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Welcome to the Circus: Clowns in Horror Cinema

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

Horror films are full of monsters. Creatures from the deep. Ghosts, zombies, witches, aliens, werewolves, vampires, you name it. The word monster is derived from the Latin monstrare, meaning “to show or display” and according to several horror scholars it is linked with the idea of warning.

Some monsters are obvious in their animalistic appearance and behaviours, and some are more devious and deceptive, like witches and vampires who notoriously blend into society with relative ease. This makes clowns perhaps the most unique horror monster of all. They are not animalistic in the way werewolves or aliens are, nor are they closer in appearance to humans in the way vampires and witches are.

So what is it about clowns that makes them so scary?

While the word ‘clown’ did not come into popular use until the 16th century, the figure of the entertainer, jester, or fool dates back to ancient times. One of the most popular characters in Greco-Roman theatre was the ‘rustic fool’, a village idiot-type figure whose purpose was to make fun of the wealthy and better-off in society, particularly the Royal Family. By the Renaissance, this figure had become the harlequin, a trickster dressed in a checkered costume. The harlequin would perform acrobatics, magic tricks, and play pranks on the aristocracy, including slapping their behinds with wood; this is where we get the phrase ‘slapstick’ comedy from. Many of these harlequins were purposely disfigured to make their smiles permanent; this detail most certainly inspired the look of Conrad Veidt’s freakshow character Gwynplaine in the 1928 German Expressionist film ‘The Man Who Laughs’.

By the 19th century, the circus introduced the harlequin figure as a clumsy idiot more akin to the classic fool of ancient Greece and Rome, and the sad clown became a popular figure in French pantomime. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘Hop-Frog’ in 1849 is one of the earliest and best-known representations of the ‘evil clown’ trope (famously featured as a subplot in Roger Corman’s 1964 adaptation of Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’). Before this, clowns were comic and satirical figures meant to lighten the mood; Hop-Frog introduced a more sinister element to the clown.

The sad clown became increasingly popular in 1930s America. The legendary Lon Chaney famously starred as He, a bitter clown determined to rescue and end up with the woman he loves, in the 1928 film ‘He Who Gets Slapped’. Amid the Great Depression, an economic disaster that impacted every aspect of American life, the ‘hobo clown’ emerged. The ‘hobo clown’ was a character created by circus performer Emmett Kelly – whom he called Weary Willie – who reflected the ‘down on his luck’ guy through his tattered clothes and exaggerated red nose, which should be comical but instead insinuated literal depression, as crying can turn your nose red. A version of this clown character would be resurrected in the insanely popular US animated TV show ‘The Simpsons’ as everyone’s favourite daytime television show host Krusty. By the 1960s, the fast-food franchise McDonalds had capitalised on the comical element of the clown by creating Ronald McDonald as a marketing tool to appeal to children. With his television show ‘The Bobo Show’, Chester Barnett, better known as Bobo the Clown, helped the clown become popular at children’s parties, going back to their Renaissance and circus roots with slapstick, acrobatic, and magic acts.

This all changed in the 1970s with the capture of serial killer and sex offender John Wayne Gacy.

Gacy, who was known in the media as The Killer Clown, was found guilty of the murder of 33 young men and boys. Gacy was a well-respected and active member of the community. He was known in his hometown for his personas Pogo the Clown and Patches the Clown which he used to entertain children in hospitals and various charity events. Gacy’s use of the clown figure created a cultural association between clowns and evil. They were no longer mischievous and whimsical children’s entertainers. They were now a threat in disguise. This cultural association between clowns and evil was bolstered when horror icon Stephen King published ‘IT’ in 1986. Set in the small Maine town of Derry, ‘IT’ tells the tale of a sinister, fantastical creature - whose preferred appearance is Pennywise the Dancing Clown - who feasts on children every 27 years. This emphasis on children as the victims of clowns strengthened an association with paedophilia.

Clowns became a popular figure in horror films because they were an easy scare. Directors and screenwriters knew audiences were frightened of clowns and so they began to pop up everywhere, from Poltergeist (1982) to Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), from Stitches (2012) to Terrifier (2016). And of course, the most infamous of them all was Tim Curry’s sublime performance as Pennywise in the 1990 mini-series of the aforementioned ‘IT’. Andy Muschietti’s 2017 adaptation of the classic King novel was a revelation and proved that scary clowns can still be scary, even in the modern age.

"Can you smell the circus Georgie? There's peanuts...cotton candy"

Psychology 101: Why are Clowns Scary?

Clowns are scary for two essential interconnected reasons: their appearance and their behaviour.

On the surface clowns look relatively human. They have the same facial features as us but they are exaggerated, which creates an uncanny sense of separation and disassociation. When we look at clowns, we are searching for something familiar, something tangible to associate with, but we can’t.

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” – H. P. Lovecraft

Due to their exaggerated features, our minds struggle to form a connection, which subconsciously creates a barrier between us and the clown. Essentially, they’re uncanny: something familiar but strange. This is further emphasised by the clowns’ costumes: they are often random colours and have the same basic shape as regular clothes, but there is something off about the way it sits on the clown’s body.

And don’t even get us started on the weirdly disturbing but comically huge colourful shoes.

Clown make-up also plays havoc with our minds. Human beings are social animals who read social cues from the facial expressions of other people. A smile means someone is happy, a droopy mouth means someone is sad, and a frown means someone is on the verge of anger. The opposite is often true of a clown. Their emotions are artificial, and a clown’s behaviour often does not compliment it’s facial expression. A sad or angry clown may present you with a gift or a smiling clown may attack you with a knife. The inconsistency between their appearance and their behaviour makes clowns unpredictable, igniting an existential uncertainty and fear of absurdity deep in our subconscious. The Clown Terror of 2016, a bizarre event that took place shortly after the election of Donald Trump, is a real-life example of how fear of uncertainty and the absurdity of our reality can manifest in society.

Clowns are the perfect horror film monster, especially for children. They often lure their victims in with promises of whimsical childhood activities like eating candy or playing with balloons. Furthermore, the human mind creates associations between real-life events and fiction, so knowledge of the crimes of John Wayne Gacy may influence how frightening a viewer finds clowns. Their exaggerated features are strange-looking and monstrous and as stated above their unsettling unpredictability makes interactions with them uncomfortable, which only heightens their dangerous allure.

We think clowns are definitely up there with some of the most terrifying monsters. Check out some of our recommendations (both good and bad) below:

  • House of 1000 Corpses

  • It (TV mini-series)

  • It (Part 1 and 2)

  • Clown

  • Killer Klowns from Outer Space

  • Clownhouse

  • Poltergeist

  • American Horror Story: Freak Show

  • Fear of Clowns

  • All Hallows Eve

  • Terrifier

  • The Clown Murders

  • The House on Sorority Row

  • Gacy

  • Jingles the Clown

  • Wrinkles the Clown

  • The Funhouse Massacre

  • 31

Do you find clowns scary? Is a trip to the circus an unsettling experience for you? Let us know what your favourite creepy clowns are.

- Victoria Brown

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