The Fear of Clowns

todayJune 24, 2020 17

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By Gena Sysavath
Web Content Contributor

For hundreds of years, we lived in a world where clowns existed to be entertaining. We also know that clowns are meant to be wildly popular and funny, not freakishly unnerving. Even for the people who were supposed to like the clowns (aka the children of the world), they supposedly do not. They were meant to be a happy and enjoyable experience, but how is it that most of America fear clowns?

A little bit of background

Clowns are uncanny. Back in 1919, Sigmund Freud popularized the idea that the “uncanny” as a reason that causes fear. He describes the “uncanny” as something that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. They can smile, blink, and talk as anybody else does, but the odd differences of appearance can create a sense of uneasiness.

Steven Schlozman, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, reports that clowns are “familiar enough to be recognizable but weird enough to give you the shivers.” Since clowns change their features for effect, they can be viewed as an “uncanny” being. The colorful clothes, bright red nose, wild hair and exaggerated makeup is enough to have people feel uncomfortable.

Benjamin Radford, the author of Bad Clowns, says that “it’s a mistake to ask when clowns went bad, because they were never really good.” He goes to explain that they can be seen as a “trickster,” an old and pervasive archetype. They could be both funny and scary, because they make it hard for others to tell if they are lying. Their actual faces are hidden behind a painted mask, so it’s hard to be able to read what a clown plans to do. The unpredictability of their actions can cause fear to run through you as you are already looking at something that’s unfamiliar.

Clowns appear all the way back to ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and were court jesters in the late Middle Ages. As professionals, these jokers were to openly mock sex, appearance, royalty and anybody else, all the while acting more demented for a laugh. They were the comic relief of the thrills of wild circus acts. They were trying to be the entertainers that many were trained to do; however, the growing animosity towards clowns can be pointed towards how they are portrayed in the media.

In the media

Clowns in the media have been the general cause of how people feel about the once welcomed performance. At the start of clownery, they were seen to be fun performers that taunt others for a laugh. However, with the rise of the “killer clown” character type being portrayed more, the opinions of the people become more negative. 

The known 1978 serial killer John Wayne Gacy dressed up as “Pogo the Clown” at children’s parties. He was a “killer clown” and is often said to be the inspiration of Pennywise in Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel It.

“The great clown panic of 2016” was another real-life situation that broke even more fear into the people. The idea that a clown is in the woods trying to lure you towards them is already creepy, but hand them a knife and it is downright frightening to even walk outside at night. 

Films are also a large media platform that created the image of a clown. Movies that tend to have a clown as a big plot point are usually horror movies where they are trying their very best to ruin your whole existence. The boom of these movies came after the arrest of Gacy, and with the popularized It novel, “killer clowns” became a steady figure of fear in horror movies. They are right at the top with the classics of Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) and Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street).

By constantly seeing the portrayal of murderous clowns, people have in their mind to always steer clear of them. The media unconsciously ruined an old practice of performance. The fear of clowns is due to the negative association and the vibe of their over-performance has them feeling fake and unpredictable.

So why do we keep watching these clown tropes?

Horror movies are a thrilling experience. Even if you are afraid, when you watch the movie, you are going to put yourself in the character’s places. People are watching the movie in the safety of their own home, so although you are scared, the feeling of danger is not with it. You’re watching the villain wreak havoc, but you’re planning your escape just in case it ever happens to you. So, if you see a creepy clown coming for you, you already have several escape plans going through your mind because you would never associate yourself with them like some characters do.

Some clown movies you can watch if you decided you want to have escape plans:

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
Directed by Charles Chiodo, Edward Chiodo and Stephen Chiodo

Aliens from outer space that look like clowns come and terrorize a small town. This movie was by far one of the funniest B-rated horror movies I have watched. However, if you get scared watching this movie, then I do not suggest watching the rest of this list.

Stitches (2012)
Directed by Conor McMahon

A clown comes back from the dead and haunts the children that took his life after a party mishap. Similar to Killer Klowns from Outer Space, this movie is more hilarious than scary, but has the classic element of a clown terrorizing people.

Clown (2014) 
Directed by Jon Watts

A loving father who finds a clown suit for his son’s birthday, realizes that the suit is not what it seems. This movie is a good movie to watch if you are a little tired of the classic “killer clowns” terrorizing.

Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (1990’s miniseries), Andy Muschietti (2017 and 2019)

Pennywise: is there much more to say? It’s hard not to have the most well-known horror clown on any clown list. Luckily, he only appears every 27 years. 

Terrifier (2016)
Directed by Damien Leone

A maniacal clown terrorizes anyone in his way on Halloween night. This movie is for those slasher-lovers, it is really gory and gross. If that is your thing, go for it, but it still gives me nightmares.

Featured image by Gena Sysavath.

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