History Stories

The spectre of the “creepy clown” has gotten a lot of attention as of late. Beginning in August 2016, creepy (and fake) clown sightings spread across the U.S. and other countries, creating a kind of viral clown panic. And as summer came to a close in 2017, killer clowns came for American audiences in the TV show American Horror Story: Cult and the film remake IT, which earned $123 million at the box office on its opening weekend.

Why exactly have creepy clowns become such a trope in pop culture? After all, didn’t they used to be happy and cheerful? Well, not exactly, according to Benjamin Radford, author of Bad Clowns.

“It’s a mistake to ask when clowns went bad,” he says, “because they were never really good.”

The “trickster,” he explains, is one of the oldest and most pervasive archetypes in the world (think Satan in the Bible). The trickster can be both funny and scary, and he (it’s usually a “he”) makes it hard for others to tell whether he’s lying. Clowns are a type of trickster that have been around for a long time—one of the most recognizable is the harlequin, a figure who emerged in Italian commedia dell’arte theatre in the 16th century.

The harlequin was known for his colorful masks and clothing with diamond-shaped patterns, and often served as the comical, amoral servant in plays that toured throughout Europe. These plays also inspired a clownish puppet named “Punch,” who appeared in British shows starting in at least the 18th century. The character would later be written into a popular puppet show called “Punch and Judy,” in which Punch cracked jokes, beat his wife, and murdered his child.

Punch is a “gleeful madcap colorful character, but he’s also this horrific monster,” Radford says, noting that creepy clowns appeal across age groups, not only to kids, but to teens and adults as well. “It’s this strange mix of horror and humor that has always drawn us to clowns.”

Bad—or at least, sad—clowns continued to appear in European culture throughout the 19th century. Charles Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers (1836) featured an alcoholic clown; and in the 1880s and ‘90s, both a French play and an Italian opera centered on murderous clowns (one play was accused of plagiarizing the other).

These complicated clowns made it to America, too. In 1924, U.S. audiences met a bitter and vengeful clown in the silent film He Who Gets Slapped. A decade and a half later, a prankster villain named the Joker make his debut in a Batman comic. And even though Emmett Kelly, Jr., one of the most famous American circus clowns in the early 20th century, was no villain, neither was he cheerful. Rather, his “Weary Willie” character was a hobo clown with a painted-on frown.

But then came a change. In the 1950s and ‘60s, American television introduced audiences to a couple of new clowns who were always happy.

“Ronald McDonald being in commercials spread ‘the happy clown’ across the country,” Radford says of the fast food mascot. “Same thing with Bozo the Clown. There were dozens of Bozos in different regions that were very, very popular during the era. So it was really television that helped propel the sort of default happy/good clown into the public’s consciousness.”

Yet by the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the American image of the clown was already shifting again, this time toward something more sinister. One of the influences in this shift was the media coverage of John Wayne Gacy, a serial murderer who had occasionally dressed as “Pogo the Clown.” Radford notes that Gacy was not a professional clown, and that he didn’t dress up as Pogo very often or use his costume to lure children (his victims were teenagers and young men). But once in jail, Gacy helped cultivate his image as a killer clown in the media by drawing self-portraits of himself as Pogo.

Then came IT, the Stephen King novel about a scary, supernatural clown who lurks around the suburbs and murders children (this was part of a bigger shift toward scary suburban scenarios in the horror film genre). After the novel came out in 1986, it was adapted into a TV movie starring Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Which means that once again, television brought a new clown into people’s living rooms—a threatening, child-harming one—that recent creepy clown panics suggest viewers have not shaken since. In 2013, residents in the U.K. town of Northampton were alarmed by a man who wandered around town wearing a mask reminiscent of Curry’s Pennywise and occasionally yelled out lines from the movie (turns out it was just some 22-year-old causing problems).

The United States’ 2016 clown panic, too, had echoes of IT’s mystical, murderous villain. King certainly didn’t invent the evil clown. But he may have helped make Americans paranoid that one could be lurking outside their doors.

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