Clowns. That one word alone is enough to send shivers down someone's spine. In today's age, it seems that whenever clowns are mentioned the image to pop into people's minds are creepy, cold blooded killers. But it wasn't always this way. When did this change, and why?
Clowns have been around a lot longer than what most people would think. They've made an appearance in several cultures through history, from Ancient Rome to Ancient Egypt dating back to 2500 BCE. These clowns had one job: to make people laugh. And that's what they did. However, the image of a happy clown began to deteriorate with the man who is seen as the first notable ancestor to the modern clown, Joseph Grimaldi. He was the first to bring about the look we associate with clowns today: pure white face with bright red cheeks and elaborate, colorful costumes. He was very well known all over London. However, Grimaldi’s real life was not as happy and cheerful as the life he portrayed on stage. He grew up with a tyrannical father, suffered from depression and alcoholism, had a very strained relationship with his only son who also turned to alcoholism, and suffered extreme joint pain from all his antics from performing as a clown. Once he died Charles Dickens wrote Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, illustrating the extreme pain Grimaldi put himself through just to make others laugh. This caused people to wonder, what's behind the mask of a clown? What pain are they hiding?
Enter Jean-Gaspard Deburau, a famous clown/mime in Paris. He was as famous in Paris as Grimaldi was in London. While Grimaldi’s life showed people what's hiding behind the mask of a happy stage clown, Deburau was the one who planted the seed for the sinister, killer clown. In 1836, Deburau killed a young boy on the street with a blow from his walking stick after yelling insults at Deburau.
Clowning shifted from stage to circus in Europe, and after a while clowning spread to America. Circus clown made people uneasy in the over dramatic ways they moved and their eccentric behavior, being described as “reminding one of the courtyard of a lunatic asylum.” When the television age came around clowns became widely popular as children entertainers, such as Bozo the Clown. Clowns had shifted from an adult audience to children, so they were expected to be innocent. But the lives of Grimaldi and Deburau had people still wondering, what was behind the mask?
Along comes the clown Pogo, or who most people know as John Wayne Gacy. To the public eye was a friendly and hardworking man, and a great clown who entertained at children's parties and fundraising events. However beneath the mask was a man more sinister than anyone could imagine. Between 1972 and 1978 Gacy sexually assisted and killed at least 33 young men. Before his arrest, he told investigating officers: “You know… clowns can get away with murder.” Gacy turned people's uneasiness towards clowns into full on fear.
After Gacy, killer clowns became a hit in movies and books. Stephen Kings popular novel It and movies such as Clownhouse only amplified people's fear. Clowns are now associated with fear and death, not humor and happiness like they were in the past. Clowns make appearances in haunted houses, or even on the streets like during “clown-pocalypse” with one purpose: to frighten others.
I know one thing for sure, if I ever see a clown on the street I'm running as fast as I can the other way.