Are clowns really scary? Ha ha aaaargh!

klown danger

When Australian singer and TV personality Mark Holden appeared as a clown recently on Channel 7’s Dancing with the Stars, his supposedly “bizarre” behaviour sparked furious debate and complaints to the network, demonstrating the problematic nature of the clown figure today.

The clown has a long history, ranging from the court clowns of ancient Egypt and imperial China, and trickster figures of Native American cultures, through the “sanctioned fool” of Renaissance drama and zanni of the commedia dell arte, to mainstay of the circus in the 19th century…

The decline of touring companies and vaudeville reduced the visibility of the clown in the later 20th century. While clowns still operate in the circus and theatrical entertainments, they are more likely to be found in children’s entertainment, therapeutic and community fields…

…It’s our awareness that there is an offstage self that generates much of our uneasiness around this figure.

In the early 19th century Joseph Grimaldi made the clown a star attraction of British pantomime. As he endured personal tragedies, alcoholism and chronic pain, he also became representative of the “sad clown”, of the clown as a divided figure, split between his comic on-stage identity and melancholic off-stage self…

So, when the jovial onstage figure, whose very existence seems designed to make us laugh, is revealed to be a depressed alcoholic (Grimaldi), or rage-driven killer (France’s Jean-Gaspard Deburau), or convicted sex-offender (Australia’s Jack Perry, the “Zig” of Zig and Zag).

Undoubtedly, the most notorious of such cases is that of John Wayne Gacy, an amateur clown who was convicted of killing 33 boys and young men in Illinois in the 1970s…

One of the most notable influences was Stephen King’s novel It (1986), filmed in 1990 with Tim Curry as the murderous supernatural being which takes human form as “Pennywise the Dancing Clown”.

The ubiquity of the “dark clown” trope is evident in itself becoming the stuff of comedy, as in Seinfeld episode The Opera, and the character of Krusty the Clown, a depressive with substance-abuse issues, in The Simpsons.

The context is unimportant; but, I spent a short while on the inside of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. I met Emmett Kelly there. Most clowns I ever met don’t like to break character as long as they are in makeup. And Kelly was always in makeup.

Which meant he never spoke to anyone – including everyone he worked with. Because Weary Willie didn’t speak.

You can build a scary plot just out of that.

One thought on “Are clowns really scary? Ha ha aaaargh!

  1. Coulrophobiac says:

    “The act of dressing up as an evil clown and terrifying passers-by, a phenomenon previously seen in the United States and Britain, cropped up in northern France in early October. Complaints have since poured in over ‘armed clowns’ wreaking havoc in various parts of the country, with some of them armed with baseball bats, knives or firearms. French police have detained several suspects. ….The phenomenon in France has even prompted anti-clown vigilantism, forcing police to step in to try and quell growing hysteria.” http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/10/30/world/crime-legal-world/why-are-marauding-evil-clowns-wreaking-havoc-in-france/#.VFeJN4dRdrE

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