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.
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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.
Carlo Rotella, writing in American Scholar, described a childhood friend obsessed with clowns:
Tom C. cultivated a morbid obsession with clowns. Instead of merely doodling in class, he created obsessive dossiers of clown types: the savage Jester, the crocodile-teared Sad Clown, the enigmatic Bowler Hat, the rare Plume Clown, the annihilating Whiteface. He practiced different stylized ways of saying the word clown — drawing it out, barking it sharply, stretching his rubbery features to make a demented face while he said it, adopting a strangled or booming voice — as if he could figure out what was hiding in the word by turning it inside out... Tom trained himself to wake up in the night and tape-record descriptions of his clown-filled dreams while they were fresh in his mind, and he kept his dream tape in the ‘Freak Out Box,’ but one day he decided that listening to the tape might do him irreparable harm, so he destroyed it without ever playing it. (Rotella 2004, 52)
What is the nature of a clown that makes it scary? “The great silent horror actor Lon Chaney Sr. once said, ‘A clown is funny in the circus ring, but what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight and finding the same clown there in the moonlight?” (Barker 1997, 88). As for clowns and devils in the moonlight, Jack Nicholson’s Joker asks the widely quoted question, “Tell me, my friend, have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” in the 1989 film Batman. Clive Barker, in his BBC series and book A-Z of Horror, notes that “Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, agreed with Chaney: ‘That, to me, is the essence of true horror — the clown, at midnight. Horror is something peculiar to the individual — a small child’s (and frequently an adult’s) fear of the dark . . . and most particularly the phantoms of the imagination that populate the dark. The fear of a human being who doesn’t act, think, or look like a human being’ ”
(Barker 1997, 88). Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait has offered his own take on why clowns are scary: “Most people get nervous when they see a clown, because clowns give off this vibe that they are going to make you touch their penis” (quoted in Stott 2012, 5).
Books about circuses feature many clowns, and though most of them are funny, silly, and playful, it’s not difficult to find genuinely (and unintentionally) frightening ones. Everything about clowns is exaggerated, from their primary-color clothing palette to their props. They wear shoes and eyeglasses many times too big and may accentuate their thin necks by wearing collars several sizes too large. The exaggeration almost always extends toward the greater extremes for the simple reason that they mostly perform in front of crowds, who need to see and hear their props. A tiny pair of eyeglasses or a minuscule ear trumpet may, in theory, be just as funny as gigantic ones, but these will be lost on anyone more than a few feet away. For this reason clowns rarely deal in subtlety and nuance; instead they are creatures of the large and the loud, often armed with denuded dead latex fowl.
Some clowns paint eyes on their eyelids, giving the unnerving illusion that their eyes are always open, always watching. Clown Felix Adler appeared on the May 1950 cover of Buick magazine with a mouth painted on his chin, giving the appearance of a gaping, sparsely toothed maw just below his real mouth — creepy enough, until of course he opens his mouth and suddenly seems to have two open mouths on his face, one atop the other. This seemingly genial face paint could easily inspire a character in a Stephen King or Clive Barker novel.
We typically see clowns interacting with others, usually other clowns. As an observer we understand the situation and are comfortable with it. But if there is no one else around — no other clowns or volunteers from the audience (and they are always volunteers) to act as the clown’s foil — then by implication we are suddenly Shanghaied into the situation and onto their ship of fools. As Lon Chaney noted, as long as there is a third person for the clown to interact with, we feel safe, but if alone with a clown we are nonconsensually part of the act, for better or worse (and, we often suspect, worse). Monty Python veteran Eric Idle mused on the fear that clowns bring: “Clowns are grotesquely painted, horrifying mad people who come lurching toward us, threatening us, involving us” (quoted in Weinberg 2007, 37).