It doesn’t take much for comedy to slip into horror. Tilt the camera. Dim the lighting. And when all else fails, bring in the clowns.
Speaking of clowns, they aren’t having the greatest moment, culturally, are they? The fear of them is so widespread that it has its own name, if not it’s own listing in the DSM-5: coulrophobia. But why?
The creepiness of this cake-faced entertainer probably goes back to the caves of Lascaux, but for we, the living, coulrophobia first emerged from the bushes in a major way at the end of summer 2016.
It started at 11:38 p.m., on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016, when Greenville, South Carolina, police officers arrived at Fleetwood Manor, an apartment complex near the intersection of Fleetwood and Coolbrook.
“I was conducting a follow up investigation in reference to residents making several reports of a suspicious character, dressed in circus clown attire and white face paint, enticing kids to follow him/her into the woods,” an officer wrote in the incident report.
A resident of the apartment complex told the police that at about 8:30 p.m. that Friday, “her son mentioned and observed several clowns in the woods flashing green laser lights then ran away into the woods. Her eldest son … stated that he heard chains and banging on the front door of the residence on Saturday approximately [8:30 p.m.]”
Despite looking into these and other claims, the police never found an insidious clown in Greenville, South Carolina. But they did find one in Middlesboro, Kentucky, about a month later.
A surly 20-year-old was spotted lurking in the woods near another apartment complex sporting unsettling clown regalia. The cops nabbed him for causing “public alarm”—an alarm that would soon grow into a full-blown panic.
From the American South, the creepy clown sightings spread like a plague, coast to coast and beyond. Between late August and early October 2016, more than 100 incidents involving frightening clowns were reported across the United States, according to Atlas Obscura’s interactive map of the event. Only a handful actually turned up trouble-makers in makeup. Still, social media was ablaze with the clown epidemic. People were scared.
Clowns, once regarded as children’s entertainers, were now seen as figures of horror.
Why clowns? Why now?
What gives? How did we get from Bozo to Pennywise in the span of a few short decades? Well, according to LuAnne Roth, folklorist and assistant teaching professor in the University of Missouri’s English department, the darkening of the clown figure might not be a departure at all. In fact, it could be a long-awaited return.
“A lot of [folklorists] are looking at this topic, recognizing that the creepy clown existed long before these most recent waves of sightings,” she tells Urbo. “The potential for the clown to be evil goes way back, before Poltergeist and It.”
It’s hard to pin down irrational fear. There’s probably no way to fully explain why so many people are deathly afraid of an ostensible figure of fun. But there are theories. Here are a few of the narratives that might begin to illuminate why there’s not much funny left about the figure of the clown:
1. It’s all psychological.
Who is the clown? Where did this character come from? According to the eclectic writer Joseph Durwin, author of a seminal journal article on coulrophobia, the clown is just another manifestation of the Jungian archetype of the Trickster.
Dozens of aboriginal cultures across the world incorporate ritual clowning into their religious lives, Durwin writes. Long before the court jesters of Egypt and Europe and China were given free reign to ridicule kings with impunity, shaman-like holy fools profaned sacred rituals and ridiculed their own tribal societies—and were accepted, even rewarded, for the acts.
Their antisocial behavior served a vital social function. “Often, the lewd and over-exaggerated portrayal of unwanted behavior among the tribe-people causes sufficient embarrassment on the part of the offender that they will discontinue the negative behavior,” Durwin writes.
Breaking taboos doesn’t necessarily lead to terror, which we typically associate with the modern clown panics. But remember that Durwin sees the clown as a manifestation of the Trickster. The similarity of these sacred buffoons from culture to culture suggests that they embody the Trickster archetype, which tends to be an unsettling character.
“The Trickster figure has always been given license to violate taboos,” Roth explains. “[The Trickster] maintains the status quo by doing things that we’re not supposed to.”
Therefore, the Trickster is always on the margins, a little slice of Other that helps to define the Group. If our society did, in fact, inherit the clown from this sacred character—this holy fool who keeps the social group healthy by acting as a release valve for antisocial activity—we might have planted the seeds of the “creepy clown” when we forced the character into the admittedly large shoes of a happy Bozo or a ubiquitous Ronald McDonald.
Here’s the narrative: Contemporary American culture chose bureaucracy over the sacred. We stuffed the holy figure of the Trickster into the small, sterile box of children’s entertainment.
Now, the true disruptive power of the clown is leaking out through the cracks, terrorizing us with the inadequacy of our contemporary psychological bulwark.
“It’s possible that it’s just taken a couple of hundred years for this process to come out, that when you start to sanitize clowns for the entertainment of children, their subversive potential is going to seep out,” says Roth.
But that’s just one possibility.
2. We need someone (or something) to blame.
We could also look at our collective fear of clowns through the lens of scapegoating theory, Roth says.
“Every decade has the social fears and anxieties of that period, and they can easily get displaced onto a scapegoat figure … somewhere in the peripheral of the community,” Roth explains. “And by projecting our fears onto that entity, the community comes together and feels stronger, feels a sense of control over these otherwise diffuse fears and anxieties. And I think there’s something going on with that in [the 2016] clown panic.”
Of course, the ultimate scapegoat is often represented as an actual goat, as in the character of Black Phillip from the 2015 horror masterpiece The VVitch: A New-England Folktale. Black Phillip goes by another name: the Devil.
We bring up the subject not just because everyone should drop what they’re doing and go watch The VVitch right this instant (although you really should) but also because the mass fear of Satanic cults in the 1980s represents a clear precedent for the 2016 panic over scary clowns. And both events have eerie similarities to the ur-mass-panic of the United States, the Salem Witch Trials.
In all three cases, most of the “crimes” were reported by children, and most remain unsubstantiated. These are signposts that point toward a documented social phenomenon: the community outsourcing their unsolvable anxieties onto a concrete villain, something they can fight and drive out—in other words, a scapegoat.
Yesterday, it was Satanists. Today, perhaps, it is clowns.
3. Something just seems off.
Of course, maybe we’re digging a little deeper than we need to. Some things are scary because they look scary, and clowns might just fit that description. So why do some faces frighten children?
Let’s look at a famous figure of horror, Count Orlok from the 1922 W.H Murnau classic, Nosferatu. Orlok’s horrible features are hung on a human frame. He almost looks like a man, but his outsized incisors throw off the proportions just so.
Even if it weren’t for the claws, that face—that blanched, expressionless face—is the stuff of nightmares all on its own.
Something similar is going on with the white face-paint and the frozen blood-red grin of the clown.
In Western cultures, the clown first appeared as a stage character, Roth says. Stage makeup is designed to look convincing to the audience in distant seats, not during a face-to-face meeting. But as clowns moved from the stage into the circus, and finally into our own homes through our television sets, the makeup failed to evolve.
“Those exaggerated features were designed to be seen from afar,” Roth explains. “[They’re] okay on stage, but when you see it close up, it’s uncanny, disturbing—not quite human.”
Then there’s the duplicity implied by makeup: Never trust a stranger in a mask.
“We can’t read the face,” Roth says. “We need to be able to read people’s faces so we feel like we can judge if that person has good or bad intentions. And clowns disrupt that.”
4. We all float down here, and you will, too.
Is there any evil clown more iconic than Pennywise the Dancing, the villain of Stephen King’s 1986 novel It? One generation learned to fear clowns from a 1990 TV miniseries based on the novel, and maybe the next will cement their coulrophobia with 2017’s It, a feature film this time around.
Speaking of films, you might have noticed that we’ve been discussing movies almost as much as clowns around here lately.
That’s because media representations seem to be a cornerstone in the edifice of coulrophobia. If so, though, we run into a chicken/egg problem: Do we represent clowns as scary in media because we’re scared of them, or do the media representations train our fear?
We might look to the timeline of real, historical clowns for help. King introduced Pennywise to the world in 1986, just six years after the trial of John Wayne Gacy, who infamously dressed as his alter-ego Pogo the Clown. Some writers, such as Sophie Gilbert, begin the calendar of coulrophobia with Gacy’s 1978 arrest.
“The turning point, culture-wise, appears to have been the arrest of Gacy,” Gilbert wrote in The Atlantic.
Looking back further, there was Weary Willie, a “hobo” clown character created by Emmett Kelley, who brought disaster to the lives of three generations of performers who wore his rags.
Emmett’s grandson, Paul Kelley, was obsessed with being more successful than his father and his grandfather before him; driven mad by the character’s “dark side,” he was arrested in 1978. He named a single accomplice in his crimes: Weary Willie.
Then came the first great clown-sighting panic of 1981. Life informs fiction, which in turn informs life, on and on in a maddening spiral of reciprocal influence.
The fear of clowns is complicated.
It’s a complex swirl of real-life precedent, fictional depiction, and, perhaps, Jungian jujitsu feeding these outbreaks of clown sightings.
Trying to unpack it all is enough to drive you to hysterical laughter, to twist your face into a rictus grin, cheeks pale with exertion.