Clowns are terrifying. In the words of the mega-popular Facebook page “I Hate Clowns!!”: “They creep out of dark alleys and scare the hell out of people.” From Stephen King’s IT to (real life, “killer clown”) John Wayne Gacy, popular culture seems to be scared s**tless of clowns. The fear even earned itself a pop-psychology name: coulrophrobia. What’s baffling, however, is how this came about. Why do these supposedly goofy, innocent figures receive so negative a reaction?
Clowns have been a mainstay of human civilization dating back to the Egyptian pharaohs. Since then, similar figures have been found across the globe—in medieval Europe, early America, and Qin-era China. In all cases, these clown characters reflected society in some kind of extravagant way; they were, in other words, manic. Impishness, however, does not equal homicidal.
It was a series of unfortunate turns for a couple famous clowns and Charles Dickens which made that image of the clown, the scary clown, into a reality. Inspired by popular clowns Joseph Grimaldi and his son, J.S., Dickens wrote in a sad, drunken clown into 1836’s The Pickwick Papers. You see, while Joseph and J.S. are credited with creating the popular image of the clown (with the full, white face of makeup and gaudy coloring), they also suffered from severe alcoholism. Dickens’s massively popular take on the character meant that audiences started to perceive something dark or troubling beneath the solid mask of humor. Across the Channel, a similarly popular and innovative French clown by the name of Jean-Gaspard Deburau killed a boy in the Parisian streets in 1836. Together, these events may have left a sinister impression on audiences. Or, at the very least, they created a theme of duplicity, causing people to wonder what clowns might be hiding underneath their bright exterior.
In turn, European culture featured clowns of a darker variety, as in the 1892 Italian opera Pagliacci, wherein a clown murders his adulterous wife during a performance. In America, however, clowns were—and continued to be—a popular figure, particularly with children. Bozo, Clarabell, and Ronald McDonald were kid-culture mainstays in the 50s and 60s.
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie has more on how this all changed:
This heyday also heralded a real change in what a clown was. Before the early 20th century, there was little expectation that clowns had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime clowns, for example, were characters who had more adult-oriented story lines. But clowns were [by the mid-20th century] almost solely children’s entertainment. Once their made-up persona became more associated with children, and therefore an expectation of innocence, it made whatever the make-up might conceal all the more frightening—creating a tremendous mine for artists, filmmakers, writers and creators of popular culture to gleefully exploit to terrifying effect.
It wasn’t long before the national zeitgeist turned against clowns. The 80′s alone are rife with examples, from the film Killer Klowns from Outer Space, to Clownhouse to Poltergeist (above). In turn, this reduced the opportunities for good clowns in the media.
Ultimately, it’s the rarity of modern clowns that keep a fear of them from being an actual phobia (phobias, by definition, have to inhibit daily life). But the predominant image still remains that of someone who is hiding something—the clown-face makeup inhibits our perception of genuine emotion and may just always come off as manic, extreme, leaving people inherently uneasy. This kind of base fear of psychopathy is behind such figures as IT‘s Pennywise the Clown and Batman super-villain/general anarchic psychopath, The Joker.
But there may be hope yet for the clown to re-invent itself. Just like Robin Williams in Patch Adams (basically the only positive clown depiction of the last twenty years), clowns have been shown in different, recent studies to reduce anxiety in children and help in therapy. If the clown can redeem itself remains to be seen, but there is without a doubt still a place for the fun and innocence the character—ideally—represents.
“The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary” by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, Smithsonian.com