When little Georgie Denbrough saw Pennywise the Clown staring back at him from inside a stormdrain, he was unafraid: ‘for what child did not love a clown?’ (King 1986: 998.) It’s an odd reaction to a sight that calls to mind Lon Chaney’s line about ‘the clown at midnight’, about the creepiness of clowns when viewed outside their natural habitats (at this time, the circus, television, and children’s parties). So why isn’t George afraid of It? Especially when you consider that, shortly before this encounter, George had something that, in retrospect, reads very much like a premonition, as much as it does the description of a familiar childhood fear. George had sensed that there was a monster lurking in the dark of the family basement, waiting to gobble him up. Pennywise may not have been physically present during that earlier scene, but Its presence was felt. And now here It is, floating up from a dark place, ready to claim George as Its next meal.
To give George his due, he does remember his father’s advice about not talking to strangers. But the clown bewitches him; that is Its power. It bewitches young people by tapping into, not just their fears, but their desires. You can see it in how It evokes the circus, via the smell of ‘cotton candy and frying doughboys and the faint but thunderous odor of wild-animal shit… And yet under it all was the smell of flood and decomposing leaves and dark stormdrain shadows. That smell was wet and rotten. The cellar-smell’ (King 26).
King expands on this when It bewitches the young Stan Uris:
‘It conjured up trace memories which were as delightful as they were ephemeral: popcorn, cotton candy, doughboys frying in hot grease, the chain-driven clatter of rides… The calliope music… drifted and echoed down…There was nothing cheery about it now. It had changed… become a dirge… in his mind’s eye Stan saw a county fair at the end of autumn, wind and rain blowing up a deserted midway, pennons flapping, tents bulging, falling over, wheeling away like canvas bats. He saw empty rides standing against the sky like scaffolds; the wind drummed and hooted in the weird angles of their struts. He suddenly understood that death was in this place with him, that death was coming for him out of the dark and he would not run… Now it was not popcorn and cotton candy he smelled but wet decay, the stench of dead pork which has exploded in a fury of maggots in a place hidden away from the sun.’ (King 423-5)
Pennywise, that candy-colored clown, understands and embraces the circus’s role at that time as an opiate for the masses of kiddies who still admired it, albeit increasingly as a televised spectacle. In this way It lulls Its victims into a stupor. Like rabbits caught in Its ‘deadlights’, the kids in King’s novel sense that there is something terribly wrong here, something foul and rotten beneath Its surface glamour.
‘One moment you’re lost in a carnival of delights, with poignant childhood aromas, the flashing neon of puberty, all that sentimental candyfloss… The next, it leads you somewhere you don’t want to go… somewhere dark and cold, filled with the damp ambiguous shapes of things you’d hoped were forgotten.’
There’s something rotten in the family cellar, the town of Derry, the state of Maine, the grand old US of A.
‘I’m not a stranger to you, and you’re not a stranger to me,’ says the clown (King 25). It is not a stranger to George because It is an amalgamation of clowns that American children first encountered in the pop culture of the mid 20th century. ‘It was a clown, like in the circus or on TV… a cross between Bozo and Clarabell’ (ibid.).
Bozo the Clown first appeared in Capitol Records’ Bozo at the Circus in 1946. Bozo at the Circus was the first product of its kind: a record-album that recited a story that children could follow by reading the book that came with it. The success of the Bozo series of read-along records led to Bozo being adopted as the company’s mascot, ‘Bozo the Capitol Clown’. He then made the transition from record-albums to television three years later in Bozo’s Circus, on the LA-based station KTTV. So far the part had only been played by Pinto Colvig, a remarkably talented individual with a background in vaudeville and the circus, before he became a cartoonist and successful voice actor (and a famous one; he was Disney’s original Goofy). Before long, different actors would come to play the role of Bozo on local TV stations across America.
Bozo was a franchise, not a single individual but a costume, wig and make-up that could be worn by anyone (or, in the case of IT, by anything). And over time Bozo became a suspicious character. There’s an urban myth – one that actually predates Bozo, but which was subsequently attached to him – that during an episode of Bozo’s Circus he referred to some kids as ‘little bastards’ (Brunvand 2001: 45-6). Bozo was also – along with a clown called, I kid you not, ‘Rusty Nails’ – the inspiration for The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown, a chain-smoking alcoholic womanizer. The idea that a clown could be a sleazy, disreputable character beneath the greasepaint was nothing new. But, as we get into the 80s, one can see in American pop culture a growing suspicion that clowns could be worse than sleazy, that they could in fact be monsters.
Moving on from Bozo, Clarabell, from The Howdy Doody Show (NBC, 1947-1960), was the silent clown companion of Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith. George Denbrough is said to be uncertain of Clarabell’s gender. Exactly why is hard to fathom; three different men played the part and, despite being virtually unrecognisable under the make-up, they hardly seem androgynous (also, Clarabell’s signature song used male pronouns, so there was no attempt to portray the character as anything other than male). I read the clown’s perceived gender ambiguity as a weak attempt by King to foreshadow the book’s final ‘revelation’ that It is female. (‘Shock-shock horror-horror, shock-shock horror!’) It is, in the book’s grotesque finale, female, pregnant, and in the process of laying innumerable eggs. (Was King unaware of male seahorses’ ability to get pregnant? Was it really necessary to ascribe a human gender to an alien It?) It is a monster of mass-production, endlessly replicating Itself.
Sticking with the subject of mass production and consumption, one of the things I find most fascinating, odd and, frankly, disturbing about The Howdy Doody Show was how its presenters went about advertising their sponsors’ products within the show, whether it be Kellogg’s Rice Krispies or Hostess Twinkies. I don’t know how the show compares to children’s programming in the USA today, but in the UK at least that sort of product placement seems inconceivable. It’s a remarkably unsubtle marketing strategy that The Simpsons used to satirise via Krusty the Clown. It’s funny, just not ha-ha funny. In fact, there’s something downright sinister about a creepy-looking puppet urging children to chant a ‘Kellogg’s Rice Krispies’ mantra, as a silent clown mugs over a bowl of said cereal. Indeed the language of American advertising, with its toothpaste smiles and its stilted, unnatural dialogue, has become rich fodder for ‘American’ horror – not just horror fiction produced in America, by Americans, but also horror fiction set in the US but produced overseas. For example, in Alan Wake (Xbox 360, 2010), produced by the Finnish development team Remedy, the possessed townsfolk of Bright Falls, Washington, talk like commercials and infomercials with audio distortion. We’ll see some British and Japanese examples of this advertising-turned-monstrous trope shortly, but the point to take away here is how frequently it’s framed as an American phenomenon. It tells us something about how the rest of the world sees America, and it relates to America’s dominance on the world stage since the mid 20th century, and the increasing global ubiquity of American businesses and brands, such as the fast food restaurant chain McDonalds.
‘If George had been inhabiting a later year, he would have surely thought of Ronald McDonald before Bozo and Clarabell’ (King 1986: 25). Ronald McDonald, McDonalds’ resident clown mascot, first appeared in 1963. The version that exists today came later, in 1966/7. According to McDonalds’ own brand mythology, Ronald lives in McDonaldland, a fantasyland that became the subject of a lawsuit, for having plagiarised the ‘total concept and feel’ of Sid and Marty Krofft’s psychedelic children’s serial H.R. Pufnstuf (NBC, 1969). In 50s/60s America, burgers, and fast food in general, had become yet another opiate for the masses. According to a survey conducted in 1996, 96% of school-aged kids in America recognised Ronald, who came second only to Santa Claus. Like Pennywise, Ronald is a Pied Piper figure, luring children down a yellow-brick road to childhood obesity, type-two diabetes, heart disease, and other health-related issues.
Pennywise is not just a monster disguised as a circus performer or children’s entertainer then, but a monster masquerading as an ‘innocent’ commercial icon, a would-be lovable mascot. In Meet Mr. Product (2003), Warren Dotz and Masud Husain describe in some detail how advertising mascots became ‘their companies’ unassailable version of themselves concealing the inner workings of the capitalist system’ (2003: 20). Such icons serve to mask and draw attention away from the activities of the corporate entities they represent, corporations that have often been characterised by their critics in terms of monstrosity and predatory behaviours. But this being America, in a bizarre twist of Alice-in-Wonderland logic, corporations have been granted the same rights as people, thanks to the concept of ‘corporate personhood’. But while in American legalese corporations are figured as people, in fiction they’re more often and more consistently rendered as monsters.
This leads us to the advertising mascot-turned-monster trope, a trope I’ve not seen described in much detail anywhere, though pop culture offers no shortage of examples. Possibly the most famous and iconic is the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1984). Ghostbuster Ray’s reaction to Stay Puft is a testament to the sticking power of these mascots, to the affection with which they’re held and the sense of betrayal that can arise when they ‘turn’ on you, as a result of their being directed by an alien power. Before Ghostbusters, the UK’s Judge Dredd spoofed Ronald McDonald and the Jolly Green Giant in two issues of 2000A.D.’s ‘Cursed Earth’ saga, in 1978. Like Ghostbusters, Judge Dredd was aiming for humour rather than horror, though the cover for 2000 A.D. Prog 72 (see above) certainly does make for a disturbing visual. By the 90s McDonalds had become synonymous with the concept of ‘McDonaldization’, a term coined by sociologist George Ritzer in 1993 that has, along with a number of other awkward neologisms (‘Disneyfication’, ‘Cocacolonization’, ‘Walmarting’), become synonymous with the idea of globalization as ‘Americanization’, or cultural homogenization, a form of cultural imperialism. Much of the thinking around these terms can be fairly criticised for oversimplifying the more complex realities of cultural exchange, for favouring a model of one-way top-down influence. Nevertheless, this thinking around ‘Americanization’ remains powerful, because it taps into powerful fears – fears of invasion, of colonization – both abroad and at home (for example, via the cultural appropriation and subsequent ‘Disneyfication’ of Native American cultures; see, as well, the Native American mascot controversy).
Riffing on Ghostbusters and Godzilla, The Simpsons’ ‘Treehouse of Horror VI’ (Fox, 29 Oct. 1995) featured a segment entitled ‘Attack of the 50ft Eyesores’, in which various corporate mascots, led by Lard Lad, a riff on the Big Boy Restaurants mascot, come to life and lay waste to the town of Springfield. Forrest Kaysen, the principal antagonist in the Twin Peaks-inspired Japanese videogame Deadly Premonition (Xbox 360, PS3, 2010), also resembles Big Boy (particularly in the dolls of Kaysen that appear throughout the game), as well as the actor John Goodman and, in his appetite for (women’s) pain and suffering, Twin Peaks’ BOB. During the game’s grand finale Kaysen undergoes a series of bizarre transformations, his final form that of a Bunyanesque titan whose head peels back to reveal some kind of alien, one might even say Lovecraftean beastie. This is destroyed during the game’s climax, but the icon endures via a doll carried in the jaws of Kaysen’s equally mysterious dog companion Willie. As the game ends there is a lingering sense of a ‘bigger picture’ that has managed to elude the game’s protagonist, Agent York, and the player. There’s a lot more to be said about Kaysen, but that’s an essay for another day. The important thing here is that idea of the monster mascot as a representative of shadowy forces that evade our notice and/or understanding.
So we have Stay Puft, the 50ft Eyesores, the Jolly Green Giant, and Forrest Kaysen in his final form – giants, one and all. And I described Kaysen a moment ago as being Bunyanesque. Paul Bunyan, for those unfamiliar with the character, is the classic example of an advertising mascot taking on a life of its own. Originally appearing in the oral tradition of lumbercamp workers, Bunyan only became famous following the 1916 publication of a promotional pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company, written by William B. Laughead. This publication fed back into the oral tradition, so by the time professional folklorists appeared on the scene it had become impossible to separate the two.
Some folklorists dismissed Paul outright, branding him an example of ‘fakelore’. The fact that he existed in an oral tradition prior to becoming a corporate mascot was lost, and he came to be seen as a wholly invented character. A line in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2004) supports this myth. The truth is, there’s no neat distinction to be drawn between ‘folklore’ (a category invented in the 18th century) and ‘fakelore’. It’s more complicated than that. While Bunyan’s origins remain shrouded in mystery, various back-stories have been invented, some of which sound quite credible from a historical perspective. Various states have sought to adopt him, to claim him as their native son or as his final resting place. As the 20th century progressed Bunyan became a monument to the American frontier and lumber industry, with Bunyan statues – some of them unique, some of them mass-produced ‘Muffler Men’ – springing up across the country, as tourist attractions and roadside oddities.
In more recent years Bunyan has been depicted as a monster: for example, in Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (dir. Gary Jones, 2013), and in the opening credits of the ‘Weirdmageddon’ episodes of Gravity Falls (Disney Channel/Disney XD, 2012-2016). But for the most striking and memorable depiction of Bunyan as a monster one has to turn to King’s IT, where Pennywise disguises Itself as the local Bunyan statue. Because It is a creature made of history, mythology, folklore and popular culture. It is the imaginative space where all these things converge. It mesmerises children by appearing, not just in the frightening-yet-compelling form of classic movie monsters, but in the form of trusted American cultural icons, such as Bunyan and Bozo. That finally brings us back to clowns, and to the point that I want to make: that Evil Killer Monster Clowns, like Pennywise, often function as an iteration of this other trope that dominates the American pop culture landscape, the advertising mascot-turned-monster, the Jekyll-and-Hyde Mister/Monster Product.
It seems fair to say that corporations are regarded with more suspicion today than they were in the 50s and 60s, a period often referred to as ‘the age of mass consumption’ – not that mass consumption was confined to those decades. In the UK that suspicion can be seen in the increasingly stringent laws introduced in order to try and control how corporations advertise their products to children. For example, the free gifts I can remember finding in cereal boxes as a child in the 90s and early 2000s now appear to be a thing of the past, at least in the UK (though I was surprised to discover a small beanbag in a cereal box recently. Perhaps this was allowed because it made a point of promoting exercise?). Looking back at American pop culture of the 50s and 60s – remembering, as King’s characters do, that this doesn’t actually reflect the lived reality, at least not in any straightforward way – it appears shockingly naive, shockingly misinformed, to someone looking back on it from a late 20th, early 21st century vantage point. It was a time when parents were willing to let these ‘monsters’ into their homes, let them take advantage of their kids. A time when parents didn’t think twice about shoving their kids towards the nearest clown.
Stephen King’s IT and its 1990 film adaptation imply that the character of Pennywise predates the 20th century commercial characters I’ve been discussing here, suggesting that the clown’s appearance has changed over the centuries (King 714-7). And as I was writing this article, Entertainment Weekly revealed the new look for Pennywise in director Andy Muschietti’s upcoming adaptation. It’s an interesting look, a mash-up of different historical eras: Elizabethan, Victorian, and 20th century. To refer back to that TV interview I discussed in my first post, there’s a hint of Jung about all this, of King’s framing Pennywise as an iteration of the Jungian trickster archetype. But I find King’s gestures in this direction too broad to be convincing, and in the TV adaptation the clown’s appearance in a 17th century illustration is a glaring anachronism to anyone familiar with the history of clowns. It only serves to underline the fact that Pennywise is at Its most convincing, and most compelling, when portrayed as a 20th century monster.
Clowns and tricksters are not interchangeable; the Evil Killer Monster Clown trope isn’t ‘timeless’. It is a creature made of history and culture, both in the broadest possible sense of those terms, and in very particular ways. In this post I hope to have been successful in examining one of the most inhuman aspects of the Evil Killer Monster Clown and its historic background. Join me next time, for the final part of this series, when I’ll be examining another aspect of the Evil Killer Monster Clown: its status as a ‘human monster’.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2001.
Dotz, Warren and Masud Husain. Meet Mr. Product: The Art of the Advertising Character. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2003.
King, Stephen. IT. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986.