, decide for yourself - creepy or not creepy? As you might be able to tell, I myself am split on the decision. How can I be afraid of someone so devoted to something that only means to be fun for all?! and yet.... I am totally creeped out by the fictional entities I've become so familiar with from pop culture that it's hard to separate them from the real world clowns.

In saying that, don't be scared, do some clown research of your own about real clowns, it's actually very interesting - maybe you'll even find yourself a new appreciation for the art of clowning, buy yourself some balloons and over-sized clothing and come out with a new hobby...

George L. Fox

A clown of the theatre, George L. Fox modeled his performance after the clowning characteristics of Grimaldi. He performed in various productions on Broadway in the mid 1800's along with his family of talented actors. Think of him as an "acting jester".

Creepy, or not?

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Otto Griebling

A lifelong circus performer who worked his way up in the ranks, Griebling began as his sad clown persona (the hobo-tramp) after an accident left him unable to perform his routine as a bareback rider. He eventually worked his was into the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Creepy, or not?

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Lou Jacobs

A Ringling Bros. clown often credited with establishing many tropes of the clown character such as the large red plastic nose and the clown car gag. He's an example of an Auguste clown.

Creepy, or not?

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As the silent sidekick of cowboy puppet Howdy Doody, Clarabell the Clown only spoke through his horn and frequently surprised cast members by spraying seltzer in their face.

Creepy, or not?

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Bozo the Clown

A children's classic TV show for decades, Bozo the Clown entertained kids throughout America in mornings and afternoons with fun tricks, games and prizes as host of The Bozo Show. He has a car salesman style in his hosting.

Creepy, or not?

See results


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    • Laura335 profile image

      Laura Smith 

      4 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      I never had a problem with clowns unless they were intentionally trying to be scary. I do have a number of irrational fears, however, so I can't blame people for attaching their fears to clowns, even the good-intentioned ones. Interesting Hub.

    • Kelsey Thaves profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelsey Thaves 

      4 years ago from Twin Cities

      Thanks! It's true there is definitely something about dolls in general that emotes a creepy factor. Especially the porcelain ones.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Interesting topic. As a kid, clowns never scared me, but clown dolls did. Go figure! :)


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