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Why Are We So Scared Of CLOWNS?

Pennywise is back…and he’s badder than ever. Here’s why he’d scare us even without the teeth.

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Psst. Kid. Yeah, you.

Over here.

Do you want a balloon? (Or a boat, perhaps?…)

If you shuddered and dove under the covers just reading that ominous little invitation, you may be like a surprising number of people who truly fear clowns. (There’s even a name for it – coulrophobia.)

Just what IS it about something that’s supposed to be so sweet – but instead can appear so sinister? Creepy clowns are a horror staple, leaving us to wonder: how did an innocent image turn into the stuff of nightmares, from Twisty in American Horror Story to Stephen King’s It?

Today we dive into all things “clown” – where clowns came from, why clown horror tales are so compelling, and (of course) how you can get in on the freaky fun yourself this Halloween. (And remember…they ALL float down here.)

Clowns: A Freaky History

The tragic kidder Canio in the opera Pagliacci makes us cry more from fear than sympathy.

Perhaps part of our collective trepidation when it comes to clowns is that they weren’t always meant for children – and that historically, they haven’t always been innocent.

In fact, the roots of the clown as we know it stretch back to pre-Christian times, where in ancient Egypt and classical Greece, the clown first gained notoriety…and not necessarily for being lighthearted.

From his earliest days through the late Middle Ages, the clown – often termed under another name or category, such as the fool or jester, a royal attendant position – was a bit rougher around the edges than the laughing face we know today.

No laughing matter: The traditional court fool’s political antics were more likely to get someone’s head put on a spike than they were to induce giggles.

The two morbid grave-diggers in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance, were termed “clowns” by the Bard himself. They tossed deteriorated body parts around, parodied lawyerly speech and coldly calculated whether the suicidal Ophelia deserved a “Christian” burial – and whether or not the dead virgin was destined for hell.

And Canio, the stage manager-cum-actor from the tragic opera Pagliacci (which means – you guessed it – “clowns”), cried behind thick, cheery makeup while he wondered whether his wife was cheating – and whether he should stab her to death. (Spoiler alert: she was, and he did.)

Gallows Humor

Indeed, court fools in days of yore were meant to poke dangerous fun at politics (and perhaps to stir up trouble for the opposite team in a given kingdom), highlight human frailties and sometimes even to outwardly badger the helpless, such as invalids or the poor. (Witness the cringeworthy old-time village idiot motif as an example.)

They were also traditionally associated with putting on a brave face while suffering all of life’s injustices, piece by painful piece.

Although only a few today may be aware of such ominous beginnings, the evolution of the clown depended upon this odd dichotomy of sweet and sour, forming a rather unsettling and decidedly un-funny framework for the idea of the modern-day clown.

Not really the stuff of a young child’s innocent, joyful play, is it?

Modern Clowns

Really now…who wouldn’t trust a grown-up who hid his identity and lured children inside an enclosed area with food and toys?

The clown as we know it today, with outlandish clothes, crazy makeup (often with a white base and exaggerated mouth, nose and eyes) and a loud, silly voice and laugh, began to develop in the mid-1800s and was introduced in the popular imagination along with the modern circus.

Carnivals and sideshows of various descriptions had already existed for centuries, but the circus as a stand-alone collective of entertainments jumped into the forefront at the end of the 19th century, and it featured loud, outlandish characters performing silly, and sometimes dangerous, feats.

In general, today’s clown personas are based on lighthearted, laughable antics and are primarily geared toward children. Clowns are featured strongly at child parties and carnivals, for instance.

The “Ick” Factor…and Other Clown Psychology

Restaurant clowns: making children run like hell since 1963.

Clowns today have their place in pop culture, such as the lovable Ronald McDonald, purveyor of over-fried treats and beloved of children across the globe – when they’re not terrified of him, that is.

But perhaps that modern association of clowns with kids (can we all say “ick”?) is part of our collective problem with clowns.

Let’s face it: a stranger draped in disfiguring clothing and attempting to engage children using pretty flowers, balloons or candy as bait takes center stage in nearly any parent’s horrified imagination.

But there’s more to it than that, at least according to psychologists. One theory suggests something known as deindividuation may be a factor in the clown-fear phenomenon. Deindividuation involves hiding one’s identity, something that’s sure to invoke distrust – what is this person hiding, why is he hiding it, and who is he, really?

If it looks crazy, sounds crazy and acts crazy, it might just be (wait for it) crazy. Because logic. Image: ebaumsworld.com

Outlandish clothing, makeup and behavior can also be seen as way outside the norm not only because, well, it is…but also because from a gut-instinct perspective, anyone acting too crazy might be just that, and therefore, a threat.

One thing’s for sure: we’re so collectively creeped out about clowns that any number of schools and town Halloween parades across the U.S. have rules against dressing up as clowns on the premises.

And some states even have laws against dressing up as a clown in public, though usually with the caveat that the outfit must be accompanied by some sort of suspicious activity. Though this would seem to be common sense no matter what one is wearing, the fact that clowns are specifically mentioned in the ordinances is notable.

I to the C to the K. By the way, his name is Wrinkles…not kidding. Image: parenting.com

Meanwhile, British sociologists have determined what we already knew: ironically, children are among the most prominent clown-dislikers in the world.

It’s undeniable: clown hysteria is in full swing and shows no sign of slowing.

Which can only mean one thing.

You HAVE to dress as a clown this year!

Stake Your Creepy Claim. Be a Clown This Halloween

Please be advised that we do NOT recommend, nor do we endorse in any way, doing anything that might be even loosely considered illegal. So please check your city ordinances and any other attendant authorities before donning your creepy clown costume and scaring the pants off one and all.

With that said, clowns have been a popular Halloween theme for years. In 2017 clowns are huge once again in the wake of the remake of Stephen King’s terrifying It.

There are so many ways of being a creepy clown, but if you want to stay true to Hollywood form, here’s a 2017-version Pennywise tutorial to get you started:

Now that you’re sufficiently freaked out (just think of the effect this will have on those who view you!), here are some easy ways to be a terrifying clown:

  • Work on that cackle. It should be REALLY terrifying. Go for a hissing, ominous voice, an I’m-dirty old time gangster accent, a screaming-loud laugh or whatever terrifying associations you have with clowns. Trust me, they’ll ALL work.
  • If you have a specific clown in mind – for example, Krusty (The Simpsons), Pennywise (It), Ronald (of hamburger fame) or Twisty (American Horror Story), check out Youtube. There are tutorials by the dozens for pretty much any clown that pop culture has already dreamed up (or was that actually a nightmare?).
  • Love a great mystery? Go retro as a clown of old (suggestions: the original Pennywise; Clarabel from Howdy Doody; Killer Klowns From Outer Space; the morbidly musical ICP) and see who gets it. If a passerby guesses and calls out your clown name, scream “you win a prize!” and hand him or her a lolipop wrapped in ribbon dripping with red food coloring.
  • Clowns of all kinds have one thing in common in the popular imagination: a bone-white face with exaggerated, drawn-on features. This means you can wear practically anything (jeans and a t-shirt will do) and still be an awesomely notable clown simply by dolling your face up with a super-inexpensive Halloween makeup kit. Go for it and remember – be creative!
  • Going for more realism? Look for an old-fashioned ruff (the stiff, stand-out collar associated with clowns). Even creepier: wear the ruff…with your t-shirt and jeans. And of course, the makeup. (Eeew. We may have just creeped OURSELVES out.)
  • Carry spooky toys with you. For example, tear some hair out of an old doll you have lying around. Poke out one eye or if possible, poke it in just partially. (Cracked eyes are great, too. Trust us, there IS no way to screw this one up.) Paint the doll a morbid, sickly blue-gray and carry her around by the hair. Yell out offers to passersby to “come play.”
  • Get a GREAT creepy clown name. We suggest this fun generator. We’re still partial to the odd and twisted moniker “Wrinkles,” though…but you HAVE to promise not to tell him because, well…we’re pretty terrified of him.
  • Remember: it’s all in good fun. We’ve joked around considerably during this terrifying little tutorial, but small children can be legitimately traumatized by grown-ups dressing weirdly and acting in a strange, loud, lunging manner. Know your audience and DO NOT approach a stranger’s child (or your own…unless you’re already all stocked up on hospital-strength rubber bed-wetting protector sheets).

Buy a clown costume at Halloweencostumes.com

Happy Halloween! Meanwhile, we leave you with this…


About Melanie Henson

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