When one ponders about the prospect of a clown flick, the first genre that comes to mind would be that of horror. Instead of a mascot greeting you at the door as you order a burger, or a jolly, makeup-clad man in a circus, a defining representation of clowns in many people’s minds is that of a monster, ready to prey on their deepest fears. The massive shift from a silly, joke-cracking comedian to that of a monstrous creature in our collective consciousness should have some explanation. How could a profession intended to create smiles and laughter among children be distorted into a prominent fear-inducer in current popular culture?
Mainstream clown culture
Clowns in movies and mainstream media have grown increasingly popular, but there have been several mainstays that have earned themselves the iconic billing of being remembered—and in some cases, feared—by the masses.
Perhaps a character that’s defined the archetype of the scary clown, Pennywise from Stephen King’s It has terrified audiences from the book’s release in 1986, to the miniseries in the 1990’s, all the way to the film adaptation in 2017, and will surely continue to do so in the sequel due to come out in 2019. It’s telling that this entity, one that preys on fear and can take any form comprehensible to the human eye, chose to take the form of a clown in order to best frighten children. Both Tim Cook and Bill Skarsgård’s interpretations of the character capture the slimy, grotesque, predatory quintessence oozing out of the character’s sinister grin.
Another genre-defining clown, treading in comic book territory, is the Joker. One of Batman’s most popular villains, the Joker has undoubtedly had a role in associating clowns with the essence of evil. This has been an element of his character captured by every actor to have played him, from Nicholson all the way to Ledger. His maniacal schemes and dastardly felonies have earned him the nickname “Clown Prince of Crime”. He as a character has served as the embodiment of anarchy and chaos; not just for the DC universe, but for storytelling as a whole.
The images of characters like these seem to be fuel to the fire that is a phobia over clowns. It’s almost baffling that this is the case. After all, the main purpose of clowns to spread joy and laughter seems secondary to that of its current perception. Let us not forget the killer clown sightings from not too long ago and the fear they caused. What should be a bright and cheery sight was seen as monstrous.
Tracing the roots of fear
It would be reasonable to assume that this fear was birthed from mainstream media’s portrayal of them, as it proves to be one of the most available avenues to expose such a concept to society. It does make sense; wouldn’t the very concept be the main source for the fear to be instilled? However, speaking to Phil*, a professor with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, the fear of clowns stems from a more psychological background than a cultural one. “Yes, there are many clown-based movies nowadays that are popular, but they’re not the cause. They’re more often than not capitalizing on an innate fear,” he says. He postulates that we live in a world where this idea of a fear of clowns is merely amplified through the media, which helps embed our first experience of that fear into our minds.
The reason why there is this fear in the first place is tied to the fight-or-flight survival instinct that humans adapted to having as they have evolved. “The most basic clown appearance is that of a distorted human being,” Phil explains. “It has human features, but it looks unnatural, and we have a natural reaction to look at something like that and think, ‘that looks wrong’. Back then, distorted features would be indicative of terrible illnesses and diseases, so it’s something ingrained from that time.”
It is perhaps this natural tendency to be afraid of clown-like beings that have allowed clown culture to thrive in popular media. After all, would clowns really be so popular if they didn’t look so terrifying to so many people? A major factor as to why people have accepted clowns is because of their terrifying nature. How else would these entities have resonated with so many people if not through fear? They do, for the most part, serve a comedic purpose in society, but it’s that main purpose that they serve that furthers the element of ghoulishness in them; the idea that something meant to be so happy can be twisted into a harbinger of horror adds an eerie layer to these silly-looking creatures.
For better or for worse, clowns are not going away from the collective viewings of popular culture. If anything, the trend of clown culture is only on the rise, especially this month, as things get spookier and the days inch closer to that of Halloween. Sick of it or deathly afraid of the sight of makeup and a balloon, the night of the clown beckons. In the end, fear is just another unique experience we can only find in our world, and what scares us is just another facet to be fascinated over—no matter how terrifying—when it’s blaring in our faces and cackling maniacally.
*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms