An Unnatural History of Evil Clowns

While most clowns are generally delightful, it’s no hardship to locate a red-nosed, deviant threatening to do you harm! Join us in a look back at the unnatural history of evil clowns.

| September 2016

Bad Clowns (University of New Mexico Press, 2016), by Benjamin Radford, blends humor, investigation, and scholarship to reveal what is behind the clown’s dark smile. This book describes the history of bad clowns, why clowns go bad, and why many people fear them. Going beyond familiar clowns such as the Joker, Krusty, John Wayne Gacy, and Stephen King’s Pennywise, it also features bizarre, lesser-known stories of weird clown antics including Bozo obscenity, Ronald McDonald haters, killer clowns, phantom-clown abductors, evil-clown panics, sex clowns, carnival clowns, troll clowns, and much more.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

It’s misleading to ask when clowns turned bad, for they were never really good. As our cursory review of early clown history reveals, a dark side had always lurked just below their caricatured features and painted smiles. Clowns and jesters have always been strikingly ambiguous characters, neither clear heroes nor villains, but either or both at different times as suits their murky purposes. The evil clown character may have flourished and found new fame over the past few decades, but there is nothing new about it. Joseph Campbell, in his classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, notes that in mythology the clown and evil are inextricably linked: “Universal too is the casting of the antagonist, the representative of evil, in the role of the clown. Devils — both the lusty thickheads and the sharp, clever deceivers — are always clowns...

They are the mistakers of shadow for substance: they symbolize the inevitable imperfections of the realm of shadow, and so long as we remain this side of the veil cannot be done away” (Campbell 1972, 294).

The bad clown is a compelling character and has inspired many people (of varying degrees of ability and creativity) in many media. From comic books to cartoons, video games to films, bad clowns have made an indelible mark on popular culture. There seems to be no pathology too sick, no act too depraved, that a bad clown won’t gleefully take on to please his (or, less often, her) adoring fans.

Clowns may be scary to many people, but they are not inherently threatening the way a coiled rattlesnake or knife-wielding mugger is. The fear of clowns stems from a latent, potential harm, a suspicion that the seemingly silly and harmless pratfalling fool before us may in fact not be so silly, so foolish, or so harmless. Most of us (the adults anyway) understand that the clown is an act — a fake and fantastical persona adopted for a short time as part of a social event. It can be cute and funny at the time, though we may not want to be around when he decides to stop acting.