Hello everyone to yet another installment of Shocktoberfest, and today’s monster is one that I originally forgot to put on the list, but after giving it some thought, I felt that no Halloween season would be complete without a cross-cultural character that is the source of many phobias: clowns.
The word’s origin is a bit sketchy, but it is assumed that it first began to be used around 1560 and may be rooted in Scandinavian terms which refer to clumsiness and boorishness (“klunni” in Icelandic and “kluns” in Swedish). Around the year 1600, it began to be applied to anyone who seen as either a fool or a jester. The painted face that we’ve become accustomed to wasn’t widely practiced until the English entertainer, Joseph Grimaldi, designed the original “whiteface” clown in 1801.
Grimaldi’s clown became the template for which many modern clowns were derived. Also known as clown blanc, the whiteface clown had white makeup covering the entire head and neck without having any skin exposed. These are typically the more refined clowns who don’t always have to rely on being oafish or clumsy and sometimes can be sad. The auguste clown is more of the hobo type made famous by Emmett Kelly. These clowns often have their own skin tones showing with dark makeup to highlight and exaggerate their features. These are the ones more commonly associated with comedy since they usually aren’t very bright and make a lot of mistakes, sometimes at the behest of a whiteface clown.
Although clowns are meant to be seen as silly and fun, many do not see them as such. While it is not recognized by the World Health Organization as a valid disorder, maybe people identify as having coulrophobia: a fear of clowns. This term is relatively new–being cited only as far back as the 1980s–and is assumed to have gained more usage with the advent of the internet. Where this fear comes from is a matter of speculation. Some claim that it’s because the altered features makes the clown enter the uncanny valley. Others say that traumatic experiences with clowns as hostile figures have led to many adults developing a phobia towards them. One of the most famous examples is the 1990 film adaptation of Stephen King’s It.
Several years before the release of It, there was a tragic case of a serial killer and rapist named John Wayne Gacy who sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. Gacy also had a particular hobby aside from all of that.
With killer clowns haunting us in movies and reality, it’s hardly a wonder that clowns have become synonymous with distrust and fear. Even prior to the despicable acts of Gacy, Batman creator Bob Kane recognized the creepiness of the clown and made his hero’s archnemesis the clown prince of crime: the Joker.
Despite his origins being different from medium to medium, one thing about the Joker has always been consistent; he’s a complete sociopath with a sick sense of humor. Like the clowns of old, he’s quick with a joke and uses a host of props to get a laugh, but he’s almost always the only one laughing since the butt of the “joke” usually ends up dead.
Over the past 40 years, clowns have been a staple of inducing fear into the audience. Films like House of 1,000 Corpses and Poltergeist exploited the fear of clowns as well as video games like the Twisted Metal franchise. But if there’s one medium that has been trying to raise the bar with creepy clowns, it would television’s American Horror Story with the featured harlequin known as Twisty.
What fascinates me about clowns is that they’re sort of the opposite of the merfolk in many ways. In Shocktoberfest #10, we looked at how mermaids and mermen have gone from being portrayed as vicious sea monsters into beautiful and innocent creatures with an affinity for humanity. Clowns have devolved from their positive inception. What were supposed to be funny people who were there to make us laugh at their bumbling antics have become unsettling predators who are on the prowl to have fun at our misery. Perhaps that’s the ultimate joke when it comes to clowns being portrayed as monsters. Comedy purists often posit that humor comes from some form of misery or pain–which explains the appeal of slapstick–so by turning that pain away from the clown and into the victim, it really means that the joke is on us, and sometimes the punchline can knock us dead.
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