Clowns.The more you stare at their perpetually smiling faces, the more it warps into something more sinister.
They’re supposedly figures of innocent fun – brightly coloured jesters to entertain our children and slip on banana skins in exaggerated displays of slapstick comedy. But the manic joy, the mask of make up and the excessive familiarity are just a hair’s breadth away from terror.
In recent years, films such as Stephen King’s It have highlighted those fears, and the “killer clown” craze currently sweeping the UK hasn’t helped. In fact it’s led to a deluge of calls to Childline from youngsters left terrified by the sinister phenomenon.
But clowns have played uneasily on the public consciousness for years. So when did they move from fun to frightening?
Manic medieval origins
Comedic clowns, complete with brightly-patterned uniforms, were a common form of popular entertainment in medieval times.
But although the holy fool was funny, there was always an undercurrent of disturbing truth behind his humour.
Andrew Stott, an English professor who specialises in clowning culture, says that fools always had a tenuous grip on life and society. “The medieval fool was continually reminding us of our mortality, our animal nature, of how unreasonable and ridiculous and petty we can be.”
This continued through to the 16th century, where Shakespearean jesters were often linked to death and dark truths. “King Lear’s fool wanders around reminding everyone that they’re not as clever as think they are while talking in contorted double speak to undermine our sense of what we think is going on,” says Stott.
“Clowns have always been associated with danger and fear, because they push logic up to its breaking point,” he adds. “They push our understanding to the limits of reason and they do this through joking but also through ridicule.”
The impenetrable mask
A clown’s mask may be a happy image, but it still works to hide true emotions. And while the real man behind the paint could be a smiley and cheery chap, he could also be hungover and resent having to prance about. The disguise is innately unnerving, as is the perpetual smile.
Freud came up with the notion of the uncanny, where an image is distorted but still recognisable, and this concept is apparent in many horror films. Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and horror-film fan Steven Schlozman explains the concept to Vulture.
The uncanny explains a lot of horror tropes, where you look at something and it’s not quite right — like a human face that’s decomposing. It’s recognisable, but just enough away from normal to scare you.
In fact, clowns in the Middle Ages, if they didn’t make the king laugh, they paid a pretty steep price. A lot of the jesters were mutilated to make them smile all the time. They would have the muscles cut that enabled the mouth to frown.
It’s no laughing matter
Full-blown phobia of clowns (or coulrophobia) is relatively rare and scientists and doctors know little about it.
It’s a relatively new phenomenon, (it’s not listed as an official phobia by the World Health Organisation), but experts believe it’s caused by not knowing who lies behind the mask of make-up.
It can cause panic, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea not to mention overwhelming feelings of fear. It’s especially common in children, although some adults suffer from it too, and can be treated by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
The first clown: a miserable depressive
The first ancestor of the modern clown was Britain’s most popular entertainer during the early 1800s. Joey Grimaldi devised the standard clown’s make up of stark white face paint with bright red spots on his cheeks as a way of exaggerating his facial features in the newly-expanded Georgian halls.
Grimaldi was one of the earliest celebrities, which meant that the public were aware of his sad personal life behind his joyous performance. Grimaldi’s first wife died during childbirth and his son was an alcoholic who died aged 30. The effort of Grimaldi’s clowning acrobatics left him with painful joints and respiratory problems.
Stott, who wrote The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, says that Grimaldi is a clear example of the downtrodden man behind the happy mask.
“Offstage he was an extreme melancholic who would say, “I make you laugh at night but am grim all day”. It’s the origin of the trope of a depressed comedian,” he adds.
Dickens, who loved to see the pantomime as a child and ghost wrote Grimaldi’s memoirs, focused on this theme.
“In Hard Times and David Copperfield you can see emaciated travelling players and really sad circuses. Dickens was taken by the gap between the childlike fantasy and the adult reality,” says Stott.
“When one is intoxicated by the tinsel, lights and roar of the crowd, it transports you to a very different place than when you see these people in the cold light of day and the sad meagre lives they lead.”
The French version of Grimaldi was even more disturbing. Jean-Gaspard Deburau, who dressed as a clown called Pierrot, killed a boy in 1836 by hitting him with his walking stick. Although Deburau was acquitted of the murder, he was believed to have attacked the boy for yelling insults at him in public.
But coulrophobia’s worst nightmare – a serial killer clown – became reality with John Wayne Gacy, otherwise known as the “Killer Clown”.
Gacy didn’t work as a clown full-time, but he dressed up as “Pogo” at children’s parties and fundraising events in Chicago. During the same period, Gacy sexually assaulted and killed at least 33 young men between 1972 and 1978. Surveillance officers began to monitor Gacy, who once told them “You know… clowns can get away with murder”.
Gacy was sentenced to death in 1980 and executed in 1994, proving that clowns can be caught. But that’s hardly a comforting concept.
Clowns were not originally intended as children’s entertainment, but their role shifted during the Victorian era. The fairy tale element of the pantomime became stronger, and clowns evolved into light relief to compliment the main narrative.
“They stand at the front of the stage and throw sweets to children,” says Stott.
Today clowns are clearly recognised as a figure of fun by children – a role that’s cemented in part by Ronald McDonald, the figurehead for McDonald’s fast food.
But the past fifty years has seen growing concern over “stranger danger” and a suspicion of those who want to spend time around children.
“We’ve come to question the sexual motivation of somebody dressing as a clown, of grown men who choose to dress in a full clown costume,” says Stott. Plus, he adds, “There’s something tragically unfunny about the vast majority of people who do clowning.”
Clown figures in horror films – such as Pennywise in Stephen King’s It and the Joker in Batman – build off a fear of clowns that already exists. But their creations aren’t twisted versions of an innocent childhood figure – in fact, the original clown always had a dark side.
“Many phobias are built from this braiding together of various different ideas of the unknown that are also connected to traumatic experience in childhood,” says Stott. “The idea of the reckless anarchic clown has mixed in with our fear of strangers around children.”
So next time a clown asks if you want a balloon, think twice about accepting.