I love clowns. Clowns probably don’t love me, though, because I don’t love them for the right reasons. I’m not talking about a fetish or something like that. I mean that I find them ironically hilarious. Think about it: these are people who have spent countless hours perfecting their craft, dressing up in outlandish clothing and gaudy makeup, practicing comedic routines, and sincerely hoping to make a living by creating joy. Instead, many people are absolutely terrified of them. Children laugh at the silly antics of a woman with a big red nose while adults cower inside, peeking at the scene from within the safety of their own house. I’m not laughing with the children, nor am I laughing at the adults. I’m laughing at the whole scope of it.

So you can imagine the glee with which I receive stories of more and more intentionally creepy clowns appearing in real life. It is a joke which resonates deeply within me for some absurd reason. However, some people might be taking this shit a little too far. Before I talk about that, though, I’d like to retrace the steps of this coulrophobic cultural phenomenon…

1. Origins of Evil Clowns

FernGully hates clowns. I should mention that before I go any further. I’m sorry, Ferny, but I cannot supress my affections for these walking, honking nightmares. The least I can do is use a header image for this article that doesn’t actually show any clowns.

Anyway.

Some years ago, I took Ferny, doorXmouse, and another friend to an opera performed by a local university. One of them wanted to go to it (maybe it had something to do with a class), so we all went. None of us knew what the opera was about, so none of use knew what we were getting into.

The show was called Pagliacci.

Yes, that is a clown.

A clown appeared on stage. Then another clown. Then another. Eventually, one of the clowns gets angry and murders a couple of people. I don’t want to spoil too much because you really need to experience this for yourself. Seriously, a pissed-off clown murders people. What more could you ask for in an opera? Nothing, that’s what.

Ferny was seriously tensing up. My other friend and I, however, were doing all we could to keep from busting up laughing at the whole situation. Does that make me a bad person? That’s debatable, but what’s not debatable is that this 1892 opera is often mentioned in discussions about the rise of evil clowns in media, as it is one of the earliest recorded instances of a clown being portrayed in a malevolent light.

The horror of the clown had existed long before even that, though. Some believe that clowns have always had a dark side, since they started out playing for adults, mocking real-world issues like politics and society. Jean-Gaspard Deburau, the original Pierrot, once killed a boy with his walking stick because he was mocking him on the street. It only took one blow, so maybe it was just an accident, but that doesn’t help the image it projects. Perhaps more importantly to this matter, there was Joseph Grimaldi – a clown so immensely popular that his persona blended into his real, emotionally tragic self. Also, he was constantly hurting himself to make people laugh, and if that level of violently chaotic humour doesn’t sum up what makes a clown so terrifyingly unpredictable, I don’t know what does.

Grimaldi’s persona, Joey. I think this speaks for itself.

It seems that the image of the evil clown really took off in the 1980’s  and 90’s, though, through the actions of Pogo the Clown, a monster who sometimes masqueraded as the human John Wayne Gacy, Jr., and the publishing of Stephen King’s It (and the miniseries adaptation that most people remember), amidst many other horror stories. Most recently, we’ve had the notable addition of Twisty the Clown from American Horror Story, which I actually don’t watch so I won’t pretend to know anything about it.

The media has been seriously pushing this frightful depiction of our whitefaced friends for perhaps four decades, with roots going back at least a century ago, perhaps even to the dawn of clowndom itself. It should come as no surprise that more and more people self-report having a fear of clowns (even if that fear is not officially recognized or diagnosed by professionals). And with that fear, there come people who have found a new brand of humour in the clown. There are people like me. And then there are people like…

2. The Wandering Clowns

It probably started back in September 2013 when the boundaries between fiction and reality opened up and negatively reinforced everybody’s irrational fear of the stilt-walkers. Born of fear, a clown resembling Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise from It appeared in Northampton, UK. He just stood around in a creepy mask, holding various props like balloons or a plush clown, maybe uttering a “beep, beep” if one got too close, creeping people out all around town by his sheer existence.

Some people just want to watch the world crap its pants.

Of course, that was all we needed to blow the story out of proportion, causing fear, loathing, and even some excitement and admiration. This is the Internet, after all. And what happens when someone gains Internet fame by standing around acting like a creepy clown? Other people want to get in on the action. In March of 2014, a clown greatly resembling the Northampton Clown appeared across the pond in Staten Island, New York City, pulling the same general routine – just standing around and being an abomination of nature. Later, in October that year, in Wasco, California, numerous clowns started showing up at night, just like the Northampton Clown. In that case, maybe it was just one person with a bunch of different clown suits, or maybe it really was some odd group of misfits with mischievious intentions. Either way, people were really getting into the whole act, searching for the clowns at night and posing for pictures with them.

But when everybody is doing a thing, that thing isn’t really unique anymore. So it is that future participants feel the need to up the ante. And that’s how clowns started appearing in cemeteries.

Seriously, watch that video. I love how serious everybody is about it, it’s so ridiculous (“That’s disgusting” is the point at which I began to literally laugh out loud). Also, “Clown Sighter” is undoubtedly the best title any interviewee could ever be given on a legitimate news broadcast. Just take a good long look at this, the greatest moment in the history of news broadcasting:

clown_sighterCBS Chicago
Elsewhere, in Brooklyn, yet another clown was milling about in a cemetery. Though the videos of the Green-Wood Cemetery Clown seem pretty staged (not just due to the reactions of the guy, but also his assertion that he found a years-old blog about the clown from 2007… which somehow happens to use still images of his 2014 videos), the fact remains that some goofball was dressing up and doing it. Oh, and while the Green-Wood Cemetery Clown story ran its course last year, that Chicago Cemetery Clown showed up in July 2015, so it’s still happening, and it will likely continue to happen into the foreseeable future.

Maybe you’re afraid of clowns, and so it’s understandable that you’d absolutely hate to see some fucker prancing around in the streets of your town at night, all dressed up and ready to spook you. But none of these people have ever been charged with any crimes (though I suppose that one clown was trespassing in a cemetery at night), so it’s not like the people behind the masks and face paint are actually setting out with bad intentions. The problem here is that copycats spawn copycats, and those copycats spawn more copycats, and eventually terrible people take inspiration from it all. This is why we can’t have nice things, or creepy things, or anything at all, really.

3. Clowns and Crime

At this point, fantasy has bled almost completely into reality, barring any connections to the paranormal or extra-terrestrial or what-have-you. It starts off with idiot children making up stories about ax-wielding clowns chasing them down the street, and it ends with a dude actually dressing up like a clown and swinging an ax at some lady. It starts off with some moron falsely reporting a sighting of a clown holding a rifle, and it ends with actual clowns bearing actual weapons. Somewhere between there, you have teenagers completely missing the point and chasing around little kids to give them lasting psychological trauma. Even now, at the time of this posting, men and women wearing clown masks are terrorizing and literally chasing children, sometimes in vans, sometimes on foot, in the town of Tonbridge, UK.

Last year, in various parts of France, not just in one city, evil clowns started showing up. But these weren’t the usual variety of pranksters or artists or people who just wanted to get their town in the Halloween mood. Some of them were legitimately terrifying individuals. Others were supposedly wielding real weapons like knives and guns.

Only, that bit about the clowns wielding weapons? Apparently, the BBC got that wrong. If you do a little more digging, it turns out that the clowns only had fake weapons. The kids who were really packing heat were some teenagers who set out to fight them thereby escalating the issue immensely. We’re pretty quick to just blame the clowns for all that, aren’t we? The French clowns were indeed threatening people with their fake weapons, and one clown actually assaulted a man with an iron bar, but that was the extent of legitimate clown-on-human violence. Those clown-hunting teens were the ones who finally pushed things too far, such that by the end of that October, Vendargues, France, actually banned the wearing of clown suits out in public for a month to try to mitigate the problem. When your town mayor has to ban the wearing of frivolous costumes, that’s pretty messed up.

“Let’s arm ourselves and hunt the clowns to prove we won’t tolernate madness in our town!”

On the other hand, criminals wearing clown masks are nothing new. Just this month, after a recent robbery and assault, both committed by unrelated clowns, in Knoxville, Tennessee, a therapist put in his two cents on the subject, saying… well, pretty much what therapists have been saying about coulrophobia in general for a long time: That people fear clowns because they fear the unknown, and masks and painted faces hide away the human beneath the disguise. That people fear clowns because they’re always smiling, even when they’re angry or violent. People are afraid of clowns because they’re unpredictable and chaotic, because they’ll beat each other up for laughs, so how far will they push the boundaries? They fear them because they’re real-life cartoons, and those with murderous intent could take on such a form and easily whip up enough chaos and confusion by sheer appearance in order to get away with whatever they want to do. People fear clowns because they’re uncanny as fuck, because they allow a human to look like something that isn’t quite human, and that’s probably why such masks appeal so much to criminals, whose businesses rely on instilling fear in others.

Let’s refocus back on the Northampton Clown, shall we? Here we had a guy who just wanted to do something artistic, and what did he get in return? Death threats. One man, meeting him in person, threatened to knife him. Another person, discerning his identity and calling him on the phone, expressed a desire to run him over with a car. People worked so hard to expose this silly clown’s true identity, and… for what? Well, they did it. We know who he is, and he really doesn’t look happy about it. Can you blame him? It’s not clowns we should be fearing. Even creepy clowns understand that it’s all just an act. It’s people we should really fear, not the concept of the clown. If a good clown’s makeup exaggerates their features to project inner mirth and goodness, then a bad clown’s makeup is perhaps a truer visage than the wearer’s own face. And really, they’re generally not actual clowns who are going around hurting people – the person beneath the mask is the only one to blame.

Pictured: Probably a decent human being. Not pictured: The asshole behind the camera.

Sometimes, I feel a little bad for so deeply embracing the horror variant of clowns. Clown numbers may be dwindling in the U.S., and real clowns are pretty miffed about how the media is sullying their collective reputation. I think that’s kind of sad, and not in a funny way (they are clowns after all). But despite all this, I haven’t stopped loving evil clowns. I feel that both are valid interpretations of a general character. We just need to understand them. Maybe the reason why we don’t is because the world operates on primal reactions instead of logic. One man can unwittingly raise so much chaos and hatred simply by putting on a silly suit. Much like misdirection in a magic trick, the evil clown distracts us all from the secret truth that makes it all happen – the audience itself. That’s where the real horror lurks.

h/t: Header image from tOrange.

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