The ubiquity of ‘killer clowns’ in the 1980s can be linked to the ubiquity of ‘white-face’ and ‘auguste’ clowns in American pop culture during the 50s and 60s. While clown imagery was already ubiquitous in American pop culture, it was in the 50s and 60s, ‘the age of mass consumption’, that clowns came to be found on cereal boxes, in fast-food restaurants, and on television, even as traditional circuses were dying out. It’s surely no coincidence that the people who came to promote the idea of clowns as sinister in the 80s (Stephen King, the Chiodo Brothers, Victor Salva) were baby-boomers, people born into a world where the ubiquity of clowns in children’s advertising had been normalised.
But by the 1990s the idea that children instinctively disliked clowns, coupled with the idea that clowns were in some way inherently sinister, had entered into family and childrens’ entertainment programmes such as The Simpsons, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Extreme Ghostbusters, and more. It’s an idea that many of us now take for granted, the scary clown having made its way into Western pop culture’s pantheon of monsters. On that note, in Stephen King’s IT we see Pennywise impersonate Dracula, the Teenage Werewolf, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Rodan, a creepy hobo, and more. King took the clown and transformed it into the mother of all monsters. The scary clown became a textbook horror trope, one that is still considered more frightening than the average vampire or werewolf, two classic monsters that, from the 80s onward, were commonly depicted as sexy misunderstood loners. Today, however, scary clowns are, as Graham Linehan so rightly points out, ‘the fart jokes of horror movies. Too easy.’
In Danse Macabre (1980), King’s non-fiction overview of the horror genre, the author described ‘the creator of horror’ as ‘a Republican in a three-piece suit’ wearing a ‘fright wig’ and ‘plastic fangs’, before stating that beneath the conservative mask lurks ‘a real monster’, ‘not an agent of the norm but a friend – a capering, gleeful, red-eyed agent of chaos’ (King 2011: 423). King was finishing up Danse Macabre at the same time he was beginning to formulate the story for IT, and if you read them close together it’s striking how much overlap there is, in terms of references and ideas – so much so you could read IT as Danse Macabre: The Novel. In Danse Macabre King made the creators of horror sound like clowns looking to provoke a reaction, with or without the intention of supporting the established social order. It’s a description that lends itself to evil killer monster clowns. They move in mysterious ways, wearing masks upon masks, forever unknown and unknowable, human and inhuman, grotesque and carnivalesque.
This was always the case. Clowns were never the pure, sweet and innocent icons of childhood nostalgia that they have, at various times, been portrayed as. They did not suddenly, for the first time, become suspect through the work of King and his fellow baby-boomers. Clowns have always been strange, unsettling figures, and if you hop into your DeLorean and go back in time at least as far as the early twentieth-century, you’ll find plenty of works featuring Clowns That Kill. The chief difference is that these clowns weren’t played as evil, inhuman figures. Take Lon Chaney. Chaney played a ‘killer clown’ in He Who Gets Slapped (dir. Victor Sjöström, 1924), adapted from a Russian play by Leonid Andreyev, and again, in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), based on a Broadway production inspired by Fausto Martini’s Ridi, Pagliaccio (1919), a story inspired by the Italian opera Pagliacci (1892). Chaney’s clowns were tragic figures that audiences were expected to sympathise with. What do they hide behind their painted smile? Chaney’s clowns were bound up in this grand old tradition of ‘sad clowns’, the kind we associate with the ‘tears of a clown’ cliché.
But Chaney, let’s not forget, was ‘the man of a thousand faces’, many of which were distinctly monstrous, creepy and unnerving. It’s difficult to view his clowns separately from the other monsters he played, and as we’ll shortly see, more recent works exploit the unsettling appearance of his clowns whilst ignoring the original films and stories they were embedded in. But Chaney would himself play a significant part in bridging the gap between this older, European clown tradition and future American horror stories via his now mythical utterance that ‘no one likes a clown at midnight’. I say mythical, because I have yet to identify a source for the quote. It seems that no one who quotes it ever bothers to cite one. The closest I came to identifying a source for the quote was an allusion to a newspaper interview, contained within some random internet article I’ve long since lost track of. Of course, one could argue that by this point it no longer matters what Chaney actually said. All that really matters now is what people think he said. I have, on at least one occasion, seen Chaney quoted as saying ‘nobody likes a clown in the moonlight’, so if a source ever does come to light it’ll be interesting to see how closely Chaney’s actual remark resembles the versions that have since entered into circulation.
(Saying that, the version in this trailer, which ties it to finding a clown on your doorstep, does sound awfully familiar.)
Jumping forward in time, The Clown at Midnight (dir. Jean Pellerin, 1998) was the title of a formulaic ‘slasher’ starring Christopher Plummer as a killer clown whose make-up resembles a combination of Chaney’s clowns, from Laugh, Clown, Laugh and He Who Gets Slapped. ‘The Clown at Midnight’ was also the title of an illustrated prose story written by Grant Morrison, published in Batman #663 in 2007, starring the Joker, Batman’s traditional arch-nemesis. Way back in Batman #4, published in 1940, the Joker was labelled a ‘killer-clown’ and quoted the 1928 song ‘Laugh, Clown, Laugh’, originally written for the Chaney film of the same name (Kane 1992: 177). The point that I’m trying to make here is that no neat dividing line can be drawn between the evil and/or monstrous clowns that became ubiquitous in pop culture from the 1980s onward, and earlier clown traditions.
As noted by Grant Morrison, the earliest superhero comics shared a special relationship with the circus. Heroes, like Superman and Batman, were based on circus strongmen, whose ‘[u]nderpants on tights were signifiers of extra-masculine strength and endurance’ (Morrison 2011: 14). Circuses were a staple setting, and clowns a familiar sight. They could be friends, antagonists, or a distracting part of the scenery. The preface to an early Wonder Woman adventure set in a circus makes passing reference to ‘the weird comical hysteria of white faced clowns,’ before promising readers a ‘weird mystery’ (Marston 2010: 112). Though clowns play no role, indeed, barely appear in the story, it’s difficult to ignore the repetition of ‘weird’ here, suggesting as it does that clowns might have a bearing on the plot, and at the very least, that clowns are mysterious. Sometimes clowns are ‘good’, sometimes they’re ‘evil’, and sometimes, sometimes they’re just ‘weirrrrd’.
With all of the above in mind, perhaps a better question for people to be asking is not why clowns are considered scary, but why anyone ever thought to view them as purely ‘innocent’ to begin with? Parents tell their children not to talk to or ‘take stuff from strangers’ (King 1986: 25), only to then try and convince them that a certain group of monstrous-looking individuals should be considered an exception to the rule. Well, they still did when I was a little kid in the early 90s. These days, parents are hiring clowns to stalk their kids. Jesus! What is it with parents and clowns?
Join me, next time, as I begin to unpack this sinister pact. TTFN!
Kane, Bob. Batman: The Dark Knight Archives. Vol. 1. New York, NY: DC Comics, 1992.
King, Stephen. IT. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986.
–. Danse Macabre. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2011.
Marston, William Moulton. The Wonder Woman Chronicles. Vol. 1. New York, NY: DC Comics, 2010.
Morrison, Grant. Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero. London: Jonathan Cape, 2011.