We all have that one friend who is mind-numbingly afraid of clowns—if you Clockwork Orange’d them in a chair and screened IT for them against their will, they’d probably unfriend you on Facebook and in real life. While coulrophobia (aka the fear of clowns) isn’t recognized by any psychological manual, horror fans get it. Clowns are unnerving, with their excessively wide, painted grins and their oversized, freaky getups (and don’t get me started on the shoes). But when did these jester-types start stalking children on bicycles and turning fun houses into haunted houses? How were these joyous buffoons subverted into waking nightmares?
Sure, Tim Curry and Stephen King’s Pennywise gets a lot of cred’ (understandably so), but let’s take this back. Clowns can be traced back to Ancient Egypt and China, but clowns as we know them formed around the 16th century. Jester-types popped up in the works of Shakespeare and also Greek and Roman theatres. One step further, the modern day circus clown originated in the 19th century, thanks to Joseph Grimaldi, who Smithsonian calls the “first recognizable ancestor of the modern clown.” Grimaldi’s pantomime career led him down a tragic path of alcoholism and depression, something a young Charles Dickens would capitalize on for The Pickwick Papers, which depicted its clown character as drunk and ghastly, a character who would literally destroy himself for his audience’s benefit. Some even credit Dickens for planting the seeds of the evil clown motif that would go on to haunt future plays, films, and audiences.
As the century progressed, clown attire morphed from servants’ rags to the whole shebang: white face paint, oversized clothes, and shoes, red noses, etc. As the outfits became bolder, the characters grew darker. In the 1892 Italian opera Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo, an actor-clown kills his cheating wife while performing on stage. French author Catuelle Mendès’ 1887 play La Femme de Tabarin saw a similar plotline (and one Mendès’ would later sue his successor over). Clowns became tainted with morbidity; the imagery of men living and killing behind a veil of makeup and costumes became a tangible terror for audiences worldwide.
History had done a fine job of subverting the clown persona, and writers and filmmakers exploited that, watering the seeds so finely planted by the playwrights and authors before them. Sinister clowns in film can be traced as far back as 1924’s silent picture He Who Gets Slapped. Lon Chaney stars as Paul Beaumont, a man who gets a circus gig where dozens of clowns beat the hell out of him every single night in a circus ring. Flash forward to today, the hype over this year’s IT remake proves that the threat of evil clowns in horror is going nowhere fast. While Tim Curry’s performance is beyond iconic, Pennywise isn’t the only nightmare-inducing clown deserving screams.
While clowns’ reputations rebounded somewhat in the ‘50s and ‘60s (thanks in part to Howdy Doody’s Clarabell the Clown, Bozo the Clown, and Ronald McDonald), this return to innocence was short lived thanks to one of America’s most vicious serial killers. John Wayne Gacy was a registered clown who entertained under the name Pogo, and between 1972 and 1978, he sexually assaulted and murdered more than 35 men in the Chicago area. While he reportedly never killed in costume, the media picked up the story of Gacy’s clowning and ran with it. Headlines would continue to deconstruct the clown concept and terrorize the public. (Gacy’s life would later be depicted in 2003’s Gacy.) His brutality made it irrefutable: clowns were mischievous, mysterious beings that were not to be trusted, and in the most extreme cases, they were disturbed and murderous.
In 1982, no child saw Poltergeist and walked away unscathed. When Robbie Freeling is attacked by his clown doll in his bedroom thanks to a demonic presence, it made everyone sink low in their seats. Poltergeist might even be the sole cause of many adults’ still-lingering revulsion of clowns. (I can only imagine that anyone with a similar doll placed theirs at the bottom of a garbage can that year.)
Killer Klowns from Outer Space put another unique spin on the sub-genre, using over-the-top, cartoony, alien versions as a world-endangering threat. What’s comical now was beyond frightening as a child, and those who were kids in 1988 have the Chiodo Brothers to thank/blame. The film was alternative and culty, yet still entirely demented.
If demonic possession and Killer Klowns didn’t rattle your cage, certainly Sig Haig’s turn as Captain Spaulding in House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects raised the hairs on your neck. Say what you will about Rob Zombie’s movies, but Haig staked his claim in the clown hall of fame as one of the craziest and most brutal psychopaths to ever hit the screen.
Clowns pop up in almost every sub-genre of horror, from zombie films (Zombieland) to torture porn (the Saw franchise), to even campy fare like Krampus (not to mention the endless list of B- and C-level indie fare). Clowns are a scare that storytellers have leaned on for hundreds of years, a tried-and-true plot element that always turns the crazy up to batshit levels. While they may have had innocent beginnings, the perversion of clowns and the dread they induce will never die.