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The evil clown is a subversion of the traditional comic clown character, in which the playful trope is instead rendered as disturbing through the use of horror elements and dark humor. The modern archetype of the evil clown was popularized by Stephen King‘s 1986 novel It. The character can be seen as playing off the sense of unease felt by sufferers of coulrophobia.
The modern archetype of the evil clown has unclear origins; the stock character appeared infrequently during the 19th century, in such works as Edgar Allan Poe‘s “Hop-Frog“, which is believed by Jack Morgan, of the University of Missouri-Rolla, to draw upon an earlier incident “at a masquerade ball”, in the 14th century, during which “the king and his frivolous party, costumed—in highly flammable materials—as simian creatures, were ignited by a flambeau and incinerated, the King narrowly escaping in the actual case.” Evil clowns also occupied a small niche in drama, appearing in the 1874 work La femme de Tabarin by Catulle Mendès and in Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s Pagliacci (accused of being a plagiarism of Mendès’ piece), both works featuring murderous clowns as central characters.
The modern stock character of the evil clown was popularized by Stephen King‘s novel It, published in 1986, which became the first to introduce the fear of an evil clown to a modern audience. Another one of the first appearances of the concept is that of John Wayne Gacy, an American serial killer and rapist arrested in 1978, who became known as the Killer Clown after it was discovered he had performed as Pogo the Clown at children’s parties and other events; however, Gacy did not actually commit his crimes while wearing his clown costume.
The evil clown archetype plays strongly off the sense of dislike it caused to inherent elements of coulrophobia; however, it has been suggested by Joseph Durwin that the concept of evil clowns has an independent position in popular culture, arguing that “the concept of evil clowns and the widespread hostility it induces is a cultural phenomenon which transcends just the phobia alone”. A study by the University of Sheffield concluded “that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable.” This may be because of the nature of clowns’ makeup hiding their faces, making them potential threats in disguise; as a psychology professor at California State University, Northridge stated, young children are “very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face”. This natural dislike of clowns makes them effective in a literary or fictional context, as the antagonistic threat perceived in clowns is desirable in a villainous character.
Researcher Ben Radford, who published Bad Clowns in 2016 and is regarded as an expert on the phenomenon, writes that looking throughout history clowns are seen as trickers, fools, and more; however, they always are in control, speak their minds, and can get away with doing so. When writing the book Bad Clowns, Radford found that professional clowns are not generally fond of the bad-clown (or evil-clown) persona. They see them as “the rotten apple in the barrel, whose ugly sight and smell casts suspicion on the rest of them,” and do not wish to encourage or propagate coulrophobia. Yet, as Radford discovered, bad clowns have existed throughout history: Harlequin, the King’s fool, and Mr. Punch. Radford argues that bad clowns have the “ability to change with the times” and that modern bad clowns have evolved into Internet trolls. They may not wear clown costume but, nevertheless, engage with people for their own amusement, abuse, tease and speak what they think of as the “truth” much like the court jester and “dip clowns” do using “human foibles” against their victims. Radford states that, although bad clowns permeate the media in movies, TV, music, comics, and more, the “good clowns” outnumber the bad ones. Research shows that most people do not fear clowns but actually love them and that bad clowns are “the exception, not the rule.”
The concept of the evil clown is related to the irrational fear of clowns, known as coulrophobia. The cultural critic Mark Dery has theorized the postmodern archetype of the evil clown in “Cotton Candy Autopsy: Deconstructing Psycho-Killer Clowns” (a chapter in his cultural critique The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink).
Tracking the image of the demented or deviant clown across popular culture, Dery analyzes the “Pogo the Clown” persona of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy; the obscene clowns of the neo-situationist Cacophony Society; the Joker (of “Batman” Fame); the grotesque art of R.K. Sloane; the sick-funny Bobcat Goldthwaite comedy Shakes the Clown; and Pennywise the Dancing Clown from Stephen King‘s It.
Using Mikhail Bakhtin‘s theory of the carnivalesque, Jungian and historical writings on the images of the fool in myth and history, and ruminations on the mingling of ecstasy and dread in the Information Age, Dery asserts the evil clown is an icon of our times. Clowns are often depicted as murderous psychopaths at many American haunted houses.
Wolfgang M. Zucker points out the similarities between a clown’s appearance and the cultural depictions of demons and other infernal creatures, noting “[the clown’s] chalk-white face in which the eyes almost disappear, while the mouth is enlarged to a ghoulish bigness looks like the mask of death”.
Urban legends and incidents
Researcher Ben Radford, looking at the phenomenon of bad clowns throughout history, writes that clowns are seen as trickers, fools, and more; however, they always are in control, speak their minds, and can get away with doing so. When writing the book Bad Clowns, Radford found that professional clowns are not generally fond of the bad-clown persona. They see them as “the rotten apple in the barrel, whose ugly sight and smell casts suspicion on the rest of them,” and do not wish to encourage or propagate coulrophobia. Yet, as Radford discovered, bad clowns have existed throughout history: Harlequin, the King’s fool, and Mr. Punch. Radford argues that bad clowns have the “ability to change with the times” and that modern bad clowns have evolved into Internet trolls. They may not wear clown costume but, nevertheless, engage with people for their own amusement, abuse, tease and speak what they think of as the “truth” much like the court jester and “dip clowns” do using “human foibles” against their victims. Radford states that, although bad clowns permeate the media in movies, TV, music, comics, and more, the “good clowns” outnumber the bad ones. Research shows that most people do not fear clowns but actually love them and that bad clowns are “the exception, not the rule.”
The related urban legend of evil clown sightings in real life is known as “phantom clowns”. First reported in 1981 in Brookline, Massachusetts, children said that men dressed up as clowns had attempted to lure them into a van. The panic spread throughout the US in the Midwest and Northeast. It resurfaced in 1985 in Phoenix, Arizona; in 1991 in West Orange, New Jersey; and 1995 in Honduras. Later sightings included Chicago, Illinois, in 2008. Explanations for the phenomenon have ranged from Stephen King‘s book It and the crimes of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, to a moral panic influenced by contemporaneous fears of Satanic ritual abuse. It also shows similarities to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. No adult or police officer has ever seen the evil clowns, though a prankster called the “Northampton Clown” has been cited as a real-life example of an evil clown. Further complaints of evil clown pranksters have been reported in France, the United States and lately in Germany, possibly inspired by American Horror Story: Freak Show.
Murder of Marlene Warren
On May 26, 1990, in Wellington, Florida, Marlene Warren opened her front door to a brown-eyed clown bearing flowers and balloons. It shot her in the face, drove off in a white Chrysler LeBaron and was never seen again. Her murder remains unsolved.
In recent years, the “evil clown” phenomenon has been trending and growing. While most of these clown sightings have been harmless, there have been suspicion activities and others have been led to attacks and arrest. In 2013 in England, the Northampton Clown appeared on the scene terrorizing the town. The work of three local filmmakers, Alex Powell, Elliot Simpson and Luke Ubanski, the Northampton clown shares similar looks to Pennywise the Dancing Clown from Stephen King’s book, It. Although rumors said that the clown may have a knife, the clown himself denied these rumors through social media. In March 2014, Matteo Moroni from Perugia, Italy, owner of YouTube channel DM Pranks, began dressing up as a killer clown and terrifying unsuspecting passers-by, with his videos racking up hundreds of millions of views.
In 2014, the phenomenon moved to the United States, when the Wasco clown showed up in social media in California. Again this clown would shared similar resemblance to Pennywise. During an interview with the Wasco clown, it was revealed that the social media postings are part of a year-long photography project conducted by his wife. While the original Wasco clown was merely a project and for fun, other copycats also started appear and in some cases with weapons.
In 2015, starting in the summer, clown sightings began to appear again. In late July, a “creepy” clown was seen around a local cemetery in Chicago and terrorizing anyone in the graveyard.
In 2016, the first sighting of the “killer clowns” was in August 19 in Greenville, South Carolina by a little boy who told his mother that two clowns tried to lure him into the woods. After this appeared in the news, the sightings of these clowns spread throughout the country.
Response to evil clowns in media
In 2014, Clowns of America International responded to the depiction of Twisty on American Horror Story, and evil clowns in media generally. President Glenn Kohlberger said, “Hollywood makes money sensationalizing the norm. They can take any situation no matter how good or pure and turn it into a nightmare. … We do not support in any way, shape or form any medium that sensationalizes or adds to coulrophobia or ‘clown fear.'”
Depictions of evil clowns
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- Pagliaccio and Crazy Joe Da Vola’s depiction of him in the Seinfeld episode “The Opera“
- The Joker, the arch nemesis of Batman whose key features are chalk-white skin, green hair, red lips and a permanent smile, purportedly caused by a chemical bath, and in various appearances is depicted as a murderous and sadistic psychopath.
- The Jokerz, a street gang in the cartoon series Batman Beyond, basing their appearance on the Joker but acting like typical gangbangers.
- Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the main antagonist in Stephen King‘s novel It and its film adaptation in which he’s portrayed by Tim Curry.
- Shakes the Clown, a depressed, alcoholic clown framed for murder and coming into conflict with other clowns, in the eponymous film by Bobcat Goldthwait.
- Laughing Jack, is a famous Creepypasta character, whose form is that of a small doll, shaped like a clown. He was given to Isaac Grossman for a Christmas present by a guardian angel, but Jack became evil and sadistic and eventually killed Isaac for neglecting him then went on to kill others.
- Red Bastard, a bouffon clown created and portrayed by Eric Davis.
- Shawn Crahan, also known as Clown from the metal band Slipknot.
- The Bicycle Doctor, in the film Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a malevolent clown disguised as a doctor who destroys Pee-Wee Herman‘s beloved bicycle after feigning attempts to repair it.
- Captain Spaulding, a gas-station owner, museum operator, and patriarch of the murderous Firefly family, featured in the Rob Zombie films House of 1000 Corpses and its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects. Captain Spaulding is portrayed by actor Sid Haig.
- Dimentio is a megalomanical clown and the true main antagonist of the platformer RPG Super Paper Mario, who frequently makes sadistic jokes at the heroes and secretly resents his master and fellow henchmen, only feigning loyalty seeking to control the Chaos Heart to end all life and rebuild the world in his own image with himself as king.
- Violator, a demon from hell who takes the appearance of a balding, middle-aged man with face paint, and an enemy of Spawn in the comic franchise by Todd McFarlane.
- Insane Clown Posse members Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope present themselves as wicked clowns and rap about the Dark Carnival storyline in their music.
- In the CW show Supernatural, there was a season 2 episode about a Raksasha, an ancient Indian demon, whose main disguise is a clown which it uses at a circus (where it works at under its human form of the blind knife thrower) to follow children home, and eat their parents. Also, Sam Winchester’s worst fear is clowns, and witches often utilize this fear against him. In one season 7 episode, Sam fights multiple demonic clowns.
- Doink the Clown, a professional wrestling character portrayed by a number of wrestlers. He is frequently depicted as malevolent, playing malicious pranks and cheating in unusual ways.
- Kefka Palazzo, the main antagonist of Final Fantasy VI, a psychopath with the outfit and mannerisms of an insane jester.
- Zorn and Thorn, the court jesters of the evil queen, Brahne, in Final Fantasy IX. These insane twins have a similar personality to Kefka from Final Fantasy VI, wreaking havok and using dark magic while simultaneously providing comic relief.
- Sweet Tooth, a homicidal, clown-themed ice cream truck driver in the Twisted Metal franchise.
- Killer Klowns from Outer Space, the 1988 horror comedy monster movie about carnivorous aliens from outer space that resemble clowns.
- Poltergeist, the 1982 supernatural movie directed by Tobe Hooper features a clown doll in several scenes. During the finale, this doll becomes possessed by a demonic presence and attempts to strangle the character Robby Freeling.
- Killjoy, a demonic clown who is summoned to assist revenge plots.
- Clownhouse, a slasher film in which three mental patients escape and stalk a young boy home from the circus dressed in clown costumes.
- Joey and Clara, a male and female clown from the 1966 Doctor Who serial “The Celestial Toymaker” who represent the title villain in a deadly game against the Doctor’s companions.
- A sinister mocking clown seen in a mirror in the Matrix in the 1976 Doctor Who serial “The Deadly Assassin“
- George Cranleigh, an insane killer in the 1982 Doctor Who serial “Black Orchid” who murders and kidnaps in a masked harlequin fancy dress costume (stolen from the Doctor)
- The Robot Clowns, led by the sinister human Chief Clown from the 1988–1989 Doctor Who serial “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy“.
- Sideshow Bob, a clown on The Simpsons who continually tries to kill Bart Simpson. Unlike traditional clowns, he does not wear any sort of make-up.
- Additionally, in the episode “Lisa’s First Word,” a 3-year-old Bart had a nightmare about an evil clown attacking him as he slept, this after Bart goes to bed in a new bed made by Homer. Because of Homer’s poor handicraft skills, the headboard—which was meant to resemble Krusty the Clown—takes on the appearance of an evil clown. The meme “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me” comes from this episode.
- Adam MacIntyre, a psychopathic clown from the Capcom video game Dead Rising, who was driven insane due to being forced to watch his entire audience, including children, be killed by zombies presumably during a show. Also has a psychopathic brother with similar job role in Dead Rising 2: Off the Record called Evan MacIntyre, who attempted to avenge the former.
- Shang Tsung, the one of the player characters in Mortal Kombat, who takes a shape of an evil clown during his usage of his fatality move on opponent, which parodies The Joker’s first fatality move from Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.[clarification needed]
- With his distinctive appearance, surreal feats of magic, and behavior that is simultaneously comedic and menacing, the Tim Burton character Beetlejuice can be considered a manifestation of this theme.
- In the Goosebumps film, several demonic clowns are among the monsters unleashed from the Goosebumps books in the film.
- Twisty, a clown played by John Carroll Lynch who becomes a serial killer, on the television series American Horror Story: Freak Show.
- Frenchy the Clown, the title character in National Lampoon‘s “Evil Clown Comics”, which ran in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
- Art the Clown, a psychopathic clown ghost from the film All Hallows’ Eve.
- In the 1978 film Halloween and its 2007 remake, Michael Myers murders his older sister Judith Myers while dressed as a clown. In Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Michael’s niece Jamie Lloyd wears a clown costume when she stabs her foster mother with a pair of scissors.
- One of the monsters in the 2012 horror film The Cabin in the Woods is a murderous clown.
- In the 2015 Disney–Pixar film Inside Out, Riley dreams about a menacing clown named Jangles.
- One of the principal icons for Universal Orlando Resort’s Halloween Horror Nights is Jack the Clown who is an evil clown who secretly murdered innocent people while working in a circus run by Dr. Oddfellow.
- In the movie The Brave Little Toaster, the main character, the toaster, has a nightmare about a clown who is trying to short him out by spraying him with water.
- Gags the Green Bay Clown
- Ghost clown in Scooby Doo Where Are You? Season 1, Episode 10: Bedlam in the Big Top