Clowns have become a staple of horror iconography. Their garish makeup alone has led them to become fearsome figures both in fiction and reality. With the huge success of IT revitalizing interest in evil clowns, we look at why people are so afraid of clowns and the history of killer clowns.
“When the heroes go off the stage, the clowns come on”
In the past, clowns have been portrayed as figures who mock the status quo. Court jesters would poke fun at the nobility and be safe from reproach. They were also known for being devilish tricksters and often more malevolent and chaotic than silly. Clowns and jesters were established as beings who expressed their true feelings, leading them to present beliefs that could be seen as anarchic.
One of the earliest notable instances of a murderous clown is in the Italian opera Pagliacci which premiered in 1892. The character Canio murders his wife and her lover during a performance. It set a precedent for the clown to be both a horrific and tragic figure, subverting the usually jovial interpretation audiences traditionally associated with clowns. Who knew this would lead to the clown becoming a figure of evil instead of laughter?
“Why so serious?”
The idea of taking the visage of a clown and twisting it into something malicious has only become more prolific as time has marched on. The rictus grin and pale skin of the clown were appropriated in the 1928 silent film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs. This frightening countenance would be popularized with the introduction of the comic book villain the Joker. The Joker would come to personify everything wrong with a clown. His destructive nature and disregard for the accepted structure of society fed into the classical archetype of the mean-spirited jester.
In the decades that followed, we’d see the clown become a more typically sadistic figure. You can find evil clowns almost anywhere in pop culture. From the shape-shifting monster Pennywise in Stephen King’s It to the demented Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, clowns have become synonymous with villains. There’s the mascot for Twisted Metal, Sweet Tooth, or the slovenly Violator in the comic book Spawn. Even Halloween‘s Michael Myers committed his first murder while wearing a clown costume. The stereotype is so prevalent that comedic evil clowns exist, like the aliens in Killer Klowns from Outer Space or the terminally incompetent Sideshow Bob in The Simpsons. There is no shortage of these monsters.
Does this concept have its roots in reality? Are there real-life evil clowns who have inspired these figures? Unfortunately, yes.
“Clowns can get away with murder”
On December 21, 1978, police searched the house of John Wayne Gacy in regards to several suspicious disappearances. In the following days, police would discover 27 bodies on Gacy’s property. The part of this horrendous story that feeds into our culture’s fear of clowns is that Gacy performed as a clown named Pogo. Gacy never committed his crimes or abductions while dressed as Pogo but this revelation painted clowns in a whole new and disturbing light.
What’s eerier is the urban legend of clowns appearing in cities and trying to abduct children. These reports began as early as 1967 but have continued to show up in modern times. The idea of a clown being somewhere it shouldn’t is an inherently creepy concept. Add to that the perception of a clown as a friendly character towards children and the paranoia is warranted. Granted, some of these incidents are attributed to pranksters and people just “having a laugh.”
“Introduce a little anarchy”
In a way, that brings the classic archetype full circle. Clowns will always be viewed as a manifestation of the inherent absurdities in our existence. They exist to “upset the established order,” as one evil clown has said. Clowns will always be scary. Though they may not have started that way, they certainly have ended up as such. Maybe it’s better that these harlequins are viewed as frightening. It allows for storytellers to use their unnerving nature in new ways.
For now, the killer clown trope is here to stay. Their painted grins will always hide something darker beneath the surface. It’s within that fear that our imagination has let these once beloved beings to become figureheads of fright. No one is safe from a killer clown. In fact, one might be behind you right now…
A version of this article was previously published on October 31, 2016.