His face is chalky white, his eyes dark pits of sinister longing, and his wide red mouth grins at you maniacally, revealing sharp dirty teeth. As he strides towards you, erratic, wildly coloured hair disfiguring the air, his enormous feet shake the ground, and you quake in terror, not knowing what is hiding behind that misleading mysterious mask.
Clowns are supposed to be funny – clumsily parading their colourful outfits and cheeky grins, they offer children flowers which spray water, hit each other with rubber ducks, and supposedly bring fun and joy to the most monotonous of shows. So, why do many children and even adults (me included), admit to being mortally afraid of clowns?
Coulrophobia, that is, the fear of clowns, is a specific kind of phobia which has been documented quite recently. Professors at California State University, Northridge, studied young children who suffer from this phobia, attributing part of its development to the reaction which takes place when a familiar body type is matched to an unfamiliar face. The exaggerated make-up worn by clowns, giving their features monstrous-like traits, not only points to the uncanny, but can also be instinctly perceived as a potential threat in disguise, in that it is impossible to gauge a clown’s true emotions. In other words, you can never be sure whether he is genuinely smiling, or planning to rip your face off.
Researchers who have studied the phobia also believe that there is a correlation to the uncanny valley effect, which is a hypothesis which maintains that when features look and move almost, but not exactly like natural beings, this triggers an involuntary response of revulsion and fear among observers.
Common clown acts include the clown being hurt, or hurting other clowns and this association of someone with a painted smile inflicting and revelling in pain has sinister connotations, suggesting that one cannot trust clowns as their emotions are hidden and their behaviour is erratic. Masks and disfigured faces in films, books and the media, are in fact often used in the horror genre and are associated with fear and madness.
The concept of the holy fool or jester comes to us down the ages from before medieval times. Jesters were entertainers who were used by the upper classes to generate amusement, however as one can perceive from Shakespearean drama and other literature, jesters were also often linked to death, dark truths and obscene humour. Jesters were beyond social norms, a thing apart, free to behave as they wanted and insult even the most important of personages – all in the name of their almost ritual trickery.
The evil clown archetype has become even stronger with the advent of certain developments in popular culture. Stephen King’s IT, the 1986 novel, not to mention its adaptation into film in 1990, terrorised generations of children. The idea of an alien hiding behind the nightmarish disguise of a killer clown living in the sewers, whose power is that of manifesting his victims’ worst fears before eating them alive and whose signature is giving them a balloon to mark their death, is not as unrealistic as it might sound.
King’s novel, in fact, was published only a few years after the notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy was arrested. Gacy, an American serial killer and rapist, was convicted of sexual assault and the murder of at least thirty three teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. He was known as the Killer Clown since he used to dress up as Pogo the Clown during children’s parties and parades. He is notoriously cited as once having remarked to two detectives that: ‘Clowns can get away with murder.’
And what of the well-known character of the Joker prevalent in the Batman movies and comics? Health Ledger’s portrayal of the maniacally insane being in Dark Knight (2008) gave a new meaning to the iconic idea of a jester’s ‘smile,’ not to mention the portrayal of mad, murderous clowns.
Another, more recent addition to this horrific farcical parade is John Carroll Lynch’s portrayal of Twisty the Clown, in American Horror Story: Freak Show (2014-2015). Using toys, eerie music and other tricks of his trade, Twisty murders, rips, bashes, crunches, bathes and strides through a veritable river of blood.
What can I say? No matter how much I try to rationalise it, I still feel uncomfortable every time I see the bright, false grin of Ronald McDonald peering at me round the corner. Is it because of his uncanny features or because of Stephen Kings’ monster? I will never know – what I do know is that I will never, ever, accept a balloon from a clown, that’s for sure.