An Evil Clown at midnight is no laughing matter.
Love them, hate them fear them. Sad or Sinister, the clown and the Clown archetype is with: Certain hallucinogenic drugs reliably give rise to hallucinations involving clown figures and a clown can be a friendly or a sinister figure. Clowns occur in horror and in comedy and the Clown has been linked to the Trickster.
The fool as entertainer is an ancient and universal figure, present in the seats of power in Pharaonic Egypt in around 2500 BC and in Ancient China and the court of Montezuma. It is likely that the clown or fool was around when humans first stopped being primates and maybe even before, but it would be safe to bet clowning took off with the discovery of alcohol whenever that occurred.
It is tempting to trace a path from the medieval fool and court jester, often presented in literature as the wise clown, (and the corresponding tarot trump) to the modern clown with the red nose and outsize trousers. In actual fact there seem to be three types of western clown. The Jester/Fool who may have been the inspiration for the original Tarot card, the First and second Zanys of the Commedia del Arte, and the Circus clown. The Circus clown is the one with which we are most familiar, the one that produces the strongest reactions and the one on which I focus here.
Types of clowns
There are three basic types of circus clown.
The Whiteface, probably based on Harlequin,
The Auguste, who can be seen as a parody of a drunken Yokel,
and the sad Tramp.
Harlequin was basically a loser, and the Tramp parodies the homeless created by the great Depression, so the circus clown can be seen as a figure amusing because they are at the bottom of the heap in one way or another. And scary as the poor always are to the rich.
The laughter such a clown excites has an element of vicious cruelty. My observation is that the Whiteface clown is the least likely to be regarded as sinister and the Auguste, the most likely to be so regarded.
The Auguste, the clown most often seen today, has a white face and wide grin, a bald head and baggy trousers and is the clown often portrayed as the evil clown, the killer clown and the supernatural clowns in horror tales.
In his book Supernatural. Graham Hancock mentions a hallucinogenic drug that reliably produces hallucinations involving clown figures and notes these give the impression of being automata rather than self aware beings then continues to suggest these may in some way, be programmed into our junk DNA.
Issue 38 of Fortean Times (Autumn 1982) has an article by Charles Tarte describing two cases of men haunted by clowns named Bobo for a year or more. At the end of their experience there was a wave of clowns in vans trying to kidnap children and this caused the frequency of the men's clown sightings to increase dramatically, This led me to think about the 1987 Satanic Ritual Abuse panic in the UK where social workers basically manipulated interviews with children and then took the children away from their parents, and was followed by a wave of bogus social workers calling to examine young children. Since then the Social Services have become more sophisticated and, in the name of child protection have instituted a regime where children can be taken from their parents on the basis of secret evidence the parents are not allowed to see and the parents cannot tell anyone else about the case without committing a crime.
Clowns are not always funny. The evil clowns can be scary as well as funny. Perhaps it is the way the make up resembles a mask, a mask with just enough personality to suggest something alien, not really human. Terry Pratchett, in Making Money has a secondary character who is a clown and kills a professional assassin with a twisted pink balloon. Here the clown is like an expert in Drunken Kung Fu moving apparently randomly but with deadly efficiency.
Wikipedia considers the Evil Clown a modern development in popular culture and relates it to coulrophobia, a fear of clowns, which is common among children, and notes a study showing that children are frightened by clown themed décor in hospitals. Evil clowns appear in Modern literature and sometimes an entertainer adopts the persona of an evil clown, for example the professional wrestlers known as Doink the Clown. Again the sinister side of the clown seems to result from the apparent nature of the clown as a kind of golem, like the evilly animated ventriloquist's doll Chucky I saw in a horror movie.
The clown, Trickster and Carnival
Clowns have been linked to the Trickster figure but I consider this link dubious. True the clown has trickster aspects but these seem to me to be related to the Trickster in Carnival, Carnival being a time and space where normal rules are relaxed or forgotten with the effect that these rules are enforced even more strongly outside Carnival, until the pressure for change causes Carnival to erupt into normal life and effect a permanent change in the world. Carnival has changed over the years from The Roman Saturnalia through the Medieval Feast of fools in which throwing excrement featured heavily, Excrement has been replaced by the clown's custard pie, which is becoming a weapon of choice among demonstrators targeting public figures – well it beats a gun.
Clowns are funny and scary, a satire on the lower orders of society (when are we going to see a clown based on a politician or a banker?) and appear to relate to the archetype of the Shadow-Trickster, where our Shadow takes aspects of the trickster and presents all our repressed desires. Or perhaps it is just that they do not seem really HUMAN in the clown décor. But somehow outside Carnival clowns are to be feared. As the saying goes the essence of horror is a clown on your doorstep at midnight