The Scary Clown: A Fearful Archetype

The Scary Clown: A Fearful Archetype

For generations, people have feared clowns - and many have used that to their advantage.

Warner Bros. Televison/ABC

A new adaptation of the Stephen King novel It has been released, and with that, a whole new generation of kids can develop a fear of clowns and balloons. But it isn't just the 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry that sparked the common phobia of clowns – purposely scary or just normal circus ones. The concept of a creepy clown has been a staple of pop culture over decades, if not centuries. To talk about every instance and every single “evil clown” in media and culture would fill an entire book, but there are several major ones that have become icons in their own right, so we'll look at those – unless of course you happen to be afraid of clowns, but in that case, you probably didn't click on this article anyway.

Of course, no discussion on evil clowns would be complete without looking at the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker. Created by Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson (though all credit went to Bob Kane, see a previous article for that story), the character was inspired by the film adaptation of The Man Who Laughs. Since his first appearances in the pre-WWII comics, the Joker's design and mannerisms have evolved to instil fear in a changing audience, though the Comics Code made him go from being a psychotic murderer to a comedic clown (of course, adding to the whole “Clown Prince” motif). Usually dressed in a purple and green suit, his face white and lips bright red, the Joker has become one of the most iconic villains in history – and when his appearance is changed to make him scary and intimidating to a new audience, oftetimes it is met with negative reactions (see Jared Leto in Suicide Squad). Even still, his brand of dark comedy-based crime and violence has in some ways influenced many of the portrayals of creepy clowns, many using evil twists on classic “clown acts”, a trait that was popularized by the Joker. It should also be noted that Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker in the 2008 film The Dark Knight created an image of fear in itself, further establishing the character as the most famous scary clown.

In reality, serial killer John Wayne Gacy had previously worked as a clown, thus giving him the nickname “the Killer Clown.” Active in the 1970s, Gacy's subsequent arrest and trial were given intense media coverage, not unlike Jeffrey Dahmer less than fifteen years later. This was uncommon at the time, with the Manson family still fresh in the minds of the public (causing a rise in interest of serial killers) and a general concern over saftey of children. When not killing, Gacy was an active member in his Chicago community, often dressing up as a clown named “Pogo” to entertain children at parties and local events. Well-known and in good regard, Gacy was the last person one would expect to be a serial killer. But of course, that's usually what happens. As many children were growing up around the news, it is very likely that aspects of the story and the idea that those funny guys down at the carnival could turn around and harm you, the makeup hiding their real selves. Gacy murdered 33 people, all males between the ages of 14 and possibly up to 32 (several bodies have yet to be identified) – and despite his years of service and entertaining, he was still severely ill. His nickname and story has become part of American history, a story still being researched and read into today.

And yes, we have to look back to the 2016 clown sightings. Because that's the kind of world we live in, where for a period of time, we had to be on the lookout for creepy clowns. Some theorized that the clowns were actually just a viral marketing scheme for Rob Zombie's 31, a film involving a gang of murderous clowns, or the then-upcoming It (which had just revealed a promotional image of Pennywise before the sightings started). However, spokesmen for both films denied these claims, and several people claimed to have been attacked or witnessed a person in a clown suit around their areas. Schools banned students from wearing clown costumes, police were brought in due to threats on schools and other public facilities, and McDonald's scaled back appearances of their mascot Ronald McDonald (right there, you know it's a real crisis). These slowly started falling in sightings, and following the threats of a “clown purge” in which these clowns would attack people on Halloween night, the clown problem was pretty much over. Of course, with the release of It, there has been a few, but it's assumed those are just people trying to jumpstart the epidemic again, to no avail. However, red balloons have been tied to sewer grates in reference to the movie, but unlike the clowns of 2016, this is obviously just a little prank to scare the kids who sneaked in to see the R-rated movie.

So why are so many afraid of clowns? Is it the pale faces, bright clothes, and the way-too-happy mannerisms? Maybe it's the fact that the person under all that makeup may not be all there, and like John Wayne Gacy, you never know what people are capable of. As I said earlier, I could go on and on about different scary clowns and what they highlight and how they bring on feelings of fear and dread, but frankly we don't have that kind of time. Perhaps the fear is just like the fear of heights or fear of large crowds. It's a common phobia that everybody who has it has a different reasoning. Some don't like people in makeup and costumes to begin with. Others were exposed to Tim Curry in the 1990 It a little too young and it scarred them for life. Thousands of hours of research and investigations have been completed by experts (no not exactly clown experts, but scientists), and they found that many children are afraid of clowns, with no real reason why. I'd argue that it is at least partially brought on by their often unhuman appearance – white faces, bright colors, etc. It is unusual and oftentimes a little jarring to see. But hey, that's just an idea. It's just something that humanity will deal with until the end of time – and it doesn't look like there will be any stopping of the evil clown characters in media until then.

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