This time last year something sinister giggled its way out of the sewers of a small town in Maine to torment children and adults across the world, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, better known as IT.
With his white face, a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth (which I guess technically counts as a grin) and habit of ‘seasoning’ his food by tormenting his victims with their worst nightmares, Pennywise has become the 21st century’s definitive monster clown.
But Pennywise is just one in a long line of historical creepy clowns, stretching all the way back to the 1940s (If not further) when the Clown Prince of Crime, and Batman’s nemesis, The Joker first reared his hideous pasty head to terrorise Gotham.
So why are we so fascinated and scared of clowns? And what is it about these supposed children’s entertainers that terrifies us so much?
Well, there have been a number of studies into coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) over the years, which have revealed that this particular phobia is far more widespread than you’d expect.
Not only that there are a number of social and psychological reasons why so many people get spooked by clowns.
Psychologically speaking it’s been demonstrated that a clown’s makeup is part of the thing that scares people the most as it obscures their identities and makes it difficult to judge a clown’s intentions.
Rami Nader, an expert in coulrophobia and a psychologist at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver, told NBC that this ‘blurring of identity’ can be unnerving for people.
You can’t really tell who [clowns] are. You can’t really see their face. You don’t really know what that all means behind the mask.
This ambiguity surrounding a clown’s intentions is compounded by the fact that we know clowns are mischevious pranksters who are literally out to get you.
And while they may not want to rip you to shreds like Pennywise, the fact remains that being around a clown is something that instinctively puts people on guard.
Interestingly a study into creepiness by Frank T. McAndrew, a professor of psychology, found that the mystery surrounding a person’s intentions was a massive component in whether we judged them creepy or not.
Furthermore, while peculiar characteristics such as a big nose, bulging eyes or a strange smile could amplify a person’s innate creepiness they weren’t enough alone to make someone ‘creepy’.
This implies that our fear of clowns comes down to a fear of the uncanny, that their grin and makeup look just different enough from a human face to frighten us.
Which makes sense, part of the reason Pennywise is so scary in his newest incarnation is that terrifying smile, which can switch from goofy and friendly to the lear of a hungry predator anticipating a meal in an instant.
Cultural critic Mark Dery also believes that it’s the lack of clarity surrounding a clown’s intentions which make them so scary
In his 1999 book The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: America on the Brink he wrote:
At its roots, clownaphobia springs from the duplicity implied by the frozen grins and false gaiety of clowns. The clown persona protests too much; its transparent artificiality constantly directs our attention to what’s behind the mask.
The frozen smile of a clown makes his or her true expression impossible to read—yet another factor that leads us to ponder whether or not they can be trusted.
Culturally the exact origins of the evil clown archetype, in fiction at least remain, frustratingly unclear.
We do know that clowns, in general, are an evolution of ‘The Fool‘ archetype, a recurring character throughout fiction who uses their simple and foolish appearance to deliver worldly wisdom at the expense of their betters.
Fools frequently acted in irrational ways and because of this literary scholars have said they’re supposed to represent the things that humanity will never understand like death.
This inherent darkness and the fact they’re so mischievous is probably part of where the idea of the evil clown comes from but no one can say that with any certainty and there miles apart from the killer clown of modern day.
The closest example I could find while researching this was Edgar Allen’s Hop-Frog, in which an abused court jester takes revenge on his king by burning him alive, but again the clown is more pitiable than out and out menacing.
So the first modern example of the evil clown archetype is probably none other than The Joker but even then in his first appearance was more of a joyless clown than the cackling madman we’ve come to know and love.
Unfortunately, while the exact origin of the evil clown is lost to time, our modern interpretation of the killer clown has an easily identifiable origin, and it’s frighteningly real.
John Wayne Gacy the notorious American serial killer and rapist who sexually assaulted and killed at least 33 young men between 1972 and 1978 is infamous for having volunteered as a clown.
This led to him being given the epitaph the ‘Killer Clown’ by the media and his work as ‘Pogo’ plus his hobby of painting clown portraits while on death row have had the unfortunate side effect of elevating Gacy from a run of the mill murderer to an eternal urban legend.
Terrifyingly Gacy allegedly once told undercover detectives that ‘You know… clowns can get away with murder’.
While Gacy may have been locked up in 1978 his legacy is undeniable, following his capture ‘killer clowns’ exploded in popularity properly entering the world of pop culture.
In 1982 Tobe Hooper brought a hideously twisted clown doll to life in Poltergeist, in fact, I can trace my own fear of clowns to that doll and the scene where it climbs out from under the bed.
Seriously f*ck that doll…
Interestingly Steven King published IT following Gacy’s capture and many have speculated that he’s the direct inspiration for Pennywise. It’s undeniable that there are a lot of superficial similarities between the two in as much as they’re both killer clowns.
King has also admitted to conceiving the story in 1978 the same year Gacy was caught so it’s possible he’s subconsciously based Pennywise on the real-life killer, picking certain details from his highly publicised court case.
It’s certainly a theory some literary critics believe in and Mark Dery drew a connection between the two in the book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.
King, however, denies this, instead claiming he had the idea for Pennywise while walking across a bridge and imaging a troll like creature beneath it.
Still, it’s undeniable that regardless of their connection both Gacy and Pennywise inspired the idea of the modern killer clown and are both responsible, culturally at least for why people are still so frightened of clowns.
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