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A group of people in evil clown costumes at a PDC 2008 party at Universal Studios

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.

Contents

OriginsEdit

 
Enrico Caruso as the murderous Canio in Pagliacci

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",[1] 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."[2] 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.[3][4]

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.[5]

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[6] 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."[7][8] 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".[9] 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[10] in 2016 and is regarded as an expert on the phenomenon,[11] 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."[10]

InterpretationsEdit

 
Generic "evil clown" makeup

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).[12]

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".[13]

Urban legends and incidentsEdit

Bad clownsEdit

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."[10]

Phantom clownsEdit

The related urban legend of evil clown sightings in real life is known as "phantom clowns".[14] First reported in 1981 in Brookline, Massachusetts, children said that men dressed up as clowns had attempted to lure them into a van.[15] 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;[16] and 1995 in Honduras. Later sightings included Chicago, Illinois, in 2008.[15] Explanations for the phenomenon have ranged from Stephen King's book It and the crimes of serial killer John Wayne Gacy,[14] to a moral panic influenced by contemporaneous fears of Satanic ritual abuse.[15] It also shows similarities to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin.[16] No adult or police officer has ever seen the evil clowns,[15] though a prankster called the "Northampton Clown" has been cited as a real-life example of an evil clown.[17]

There is a popular urban legend in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia in which the fiendish entity at the centre of the tale appears to be an early representation of the odd crimes and violent behaviour of a mentally disturbed vagrant in the city parks of Brisbane Australia in the late 1930s. Queensland Police records details of a handful of petty assaults in which various women and children were set upon by a fiend who resembles the modern idea of the evil clown. The victims were pushed around and subjected to a tirade of taunts and bawdy humour by a man dressed as a clown. The assaults which lasted only a few minutes saw the victims pinched, pushed and barraged by filthy jokes by a lewd and vicious painted joker. The man behind the makeup was dock worker Franklin Smith.[citation needed]

Smith, a notorious drunk and thief, was well known to the local constabulary. The case turns strange when arrest records show that Smith refused to take off the clown outfit he was wearing. Smith stated that it was gifted to him by a dying gypsy woman and had been reported to be the very same outfit worn by a jester clown who had murdered a Romanian King due his amorous intentions for the victims Queen. Whenever constables tried to remove the garments Smith became violent and animalistic. Refusing to be quiet at his trial and mocking the presiding magistrate with foul humour and ridiculous gestures Smith was sent to what was then known as the Goodna Insane Asylum. The events which led to the institutionalization of Franklin Smith were further compounded by the hospital records of another inmate whose detailed sessions bear witness to Franklin reportedly talking to the clown suit at night.[citation needed]

Legend says that even the staff of the asylum could not force or convince Smith to remove the jester garments. However, fellow inmates swear that he would often take the suit off in the dead of night. Hanging the outfit on his cell wall he would converse with it like a second party. One inmate claims that he had heard the suit answer back. The myth became even more mysterious in light of the actions that led to Franklin's death. Smith was feared and despised by all the other inmates despite him never having spoken or interacted with any of them. The hospital medical examiner records in great detail that Smith was attacked by a vast number of inmates when undertaking his routine bath. A senior guard at the hospital diarised the event and made note of a second group of inmates banding together to ensure the cell holding the clown suit remained locked while the mob lynched Smith in the bath house.[citation needed]

According to hospital records the clown suit was fitted within a state issued body bag of the times and transferred to the Dutton Park mortuary for internment in the lower section of the Dutton Park Cemetery. Mortuary documents reveal a complaint to the State government health board over the apparent gluing of a clown outfit onto the cadaver of Franklin Smith.[citation needed]

State government investigations further detail a war of letters between the hospital and the funerary staff with hospital staff oblivious to how the clown suit had even been transferred along with the body let alone glued to the corpse. Enraged by the complaints, hospital official Dr Basil Stafford sent his head of staff Dr Peter Novel to view the body. Correspondence between the two doctors reveals a perturbed account from Dr Nobel who confessed that not only was it the suit that Franklin had worn but it was in fact glued or somehow tarred to the body of the murdered thief come jester.[citation needed]

Dr Nobel further added that attempts to remove the costume were only successful in tearing away large chunks from the corpse and the decision was made to bury the infernal thing with the body. Franklin Smith was buried in an unmarked grave in Dutton Park Cemetery in 1941. The cemetery was made famous by the 1974 Brisbane floods in which a large section of the graveyard was washed away with some coffins still unaccountable. Further scandal over the council allegedly tampering plot records and using headstones for landfill have also brought the cemeteries name to the news headlines.[citation needed]

It is however the growing number of sightings and accounts of people being pushed or prodded by an invisible assailant and various sightings of a creepy phantom clown at the cemeteries river edge that are sparking news interest and growing the legend. If local historians are accurate the site of this spate of phantom clown activity falls right at the area in which Franklin Smith was interred 12 feet down at the request of the then commissioner Johnathan Lairborne.[citation needed]

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.[18]

Murder of Marlene WarrenEdit

On 26 May 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.[19]

Clown sightingsEdit

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 the Stephen King novel It.[20] Although rumors said that the clown may have a knife, the clown himself denied these rumors through social media.[17] 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.[21]

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.[22] While the original Wasco clown was merely a project and for fun, other copycats also started appear and in some cases with weapons.[23]

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.[24]

In 2016, the first sighting of the "killer clowns" was in 19 August 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.[25]

Response to evil clowns in mediaEdit

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.'"[26]

Depictions of evil clownsEdit

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

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