There has been a spate of incidents recently in which people dress up as scary-looking clowns and hang around creepy places hoping to frighten people. This is nothing new; when I was in high school, I would occasionally make myself up as a werewolf and hide in the bushes to jump out at passersby, because I was a weird kid who found it fun. What’s new is the level of fear and distress being displayed in response to what’s obviously a juvenile prank.
(Full disclosure: I am a clown. When I was 14 years old, I learned to twist balloon animals, and for a number of years I successfully avoided working the obligatory teenage fast food job by putting on clown makeup and acting like an idiot at parties, parades, corporate events, restaurants, and store openings. I was wearing a clown costume the first time I met the woman who became my wife. I still occasionally put on the ol’ red nose and twist balloons for charity events every so often, and I am the organizer of Pasadena’s annual “Running of the Clowns” flashmob event.)
Back when I was in the clown racket, coulrophobia (fear of clowns) was exceptionally rare, at least in my experience, and almost entirely confined to children under the age of 5. Clowns can be scary to little kids; it’s a new experience for them. All that big bright hair, the weird face, loud clothes, often a lot of noise, and it can upset a child. That’s why some clowns begin their performance by applying their makeup and putting on their costume in front of the audience, so that the children will see that a clown is just a kind of performer.
A real clown is a type of comedian who uses physical comedy such as falling down and getting hit with things for humorous effect; they are performers, the same as a singer or magician, putting on an act to entertain people. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy were all classic clowns, even without the makeup. Marcel Marceau was a clown. Robin Williams was a clown. The Three Stooges were clowns. Jim Carrey often uses traditional clown comedy.
In the real world, there is simply no such thing as a killer clown, just as there are no real zombies or vampires. So where did all this clown terror come from? I blame two things: (1) the near-total disappearance of costumed clowns as children’s entertainment, and (2) Stephen King.
The circus isn’t the same sort of entertainment mainstay that it once was; of the remaining few circuses still operating, most have abandoned the big top tent, performing in stadiums and sports arenas, and they’ve abandoned most of the traditional tropes and trappings, moving to more elegant and sophisticated presentations in the mold of Cirque du Soliel. Clowns as clowns just aren’t a big part of that world, and even if they were, attendance at circuses is down from what it was 30 or 40 years ago. Back when our entertainment choices were more restricted, the circus coming to town was a big deal, a once-a-year event that every kid in town would get excited about. Not so much anymore. For some kids, the only clown they’ve ever seen is Ronald McDonald.
It’s worth noting that when Ray Bradbury invented his own creepy-scary-nightmare-circus in Something Wicked This Way Comes, he didn’t even include any clowns. They weren’t scary, so they detracted from the mood he was creating. But Stephen King did what he does best; he took an ordinary, harmless thing and made it scary. Just as he did with a scary dog in Cujo, a scary car in Christine, a scary teenage nerd girl in Carrie, and a scary hotel in The Shining, King, in his novel, It, created a scary clown, Pennywise, and with it invented a whole new category of horror character. Once King set the prototype, a great many other authors and filmmakers grabbed his concept and ran with it, and with real clowns no longer a prominent part of the entertainment world, the ironic twist character soon became the archetype. The result is that clowns have, in a very short period of time, transitioned from being the most harmless and least frightening characters possible to being the most terrifying thing imaginable.
In the current fad, some people, including newscasters and police spokesmen who should know better, are carrying on as if axe-wielding killer clowns are an actual threat, an evil entity that actually kills people, and not a fantasy character from horror stories. Police are treating these pranks as if they were some new form of terrorism, instead of recognizing it as a bunch of goofy kids jumping out and yelling “boo” at people.
Certainly the police should investigate reports of these incidents, because, as Bill Murray’s Quick Change taught us, a clown costume (or indeed any costume) can help to facilitate a crime. But let’s keep a cool head about it, okay? Here’s a suggestion: When you read an account of “creepy clowns terrorizing your neighborhood,” substitute the word werewolves for creepy clowns and read it again. Does it sound ridiculous? It should. Creepy killer clowns are every bit as imaginary as werewolves, and we shouldn’t be getting worked up about them.
And yet, this week at least four or five GeekDad and GeekMom contributors, spread across the US, have said that their children came home from school upset because they had been told that clowns were killing people in their city. In some cases, they had been told this by supposedly responsible adults.
Let’s get it clear. It’s not happening. It has never happened. The one incident of a known serial killer with a clown connection was John Wayne Gacy, who killed a number of children back in the 1970s, and who had previously worked as a clown and sometimes drew portraits of clowns in imitation of the paintings of Red Skelton. But Gacy never killed anyone while dressed as a clown. He wasn’t a scary creepy clown, other than the fact that he was a scary and creepy person. It was the stark contrast between his actions and his former job that caught people’s attention, because back in the ’70s clowns were not regarded as scary or threatening at all, and the idea of a man who worked as an innocent entertainment character committing heinous crimes was horrifying because it was so unexpected.
When your child tells you that clowns are killing people, inform them it’s not true, nobody is being killed, that teenage pranksters are dressing up as scary clowns in order to scare people, and the best way to respond is to not be afraid. They are not, as one report said, “trying to lure children” anywhere. They are pretending to do so, making “come here” gestures while dressing and acting in such a way that nobody would ever comply. They want people to scream and run because they think that’s funny. [Editor’s note: And in many cases, it’s not even true that there are people dressed up as clowns, and it is only the rumor itself that has been making its way across the country.]
A few years ago, I wrote an essay about Halloween, which I updated a few times and which eventually was republished here at GeekDad last year. It may be time for another look at it, because it reminds us that when we get frightened, and then project our fears onto our children, we don’t help them or do them any favors. As the old British WWII motto said, “Keep calm and carry on.” Even if you’re afraid of clowns yourself, even if Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise scared you awake for days when you were a kid, there is no good that can come of teaching your children to also be afraid of archaic children’s entertainment or anything else that’s only scary because it showed up in a horror movie.
On the other hand, this scary clown meme provides a great opportunity to teach your children a lot of helpful things. You can teach them to face and handle their fears by recognizing how little actual threat is involved in teenagers dressing as monsters for kicks. You can teach them about physical comedy and show them classic clown routines like the Three Stooges, the Three Amigos or most Warner Bros. cartoons. You can teach them about the history of clowns, going all the way back to ancient Egypt, or the tradition of clowns as the speakers of truth, as portrayed by Touchstone (As You Like It), The Fool (King Lear), Feste (Twelfth Night) and Shakespeare’s other clowns. You can teach them about real clowns like Emmett Kelly and Red Skelton, and show them that clowns are nothing to be afraid of, which is precisely why they were turned into horror movie monsters in the first place.