For me clowns have never been scary, just odd. For the horror genre, clowns are an easy fix, ready made monsters building increasingly ominous public relations with a dubious audience. Last year American Horror Story; Freakshow pulled clowns into the spotlight with the macabre Twisty. Jon Watts’ Clown has already kicked of 2015 with its graphic, but considered, remoulding of clown mythos, whilst the poster for Gil Kenan’s Poltergeist update is shameless clownsploitation. The remake of Stephen King’s IT has been announced and supposedly bogged down in a 6-month hunt for the new Pennywise. It’s the perfect time to take advantage of killer clowns, but why?
Firstly, clowns are perfectly poised to embrace a darker reading, so it’s no surprise there’s been a flip in public opinion. The clown is granted certain rights to behave in a transgressive manner, his history of over-blown exaggeration, childish sentiment, and disturbing mood swings a socially alienating display. All of it performed through a disguise. As a race, we’re not overly comfortable with masks and makeup since they obscure the face, making it harder to read. In a clown’s case the make-up is meant to offset the behaviours and facial expressions, purposefully drawing attention to the conflict of emotions. Pair this with the clown’s specificity to children and it’s like instant-mix monstrosity. So I wonder, really, when were clowns ok?
I also wonder what the public reaction was to Ronald McDonald when he first appeared back in 1963. With his soda-cup nose and food-tray hat, he was arguably the first televised commercial clown- besides Bozo. He probably didn’t act as creepy as Burger King’s ‘Creepy King’ in the 2003-2011 ads, though. The famous Burger King adverts are a masterclass in how to make your brand as recognisable as possible for all the wrong reasons. In them, The King appears in passive aggressive silence to accost folks with food. Ronald never got up to this kind of nauseating eeriness, but it calls into question the idea of a mascot in general, especially a clown.
Though perhaps not purposefully eerie, Ronald is a thing of questionable origin. Clowning is a full performance, a thing meant to be respected and admired on many levels but it’s been robbed of its nuances. The make-up and outfit were originally exaggerated to be seen at the backs of large crowds and sound usually accompanied movement. It seems unsurprising that face-to face confrontation with this larger-than-life persona would become uncomfortable. But remove the clown from its home environment, strip away the many levels of performance, and you remove a dimension leaving the clown a 2D TV advert. Even the patented image of Ronald McDonald submitted in 1963 is startlingly eerie. Ronald didn’t ruin clowns, but the low-res 2D image of him might have.
Say what you like, but the clown is now a horror icon, tellingly earning a place in the climactic “revenge of horror” sequence from Cabin in the Woods. The horror genre pegged clowns’ potential for nightmarish stardom early on. Tobe Hooper’s classic 1982 film Poltergeist famously brought clown terror home in the form of that doll. The 1990 TV adaptation of IT seems to have cemented the clown in the public conscious and become the killer clown. Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise is arguably the perfect case study in the sub-genre because in actual fact the threat of IT is an amorphous otherworldly being who takes on the guise of whatever its victim fears most. Its default setting is Curry’s camp-as-Christmas loony, hinting that clown-fear is the common fear amongst the children. So even the most famous evil clown isn’t even a clown! It’s a thing that exploits the history of the clown to terrify or lure depending on its prey. Though, two years before IT visualised King’s Lovecraftian terror, Killer Klowns from Outer Space crafted a pop bubble-gum sci-fi adventure out of our relationship with clowns. Killer Klowns seems somewhat dumbfounded, citing them as space creatures in an attempt to point out just how abnormal they and their collective iconography really are.
Indy horror flicks kept the beating heart of clown horror alive through the 90’s, until Rob Zombie’s debut feature House of a Thousand Corpses in 2003. In it, Sid Haig plays sadistic carnie Captain Spaulding, a deep-south House of Horrors host and member of a Manson-esque family of sadistic killers. An animal in or out of make-up, oddly likeable in his blatant insanity, terrifying in his brutality, Spaulding is a very contemporary kind of killer clown. In her essay for ‘Horror After 9/11’, Linnie Blake cites Zombie’s creation as the embodiment of hillbilly horror; a kind of blue collar under-dog rising up to consume middle-America.
Zombie followed up this psychedelic cult jigsaw puzzle with his far superior horror road movie The Devil’s Rejects. In it, Spaulding’s anarchic behaviours seem born of a similar rage to those of The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, embodying a kind of post 9/11 self-consuming nihilism. The terrorist slant on Ledger’s Joker, along with the amplified psychosis and terrifying public displays of apathy, only helped to put stock behind our uneasy relationship with clowns. No scene better encompasses this unease, perhaps, than the film’s bank-heist opening. In it, Ledger’s Joker moves anonymously amongst a group of clown-masked robbers, only to orchestrate their deaths, and reveal himself as wearing even creepier clown make-up under the mask. The fear we have as an audience stems directly from the fear that even once the make-up is removed and the disguise is lifted, we are still left with a monster.
2015 has seen the release of Watts’ Clown, an Eli Roth-produced monster flick with some surprisingly horrific moments of violence towards kids. The perpetrator? A loving father slowly transforming into a child-eating monster after donning a demon clown’s skin suit. Clown even goes back, Rare Exports style, to incept an ancient demonic origin for the clown costume and make the outfit a carrier of evil. Wisely the whole film plays off just how odd clown iconography is, very similarly to Killer Klowns from Outer Space, it’s just less interested in making us laugh. Exploiting a growing trend, Clown fulfils the promise of violence to children in some wholly gruesome ways.
It doesn’t matter how many clowns we see on the screen though, because we’ve already accepted the clown as an archetype of terror, like a scarecrow or a zombie or a vampire, the clown now has its own language and representations in the real world. The immersive world of zombie role play has guaranteed flesh-eating undead their place in the canon for years to come, but that doesn’t come close to the possible grounding of clown fear.
True Crime Clowns
Clowns got a bad rap, we got that down now. Putting deep-seated psychological discomfort towards disguises aside, and ignoring the haunting cinematic representation of clowns, there’s a much darker and frankly more unsettling idea at the heart of clown horror.
In the 70’s John Wayne Gacy murdered some 30 young men and buried their corpses under the crawl-space of his house. It’s a famous story now, the man-hunter who performed as a clown at children’s hospitals. Awkwardly, Gacy never wore his make-up whilst killing, but the public like to imagine he did because it would make more sense. In 2012 James Holmes stood up in the middle of a screening of The Dark Knight Rises and opened fire on the audience, killing 12 people. It was the largest shooting in Colorado history since the Columbine disaster of 1999. When the police apprehended Holmes, he had dyed orange hair and allegedly identified himself as The Joker.
Movies don’t make people kill. It’s impossible for a film to make a sound-minded person go out and murder people, but Holmes’ case does prove the allure of the clown’s anarchic side, or the willingness to dump transgressive behaviours on the character.
Here in the UK, operation Yewtree, the ongoing apprehension of unchallenged sex-offenders, is revealing something awful about the permissive persona of the entertainer. Jimmy Saville’s once glimmering public opinion poll has collapsed under the strain of his innumerable and graphic offences against children. His hair, cigar, and outfits now the costume of high-profile sex offender. Though it isn’t a direct feed into clown terror, it’s part and parcel of the public view towards entertainers in privileged positions. Saville was widely respected for years as a children’s entertainer, but his hospital visits have racked up more offences than Gacy’s ever did. It’s shaken the foundation of British opinion, and the numbers are still tallying.
Google “creepy clown” and a hundred pages of hear-say will flood the screen. Chicago 2008: a clown is seen all over town, approaching kids in play parks, standing on street corners, the news has a field day warning people about a man carrying balloons, he’s also driving a white mini-van. The event seems questionable; no one reports any crimes, just as they didn’t when it happened back in 1981 in Boston. Surely both are just resurgent memories of Gacy, acted out by fresh-faced newbies to their home city’s bloody history?
The Northampton clown, an eerie but otherwise harmless character, popped up mid-2013 and officialised himself via Facebook on Friday 13th of September after months of standing on street corners creeping townsfolk out. Despite the hopes and dreams of a thousand horror fans, he certified his good-natured prank as simply that, a prank. Check out the Killer Clown on YouTube to see some wholly upsetting clown-related scares but know that 5 French teens were arrested for forming a weapon-wielding anti-clown brigade in the wake of those prank clown appearances. Now fear of clowns is inciting “vigilante justice”? Images spread via social networking do most of the work for the clown, our repertoire of horror iconography fires into gear along with that primordial distrust. Though social media cuts away the third engrossing dimension of clowning, it doesn’t help that people are actively feeding the fire of the “killer clown”.
The transformation from innocent entertainer to monster has come with years of clowning around in the horror genre and proximity to macabre crimes. Each event adds to a tapestry of references that make clowns a faster shorthand for chaos and deviant behaviour than anything else. Real life stories of clown horror have given grounding to our anxieties, but this repetitive exploitation of the clown has made it totally unknown to us and that’s the problem. When reduced to a visual, slapped on products, tweeted, and reblogged, the clown is more anonymous than ever before. On the cinema frontier, Clown seems destined for a franchise, The Return of the Killer Klowns from Outer Space is slated for 2016, and Cary Fakunaga’s IT will eventually find a Pennywise. The future of clown horror seems secure, flourishing even. The future of clowning however seems questionable; the craze of their suspected evil-doing a trans-national hoax spinning wildly and worryingly out of proportion.