Pennywise is Not a Queer Icon
I was never bothered by clowns as a kid. I even had clown music box that I loved, though it is certainly “creepy” by today’s watered-down standard for the uncanny. When I was a pre-teen/teenager, I wanted to run away and join the circus; I wanted to become a clown.
But so I never really got why people were afraid of clowns. Afraid of heights, afraid of falling, afraid of snakes, afraid of spiders, even people who are afraid of birds — like, those fears I get. I don’t have those fears, necessarily (except for snakes — fuck snakes, man), but I understand why people do. But clowns?
When you say you’re afraid of clowns, is it an unsettling fear? like the way that I find Kevin James or the Blue Collar Comedy Tour unsettling? Is that what you’re talking about? Leering gazes, unwanted attention, physical signals of alcoholism and poverty on their faces and clothes… Sure, that’s unsettling. I’ll give you that. But fear of clowns? How is that a thing?
And now the new It movie has come out (27 years after the miniseries, natch…), so people have been non-stop talking about scary clowns, and how afraid of clowns they are, how terrifying a clown is, blah blah blah. I still don’t get it. I mean, I saw the It miniseries, and Tim Curry’s Pennywise was, indeed, fucking terrifying, but that’s because Tim Curry was playing an eldritch horror who feeds on children, not because he was dressed in a damn clown suit. He could have been dressed as a big purple blob and been every bit as nightmare-inducing. That’s the power of Tim Curry.
Fear of Clowns or Fear of Serial Killers?
But anyway, there’s a new It (minus the teen gangbang scene, which we should never forget is (a) in the book and (b) still hasn’t really been disowned by Stephen King… ew.) and people are fun on the Internet, so the Memes have made Pennywise the Babadook’s new boyfriend. And even though many monsters may be inherently gay icons, I’m not super comfortable with claiming Pennywise, but I couldn’t figure out why, until I saw this tweet:
But just because this tweet rang true with me, that doesn’t actually make it true. Because there’s also this:
So, what is the truth? Have kids “always been scared of clowns” or is this coulrophobia a cultural artifact of something more recent — of the John Wayne Gacy murders? Let’s go a-linguisting and see if we can figure it out!
Let’s Talk About Clowns
People have been talking about clowns for a very. long. time. Unfortunately, since chit-chat doesn’t solidify, the best proxy we have for things people talk about is what people write about so let’s go to the books. Here’s the n-gram for “clown” and “clowns” since 1700:
Overall, it’s pretty stable. Any kind of bump we get is more likely a data artifact than a sudden rise in clown discourse (though, maybe not… I admittedly am not doing due diligence on these data). Point is, people have been talking about “clowns” for the last three hundred years. But what kind of clowns?
Mostly, people talk about “funny clowns” (the data from 1700–1900 aren’t relevant, nor are the singular vs plural comparisons, so I cut them out), but also “sad clowns” and “ugly clowns”. There’s absolutely zero mentions of “scary clowns” or “killer clowns” in these data. So… from 1700 to 1940, no one bothered to write about a clown that was scary. It seems if people had a fear of things, this might pop up, no?
So when do people start talking about being afraid of clowns?
Fun story, it’s not really until after 1980 (the three or so mentions from 1940–1980 that aren’t data errors are listed in the footnotes) that we get people talking about being “afraid of clowns” or “scared of clowns” or “killer clowns” or “scary clowns” or even a general “fear of clowns”.
So what happened in 1980? Well, there’s the creepy clown under the bed in Poltergeist (1982), the creepy killer clown in The House on Sorority Row (1983), Killer Clowns from Outer Space (1988), and, of course, Stephen King’s novel, It, in 1986. Why the sudden spike in scary clowns in the 1980s after 275 years with barely any mention of coulrophobia? What happened?
John Wayne Gacy happened.
From Killer Clown to Killer Clown Trope
Regardless of King’s belief that he didn’t invent the scary clown, he kind of did. Stephen King’s It is the clear force behind the initial bumps in the n-gram, especially from the 1990 miniseries. But why was IT a clown? King has said that his original inspiration for It was the “Three Billy Goats Gruff” story — “IT” is a troll under a bridge. As he said, “Sometime in the summer of 1981 I realized that I had to write about the troll under the bridge or leave him — IT — forever.” So why the change from a troll to a clown?
There’s apparently a 2013 interview where King claims he made IT a clown because he believed that clowns are what scare children more than anything else. I think that’s a poor memory on his part, and it doesn’t make a lick of cultural historical sense. Because while, yeah, King didn’t invent a fear of clowns, he certainly propelled it from obscure to mainstream. Clowns just weren’t that scary before IT. Why the fuck would you decorate a child’s bedroom in the thing that scares them the most? Why the fuck would you hire a terrifying monster to make balloon animals at a birthday party? No doubt, some children were scared of clowns before the 1980s, but clowns are certainly not “what scares children more than anything in the world”. Ronald McDonald is a fucking clown, after all, and that brand is doing just fine with the kids.
Anyway. King’s IT went from being troll to a clown, along with several other creepy 80s clowns, and I think it’s a safe bet (and tons of other people have also said) that the cultural idea of clowns-as-evil percolating in the 1980s came directly from Gacy.
Jony Wayne Gacy, aka “the Killer Clown”, was arrested in December 1978 and sentenced to death in March 1980. He sexually assaulted, tortured, and killed at least 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. He buried (parts of) 26 of them under his house. He was also known for his charitable work, where he performed as “Pogo the Clown”. Read up on him all you want, but I can’t stomach it long enough to give you any more details.
I, and most of the people I know, were born after Gacy was convicted, but alive when he resurfaced in the news for his execution. So we — the under 45 crowd — have only ever known a world where clowns are already a stand-in for terror. It’s a trope as clear as the Fool was for Shakespeare. And it bothers me that we’ve already forgotten where that comes from. It bothers me that we have psychologized the fear of clowns — focused on their masks, their makeup, their body language — without bothering to interrogate the founder effect of one REALLY FUCKING GOOD performance by Tim Curry, gestated from one REALLY FUCKING HORRIFIC lived experience from John Wayne Gacy: a monster terrorizing children, that most of us would have seen or heard about when we, ourselves, were kids.
So you aren’t afraid of clowns, not really. You’re afraid of John Wayne Gacy.
From Killer Clowns to Killer Queers
John Wayne Gacy’s connection to clowns comes from his performance as Pogo— which is probably how he gained access to at least some of his victims, because kids fucking love clowns. But, at least in the mid-90s when he was executed, Gacy was also connected to the queer community — after all, he was a man who had sex with men (and boys), and then killed them. Gacy, along with Jeffrey Dahmer (who was sentenced in 1992 for very similar crimes), became the proof conservatives needed that queers weren’t just deviant, but actual fucking monsters.
We’re here! We’re queer! We will kill and eat your children!
And that’s why this nonsense where we claim Pennywise as a Queer Icon has got to fucking stop. Pennywise isn’t cute like the Babadook, he isn’t grappling with misunderstood urges like the Wolf Man, he isn’t a poisoned-blood outcast like Dracula (which, oof.), and he isn’t hiding in the shadows, wanting to be left alone, just trying to live his damn life — no. Pennywise is a monster that eats children, specifically young boys. Pennywise is John Wayne Gacy from his blood-red nose to his big floppy shoes, and John Wayne Gacy is not a gay icon.
Pennywise isn’t one of us.
FN: Author side note — This thesis is based on half-baked “breakfast research” so there are bound to be some holes in the theory, and plenty of other people have made the Gacy~Pennywise connection before. My point is that (a) we shouldn’t try to position that character under the big Queer Tent and (b) Stephen King really can be credited with the scary clown trope.
FN: “Here’s why everyone is talking about the new queer icon: ‘The Babadook’”. June 2017, Dawn Ennis, for LGBTQ Nation.
FN: Author side note— Stephen King’s Pennywise is a monster that eats children, specifically young boys, who celebrate his defeat by gang-banging their one female friend. Don’t fucking try to tell me King didn’t have Gacy in mind when he cribbed this. That shit is problematic as fuck, regardless of how much you like King’s writing or the “It” story specifically.
FN: Mentions before 1980 of a fear of clowns:
1949, We Fell In Love With The Circus, p.55: “when I was a tiny child is of being afraid of clowns. I could not see by their expressions what they were thinking or feeling, and yet strangely enough I loved them”
1959, New Meanings of Death, p.28: “They tend to think of death as a person. The death-person might be a frightening clown, for example, or a mysterious figure who makes his rounds in the night. Another feature of the children’s death thinking at this developmental level was their belief that one could “luck out” and avoid death.”
1972, Children’s Book Review 2–4, p.40: “Here we find stories concerning the local launderette, a small boy coming to terms with his fear of clowns, Guy Fawkes celebrations, tales of familiar people like the milkman, in short, brief chapters, each relating a complete incident.”