Picture a clown. How does it make you feel? Do you see a red-curled pantomime with rosy cheeks, or a murderous monster with sharp teeth? Do you think of clowns as jovial creatures who present flowers? Or evil actors who bring a gun to a theater.
With the controversial Joker film recently becoming the top-grossing rated-R film in history, clowns receive yet another induction into the horror/thriller genre. But what about the real clowns? The clowns that you don’t see portrayed in horror movies.
The clown has traveled far and wide, beginning in Ancient Egypt, then China, making their way to pre-colonial America. The clown is a cultural staple that very few want to admit exists. But clowns weren’t always perceived as monsters.
In the early 19th century, the clown phenomena was revolutionized in the United Kingdom by one depressed man — Grimaldi. He pioneered the clown we see today (makeup-wise) and started the sad/broken clown trend that snowballed into Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick stories, the story of a broken clown battling with alcoholism, finally to Stephen King’s “Pennywise” a murderous entity that takes the form of an eerie clown.
Alyse “ZigZag” Axford
Cut to Alyse Axford, better known by her clown alias “ZigZag,” part of the dynamic duo in the “ZigZag and Rags” clown company in Bellingham. She has been a clown for over two decades and even auditioned for the Ringling Bros. company, and is a member of Clowns of America International.
“At my first clown convention, I was just looking at the amazing faces of these people and I said that’s what I want. I want it symbolize my face and I call it the circus clown face,” Axford said.
The average annual salary for an entertainment clown is $36k, while a rodeo clown is about $52k. Since there are less families hiring clowns, there are less gigs. But these factors don’t inhibit Axford in any way, who still gets steady gigs through the spring and holiday season.
Yet even with business going smoothly for most clowns, there is a decrease of new membership. Incoming clown membership has decreased from 3,500 to 2,500.
“We do have junior Joeys out there and their kids on up til 16, I believe,” Axford said. “They have their outfit already, they have everything they know and they’re just so excited, you know, to learn from a real clown of how to properly do these things and have a good time.”
Corinna Cook is a journalism student at Western Washington University but used to travel with the Gesundheit Institute to Costa Rica and Illinois and several other places. She equips herself with the tools of fun to try to break the patients free from their present predicament.
“We were all in a circle passing the balloon around. It was after that that I think one of the nurses mentioned that that was the most she’d seen the residents move. It was a moment,” Cook said.
“And it felt really good that we had helped them, kind of bring themselves together.”
The Gesundheit institute was founded in 1991 by Patch Adams — which is a name you may recognize if you watched the movie of the same name starring the late Robin Williams. The institute has traveled all over the world to countries recently experiencing turmoil and visiting the children along the way. These clowns don’t bare fangs and when the children see them, they smile rather than cry.
In a 2014 Pediatric Journal, researchers conducted a survey to see if clown doctors and medical volunteers had reduced some initial anxiety the children had before they went into surgery — excluding the children who were scared of clowns beforehand. They found that those who had a “clown doctor,” or someone who were goofier and less serious were slightly less anxious about surgery than those who had regular doctors.
Linda Severt is a clown doctor who works at the Seattle Children’s hospital in a program called Room Circus. She doesn’t have a medical degree, yet her results bring long-lasting medical benefits.
When working with a child with autism, Severt had seen a side of her nobody could reach. Severt and her team passed around a ‘D-light,’ a device that can be put on a finger and light up when touched. Severt passed this around until it finally went to the girl.
“She was actually engaging with us, which nobody else had been able to do. And the guard, when we went out, she said, ‘I can’t believe what I just saw.’”
Why do people recoil in fear when they see a clown? The scientific term, Coulrophobia, or a fear of clowns, can be attributed to either internal or external influences from clown exposure. People started becoming wary of clowns after the 1970s, subsequently after the John Wayne Gacy murders. Then there were the clown attacks in 2016.
Cook recalls her own experiences when telling a classmate about her activity as a clown.
“I can’t hold it against [people]for being afraid of clowns because they’ve probably had some sort of scary event. Not to mention all of the horror movies and books and TV shows and stuff that use clowns as a very frightening thing,” Cook said.
Clowns are foreign to us. Their entertainment was meant for people who had little for entertainment, for the easily entertained and the less cynical. Now that people are overwhelmed with entertainment options from their phones, TV, or games, they no longer understand the art of clowning.
“ I think a lot of misunderstandings with people disliking each other comes from just a misunderstanding of where other people are in life. Give people a second chance,” Cook said.
“Don’t be afraid to be weird. Be yourself. It gets boring when you have to conform to certain standards of how you’re supposed to act in certain situations,” Cook said. “It’s okay to be a little weird sometimes. Embrace it, it makes life more interesting.”
Clowns have not changed as much as we think they have. Their faces may be painted differently and instead of acting like a drunken fool, or making a statement on society, clowns like Axford, Cook, and Severt aim to make children happy or help others maintain their inner child.
“I learned through clowning that you look in people’s eyes and that’s the window to their heart,” Axford said. “Just look at them and they’ll talk to you.”
When people demonize a clown for their art, they kill an under-represented form of theater. Critics are the ones who act a fool when they take life too seriously.