Why are we scared of clowns?
Inspired by the recent epidemic of ‘clown sightings’, I wrote and directed my first ever short film. It’s 60 seconds long and it features clowns. While I was making it, I thought a lot about why we find clowns so frightening.
In a novel I read once (which I think was by Dean Koontz but I can’t be sure), I remember a description of the narrator’s childhood fear. It was Dopey from the Seven Dwarves. And the recurring nightmare involved running down an endless corridor while Dopey chases you, those rolling eyes and lolling tongue and that smile, as he runs after you, arms outstretched…
Really, the clown craze that took off in 2016 was overdue if anything. There are a lot of very basic and primal fears wrapped up in there.
On the first level, it’s because clowns have been used effectively for horror for a while now. Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT is the most famous example, but there are plenty more — even if few are in particularly strong movies unless you start counting The Joker. And that’s before going into real life horrors like John Wayne Gacy, who raped and murdered over 30 men and boys and also had a sideline as a clown, creating one of those images that just never leaves your brain.
But clowns aren’t scary just because of the monsters and characters who have dressed up as them. There’s also a childhood fear many face that involves the anarchy that they bring, along with the attention. You see a version of it still in many audience members watching stand-up comedy. A fear that you’re going to be picked on and dragged up in front of the audience. I’ve run a comedy night on-and-off for years, and even though it’s friendly and open, people tend to avoid the front row. There’s a fear that you’ll be mocked and humiliated, while everybody else laughs that taps into the same childhood, adolescent fear we’ve all had at some point. It’s the same fear that Carrie tapped into. The cruelty of mockery.
This mockery is part of the tradition of clowning. Jesters have always been able to use silliness to hide the power of truth over authority. Stewart Lee wrote about the Pueblo Clowns of New Mexico, who feature in traditional rituals. They draw a chalk circle and once they’re inside it, the rules don’t apply. Nothing is sacred, as they speak truth and mockery to all. They’re funny and terrifying, with a dangerous edge to their clowning that moves outside of society.
We see that cruelty again in a related character — Mr Punch. Throughout his story, which somehow was deemed suitable for children at any point in history, he kills a baby, his wife, strangers, policemen, all while laughing hysterically and screaming ‘that’s the way to do it’. Eventually, he’s sentenced to be hanged, before overcoming the devil himself. The hysteria can be disconcerting and uncomfortable, even when represented purely by puppets. The high-pitched, manic violence.
There’s still something deeper, though. From our earliest interactions, we learn to communicate through facial expressions. When our parents play peek-a-boo with happy faces and sad faces, we learn even before talking. It’s the most fundamental way we communicate with people. We recognise happiness and fear and anger and sadness.
When those expressions are hidden, we’re uncomfortable. Look at Michael Myers from the Halloween movies. In my opinion, he has the most disconcerting mask any horror slasher has ever worn. It’s not overtly horrific. It’s not a skull, a wolf, an evil clown, or anything like that. It’s utterly neutral. He wears a representation of a face with no expression at all.
And as a quick note, it’s worth remembering what a young Michael Myers dressed up as on the night he killed his sister…
We need facial expressions to help us communicate and reason with someone. If someone comes towards you with a knife, you’ll be trying to take in as much information as possible while you decide what to do. Do they look angry or scared? Could you calm them down or convince them you’re not a threat? But when someone is stalking towards you with a neutral, unmoving face that you still recognise as a face, you’re denied that information.
Bringing that back to clowning, here you have a character that’s painted on another expression over their face. A character who intentionally misleads you with a grotesque caricature of human expression. The famous story about the great clown breaking down into tears — “but doctor, I am Pagliacci” — reminds us that these emotions that they convey aren’t real.
Clowns, simply, lie to us. They paint on an expression, establishing a conversation with us founded on that deception. We know that, although they’re pretending to be buffoons, they’re actually highly skilled. And so we have a combination of deception and anarchy. Underneath this, there’s a history, tradition and hierarchy to clowns. And most of us don’t understand the rules. Because we’re not supposed to.
Clowns may humiliate us. They’re dangerous and deceptive by design. And when they’re not in their chalk circle or circus ring, they’re breaking the audience compact with them. They bring the anarchy and destructiveness from their world into ours.
For so many reasons, when a clown turns up at your doorstep at midnight or stands in a park in the middle of the night, it’s frightening.
Please like and share this on social media. It really helps more people see it. The same goes with the “Send In The Clowns” video.