From laughter to fear: How clowns evolved into an icon of horror

It is no secret that clowns have secured their place in the horror genre. In fact, the pale-faced, red-lipped characters have become one of the most utilised horror tropes next to the ‘creepy kid’ and the ‘possessed doll’ and the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing anytime soon. The villains have taken a role in horror classics such as Stephen King’s It where Pennywise taught us why we should never walk near a storm drain, they have made their way into the Saw franchise where Billy the clown hosted some seriously bloody mind games while riding a tricycle, and have even taken over a season of American Horror Story, long live Twisty!

Originally created to entertain the masses, clowns have apparently opted to turn laughter into terror, and while it’s common knowledge that clowns are a go-to horror villain, what is less obvious is why and when they became this bloodthirsty, nightmare inducing trope. 

Before we kick off – we should note that not all clowns are evil, despite their rather dramatic film representation. In fact, it turns out clowns are pretty peeved at their own starring role in horror flicks. In response to the recent ‘evil clown’ trend, children entertainers and professional clowns have spoken out about how the cliché is likely to hurt their business prospects and put them in danger.

“It’s ruining our business. We just experienced a nice break from the scary clown meme from last October. And just when things are starting to normalize, the IT trailer comes and it’s like, ‘Here we go again’,” said Mr. Nick.

The entertainers even made an appearance in a cutesy Buzzfeed vid in a bid to put the trope to rest once and for all.

But, despite their efforts, the clown stereotype has remained. So, we have decided to delve into the history of the clown to figure out how the characters evolved into an icon of horror. 

The History of the clown

Clowns have been around for over millennia, however, according to Clown historian Beryl Hugill, the term wasn’t coined until the sixteenth century.

In ancient Greece, clowns were bald headed, hooked nosed, wore padding to appear chubby, and were famous for pelting peanuts at their audience. While flinging peanuts is essentially a harmless comedic act, the early clown became a little darker with the introduction of the diamond costumed Harlequin, a character who made his first appearance in poems published in Paris in 1585. While the character went on to become a mischievous comic, its roots were somewhat demonic.

In literature, the clown-like character was depicted as having a vision of ‘Mother Cardine’, a villainous old hag who had risen from the underworld to beg ‘her son’ [Harlequin] to deliver her from the torments of hell. He obliged and journeyed to the river of death, using an odd form of persuasion which consisted of acrobatic feats, rolling his eyes, and jumping on shoulders, he helped the woman escape from the underworld. As a result, the clown was offered anything he desired. – If that wasn’t dark enough the name Harlequin is believed to originate from that of a mischievous devil or demon character that was popular in French passion plays.

While Harlequin had his dark roots, the most prominent ‘bad’ clown was introduced to England in 1662. Punch, whose ancestry can be traced back to a clown-like character ‘Pulcinella’ from the commedia dell’arte (a theatre characterised by masked characters), was a puppet from the adult street show ‘Punch and Judy’. The show depicted Punch as a wife beater and thug whose victims include his own baby.

At the end of the 19th century, Harlequin influenced another emergence of the clown, one that was hell-bent on bloody revenge. Appearing in 1892 in the Opera Pagliacci, Canio the clown discovered that his wife was having an affair, so as any normal person would, the character dressed as a clown to confront and murdered the pair.

In the decades since Canio’s appearance, dark depressed clowns made their way into performances such as, He Who Gets Slapped which tells the story of a writer who becomes a circus clown, murders a bareback rider and commits suicide in front of a laughing audience. 

Delving into some of the first appearances of ‘the clown’, it is apparent that the comedic characters were always a little bit odd, and more often than not violent or unstable. In fact, the clown and evil have always been inextricably linked in mythology. While the nature of the clown in history has been ambiguous, neither being clearly defined as heroes nor villains, there is no denying that there is something unsettling about the characters.

Scary clowns in real life

Many believe that Charles Dickens gave rise to the first truly scary clown when he wrote the book Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi. The book was a re-write of Grimaldi’s biography, which, before it was given to Dickens, was considered unpublishable. The book told the story of a man who was considered one of the greatest English clowns.

In Dickens’ version of Grimaldi’s memoirs, the author described the clown as a figure who was destroying himself to make his audience laugh. The comedian, whose tagline was, ‘I am grim all day but I make you laugh at night!’, caused himself to become disabled and in constant pain from his leaps, tumbles and violent slapstick performances. While Grimaldi specialised in making people laugh, his own life was more of a tragedy. The clown suffered severe bouts of depression having lost his wife during the birth of his son. His son later became an alcoholic and drank himself to death at the ripe age of thirty-one. While those who came before him may have brushed a light pink shade on their cheeks, Grimaldi was perhaps one of the first clowns to slather on the makeup, opting to wear bright coloured costumes and forming his hair into a blue mohawk. In 1837, an alcoholic and penniless Grimaldi died.

While Grimaldi’s life was less evil, more tragedy, there have in fact been some truly evil real-life clowns who were convicted of murder.

The popular French mime Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s Pierrot was accused of murdering a boy who taunted him, beating him to death with a walking stick. While the violent acts of Jean-Gaspard Deburau were horrifying, the clown had nothing on the American serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. who was known as the ‘killer clown’

Gacy was known for attending charitable fundraising events and children parties as ‘Pogo the Clown’, a character he devised, and later became known as the serial killer who assaulted, tortured and murdered 33 teen boys whose bodies were buried in a small crawl space in his Chicago home.

With a bloody history like this, it is no wonder there is a collective fear of clowns both in America and the rest of the world.

The Science behind scary clowns

So what does science say about the fear of clowns or ‘Coulrophobia’.

If we go by Sigmund Freud’s theory, our fear of clowns can be due to ‘uncanny valley’. The feeling that a person looks almost normal but something is not quite right.

While we are naturally drawn into the familiar, we are simultaneously repulsed by the unfamiliar creating an unsettling feeling of cognitive dissonance.  In an interview with Vulture, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrists spoke of the effect.

“You recognise a smile, your brain registers that smiles are largely good things – and yet you can’t smile all the time, because if you’re smiling all the time, something’s not right… I think that’s similar to clowns, in that we take cues from the way people behave, but if there’s no change in the way they look or the way they act that makes them very scary.”

This effect could be intensified by the fact that not only are clowns often smiling, have covered faces, and wear unrealistically bright clothing, they often choose not to speak opting instead for over the top hand gestures. This silence can cause a mysterious and unnerving feeling and leave you unsure of the clown’s motivations.

It is true that many fear the make-up covered faces of a clown, including celebrities like Johnny Depp, Billy Bob Thornton, and P. Diddy. But, what we don’t know is whether the number of people who have Coulrophobia has increased due to the popular use of clowns as horror villains, or whether it has stayed the same.

Why? Becuase no one thought to ask the people of yesteryear whether clowns gave them the heebeegeebees.

Clown type and the effect on fear

When we think of clowns, usually one type comes to mind. They have a bright red nose, rosy cheeks, a big red smile, some curly coloured hair and a pale face. However, there is more than simply one type of clown, and some might not scare you. In fact, clown organisations typically recognise a total of three different clown types, the White Faced, the Auguste, and the Hobo.

The White Faced clown is the tradition clown, the one you are most likely to see in horror films and your nightmares. The clown has his face completely covered in white with features that can either be neat, colourful or grotesque.

The Auguste clown is known as the clown of comedy, their actions are generally wilder than the other clowns. This clown is often a troublemaker and prankster who takes part in slapstick comedy. The Auguste’s base makeup is usually a variation of pink, red or tan, and their features are normal exaggerated in size. The mouth and eyes of an Auguste are lined with thick white.

The Hobo is probably the least threatening of the bunch and is pretty low down on the clown social hierarchy. The makeup design usually includes a beard, and they often were tattered sloppy and patched clothing. They can either be depicted as sad or happy-go-lucky.

Clowns in pop-culture 

While it is true that clowns have been singled out as a villain in pop culture as of late, with the characters appearing in the horror films Poltergeist, It, Zombieland, House of 1000 Corpses, Halloween, not to mention horror literature and games, there absolutely no proof that there was a time when clowns weren’t feared.

In fact, many children have expressed a fear of clowns, and clown dolls, well before they had a chance to associate the characters with their horror stereotypes.

While there are plenty of factors that probably contribute to a person’s fear of clowns, perhaps we just have to except the fact that clowns are and always have been pant-soilingly creepy.

Except for that Hobo clown, he seems like a pretty good guy.

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From laughter to fear: How clowns evolved into an icon of horror

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