Some make us laugh, some make us cry. Some clowns, honey, gonna make you die.
The ‘killer’, ‘evil’ or ‘monster clown’, whatever you choose to label it, became a ubiquitous figure in late twentieth-century pop culture. But when did the trope first appear? What does it signify? Join me as I unpack one of the most enduring monsters of modern times.
I take Stephen King’s IT as my point of departure. Though IT is not the first story to feature an evil clown, it is the most famous and influential, being a major bestseller by one of the world’s most popular novelists. Publishers Weekly listed IT as the number one bestselling novel in 1986. It won a British Fantasy Society Award the following year, racking up additional nominations for the World Fantasy and Locus Awards. Twenty-five years later, Cemetery Dance Publications released a lavishly illustrated edition of IT that sold out within thirty hours of its going on sale. A two-part TV movie adaptation, Stephen King’s IT (ABC, dir. Tommy Lee Wallace, 1990), is remembered by many thanks to Tim Curry’s mesmerising portrayal of Pennywise the Clown, the book’s central antagonist. It has been translated into many different languages, its global circulation enabling a number of more or less direct adaptations. These include the Hindi language Indian TV drama Woh (Zee TV, 1998) and ‘The Day of the Clown’ (2008), a two-part storyline in the UK children’s TV science-fiction serial The Sarah Jane Adventures (CBBC, 2007-2011). At time of writing there is a big-screen film adaptation of IT in development, set for a possible 2017 release. So there’s no doubting the continuing popular success of IT. King only had to mention the novel in passing, during a 2012 TV interview, to spark an immediate round of applause.
So while IT was not the first work to depict a clown as evil, monstrous, murderous, etcetera, it remains a touchstone for any discussion of the evil/killer/scary/monster clown concept. For example, King’s IT is routinely cited in connection with ‘coulrophobia’, the fear of clowns, in newspaper, magazine and internet articles. King’s novel is also accused, quite regularly, of triggering an outbreak of mass hysteria, beginning in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1981, when stories first began to circulate of children being kidnapped by a clown or group of clowns. These stories were taken seriously and investigated by the police, though no evidence was ever found to support the claims, which were made by children. Since then there have been additional waves of ‘phantom clown’ sightings, in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1985, and in 1991, not just in America, in states like New Jersey and Chicago, but abroad, in Glasgow, Scotland (Brunvand 2001: 313-315).
Now, it doesn’t take a genius to see that the dates (excluding the wave of ‘91) do not correlate. King began writing the novel in ‘81, before completing it in ‘85 (King 1986: 1116). He could have been aware of the ‘phantom clown’ epidemic and consciously drawn on it when writing the novel. I mean, it’s a novel about an evil phantom clown that only children can see. Just what are the chances of that correspondence between life and art being a coincidence?
In a TV interview King claims to have been approached by many people over the years who told him that IT ‘really touched on something’ – namely, the fact that they were ‘terrified of clowns’ when they were kids. King goes on to observe that ‘anybody who’s ever seen kids around clowns know that they’re not that funny, I don’t know where we got the idea that they were.’ King also claims to have seen their potential as monsters first-hand, when attending the circus as a child: ‘their faces were dead-white. Their mouths were red, as though they were full of blood. They’re all screaming. Their eyes are huge. What’s not to like?’ Or rather, what’s not to fear? As King points out, clowns are overtly monstrous. It really shouldn’t be that difficult to see how a person could be afraid of them. And yet there was a time when many people – I’m thinking of my grandmother’s generation, and to a slightly lesser extent my parents’ – viewed this aversion as something strange and unaccountable.
In the same interview King touches on the subject of Jungian archetypes, stating that the ‘clown figure is the same in a lot of different cultures, and a lot of different societies’ and that ‘children have the same reaction to them everywhere’. I suspect that King is attempting to link the figure of the clown to the trickster archetype discussed by Jung, mainly because I’ve seen so many cultural commentators and armchair critics make that observation already. But here’s the thing: while a trickster can be a clown, not all tricksters are clowns.
Archetypal theory, though intriguing, is problematic for a number of reasons. As Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron explain, archetypes are frequently used ‘to explain the universal foundations of culture,’ to pinpoint perceived ‘commonalities in characters and stories that permeate all societies across space and time.’ But in doing so they ‘reduce cultural expressions to generic decontextualized concepts, stripped bare of all the crucial cultural content that makes such expressions innovative,’ thereby collapsing ‘a complex reality into something simple and easy to grasp and, thus, to manage’ (Holt and Cameron 2010: 171). In the context of cultural criticism, archetypal theory can lead to gross oversimplifications and discourage critical thinking by encouraging an extremely shallow, facile understanding of the texts and topics being discussed. So let me repeat here that it is wrong to treat ‘clown’ and ‘trickster’ as interchangeable terms. In discussing the evil/killer/monster clown concept I intend to steer clear of archetypal theory altogether, in order to view this trope as an historical and cultural phenomenon. I’m not saying that Jung and the trickster archetype are irrelevant (far from it), but I do feel that more than enough people have made that connection already, and that it’s time for a different approach.
The sorts of clowns I’ll be looking at are based on models that originated in Europe, not America. But as monsters, they are a peculiarly (though not exclusively) American phenomenon. Beyond Stephen King’s IT, the 1980s saw clowns become the principal antagonists in schlock-horror productions like Killer Klowns From Outer Space (dir. Stephen Chiodo, 1988) and Clownhouse (dir. Victor Salva, 1989). To jump forward in time, to 2008, in ‘The Day of the Clown’ actor Bradley Walsh played an alien monster with multiple personas (sound familiar?): the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the sinister circus ringmaster Elijah Spellman, and Odd Bob the Clown. Walsh gave the Piper and Ringmaster strong Germanic accents, but as Odd Bob he adopted a Southern drawl, tapping into the longstanding historical association of America’s Deep South with villainy and minstrelsy. Again, the clown may be European in origin, but it has since become American. The most famous American clown of all – and arguably the deadliest – is Ronald McDonald, the mascot of fast-food restaurant chain McDonalds. Ronald has, along with the infamous ‘golden arches’, become synonymous with ‘McDonaldization’, a term coined by sociologist George Ritzer equating the ‘globalization’ of big business with cultural ‘Americanization’. I’ll be addressing the connection between Pennywise and Ronald in due course, but there’s some unpacking to do before then.
So, come back next time – bring a friend! – when I’ll be focusing on the historical roots of the evil/killer/monster clown concept in the early to mid-twentieth-century, with close reference to Lon Chaney and Batman’s Joker.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2001.
Holt, Douglas and Douglas Cameron. Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
King, Stephen. IT. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986.
Episode #8.269. The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. CBS, 6 Aug. 2012.