Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Horrible New Face of Clowns

Sujata Massey

As noted recently in The Washington Post, now is a bad time to be afraid of clowns.
Because they are everywhere.

Pennywise the Dancing Clown features in the film It, based on Stephen King’s famous book. And when I tuned into the FX program American Horror Story Season 7, I found more than one very twisted, homicidal clown. Later this year, a film called Behind the Sightings releases that is inspired by alleged menacing clown appearances in 2016.

This coming Saturday, September 15, 2017, clown-styled people will be gathering to protest in Washington, D.C. These self-described “Juggalos,” who first organized in appreciation of a band called Insane Clown Posse, are protesting their classification as a gang by the FBI and US Department of Justice. The Juggalos claim that people with Juggalo clothing, makeup and paraphernalia have gone on criminal watchlists, lost jobs, and more. After looking at their photos, it appears most of the Juggalos are not in full clown drag, but enjoy elements of clown makeup and clothing. 

So when did clowns become rightening enough to get the government involved?

It seems a journey centuries in the making. Early clowns appeared in Europe and Asia as court jesters or buffoons. They were mainly jokers and not necessarily dressed to obfuscate their identities. These clowns played a role in government—not just to entertain royalty and their vistitors, but to sometimes provide inside information. Then came circuses--with exotic animals often led by trainers in clown costumes, and clowns onstage and in parades and at children's parties. A clown seemed like shorthand for fun. 

In the 1960s, a clown with a bright red wig became an upbeat symbol for McDonalds hamburger chain. Ronald McDonald, and a small cast of cartoonish friends were designed to make children beg their parents to stop at the restaurant's trademarked Golden Arches. 

However, the longtime, happy go lucky McDonalds clown image became tainted when subversive Japanese filmmakers made short film clips purporting to be commercials showing a Ronald McDonald character stalking young women in their homes. These images went viral and resulted in McDonalds downplaying Ronald.

This corporate action is striking, because Ronald McDonald houses provide overnight shelter for the families of sick children are all over the United States--sometimes for weeks at a time. And inside many hospitals, amateur and professional clowns regularly visit children on the wards. The World Clown Association supports traditional clown work in circuses and in parades and service activities aimed at military veterans and senior citizens. They have spoken against nonprofessionals using a clown image to frighten the public.

I don't suffer from fear of clowns, which has a formal name: coulrophobia. I grew up of age when clowning was highly popular, and in fact evolved into a huge 1970s fad for mimes with beautifully painted faces. The greatest pantomime of all, a Frenchman named Marcel Marceau, performed in white face. Seeing a picture of Marceau in his skinny outfit with top hat and fabric flower triggered pleasant memories for me. 

I grew up to witness my own children’s natural discomfort with people covered up in outsized costumes, whether they were familiar Sesame Street characters or clowns. I get it. If you see someone who doesn’t have the skin or hair or hands of a person, and whose face is fixed into a false, colorful grin, your brain registers alarm. A face that doesn’t react with empathy or other expressions feels unsafe.

I imagine that the people who dressed up as clowns and appeared near playgrounds and on the edges of woods in 2016 and other recent times enjoyed carefully putting on makeup and costume and becoming something unrecognizable. There is a real power when one transforms the everyday appearance.  If you’ve ever changed your appearance for a wedding, dance, job interview, military occasion or religious event, you may have had this feeling of becoming bigger and bolder than your usual self.

Former Trump advisor and current Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon labelled white supremacists as "clowns"--notwithstanding the fact that many of these so-called clowns are followers of his right wing website.

The irony is that on Saturday, Sept. 16, Trump supporters will rally on the Mall in Washington very close to where the Juggalos have their permit. Any resulting interactions may become a circus--but I doubt there will be happy laughter. 


  1. While I won't go so far as to call it a phobia, I admit that I don't like clowns. They do make me uncomfortable, and though I don't remember any unpleasant experiences (from childhood or otherwise) that caused my strong negative opinion of them, I definitely don't like them. They creep me out.

    (That said, I don't think the Juggalos should be considered a gang if they're really not one. People should be free to dress as they please if it's not hurting anyone else - even if it makes some people uncomfortable.)

  2. Sujata, what a great topic. I trace the widespread troubled image of clowns to the Batman movies. The Joker is a supervillian. I think the creators of that character had a moment of genius when they took a beloved image that might have been slightly treating around the edges and made it the incarnation of evil. Scarier than scary.

    My past work with CEOs convinced me that all very powerful leaders desperately need someone who plays the role jesters played to medieval kings--the person who is allowed to speak truth to power without fear of reprisal. In fact, I was often the person who did that for my clients. But if I were doing that work today, I would not use the phrase I used in the 80s and 90s--"What you need is a jester." They would think I was wishing they had a super threat next to them in their corner offices. "Jester" has changed its meaning.

  3. I can't say that clowns ever intimidated or pleased me. On the one hand there was the Clarabell of my Howdy Doody days, and on the other, the clowns of "Clockwork Orange."

    I'm basically neutral on the subject, perhaps because I'm a lawyer and we have so many in the profession. :)

  4. I am afraid. I am very afraid. ... Of clowns.