When did clowns become scary?

Over the past couple of decades, it seems to have become the running agreement that clowns are an agreed motif and recurring horror character used to scare little (and big) children. God knows there’s plenty of spoof and genuine horror films out there which use the clown figure as a staple in their plots. So what has caused the clown’s initial purpose of being funny and entertaining to be turned around so completely? Today’s portrayal of the original jolly, laughing figure seems to be long-lost, and now seems to represent the very opposite image – one of malevolence, cruel trickery and in a lot of cases, crazy killers.

I think one thing which we can blame (and certainly the earliest example which comes to mind) is Tim Curry’s infamous portrayal of evil-alien-killer-clown ‘It’ (or Pennywise), which targeted children and gave many of us sleepless nights, This sparked the evil clown genre, which such films with classy titles like Mr Jingles (2006), In Fear of Clowns (2004) and perhaps the highlight of this genre, ‘Killer Klowns from Outer Space’, with the tagline “In Space No One Can Eat Ice Cream”.

And of course there’s other, slightly more subtle examples. The most prominent I can think of is Gotham City’s very own Joker, whose dark clown imagery could be said to epitomise the idea of anxiety and self-identity, warped humour and of course, the ultimate intelligent supervillain to polarise with Batman’s hero-image.

And who doesn’t have a scary clown story? From the forced-laughing-at-the-birthday-clown debacle, to scary dreams involving clowns, to even something as obscure as not liking odd or bright coloured things as a young child because they’re seen as unsettling or ‘alien’. In these cases, it’s certainly easy to see why clowns aren’t funny, and when added to the horror film clowns, they become something a bit more disturbing.

And yet, back in the days when clowns used to genuinely entertain in circuses and drama plays, the clown was often seen as a fun figure, whose main purpose was to amuse others. If you even look back to the days of court as far back as the medieval ages, the ‘joker’ or the ‘jester’ was exactly this, an entertainer, a singer, a fool who did gimmicks and someone who was ready to keep the audience laughing and smiling. Even in more recent times you may see examples such as McDonald’s famous Ronald McDonald (who seems to have mysteriously disappeared these days), or even cynical Krusty the Klown in popular animated series The Simpsons, and is still referenced in children’s cartoons and television shows.

I think it can definitely be said that children these days are a bit more serious and cynical compared to their parent’s and older generations, and much more likely to look at clowns with scorn. With access to technology today like there never was today, and emphasis on a different kind of entertainment, clowns are however, fast becoming a thing of the past. There’s probably some people out there who actually ARE amused by clowns, and the fact that they were silly, mismatching clothes, have large feet and can make cute balloon animals, and these are probably far and few. I can even imagine that clowns are becoming something vintage icons to be used in today’s media and labels, yet this is probably just that, an iconic fad to look pretty and quaint, rather than the original jolly image of a costumed entertainer. I suppose it’s rare these days to have clowns at a birthday party, or even many clown films out there which AREN’T scary (haven’t seen any released by Disney anyway), which probably shows that clowns are becoming a symbol of the past for some, and that’s there’s other figures on the horizon to be entertaining and/or scary (there’s always those Ben 10 monsters?). Maybe even one day, clowns will be re-invented to become the original entertainers again, and something to laugh and clap at.

But hey, just because they’re not all scary, doesn’t mean they can’t still eat you : )

Image from Cyanide and Happiness

4 thoughts on “When did clowns become scary?

  1. Paige Renae

    Another thing to think about is thei murderer John Wayne Gacy. If you do not know him, he *was* a serial killer who originally lived in Chicago, moved to Iowa, and moved back to Chicago after a divorce. He was convicted of torture, rape, and death of 29 boys ages from about 10 to mid twenties. He also admitted he killed more, the police just couln’t find the bodies. He lured them into his home two different ways. For the older men, it was job offers from his construction cites. For the younger, he would go to birthday parties as a clown for the entertainment. Knowing that a man has dressed up as a clown and tortured, raped and killed more than 29 boys seems pretty scary to me; if I were Steven King or someone else, that would influence me to write a book, make a movie, or do an art piece of one.

  2. Pingback: When did clowns become scary? | The Harlequin Tea Set | SAKRED CIRKUS !

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