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August 2, 2014 6:42 AM   Subscribe

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Clowns: [buzzfeed/buzzreads] The red-nosed pros at the 2014 World Clown Association annual convention know you think they’re creepy. How does a maligned and misunderstood centuries-old art form survive bad PR and cultural decline?
posted by Fizz (60 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I almost entirely blame Bozo. Even as a kid, that guy gave me the deep-down creeps in a way other clowns never did. And, thanks to licensing, he was nationwide for multiple generations of kids.

I mean...There's a reason Krusty strikes a chord with us. He's a parody that is only a slight degree off from being a documentary.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:54 AM on August 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by Fizz

ah, so close to Fizbo
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:58 AM on August 2, 2014

C'mon, squeeze the wheeze! Many people like to.
posted by octothorpe at 6:58 AM on August 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

When did the creepy meme start? I just don't remember clowns being creepy when I was a kid. Was I just protected? Or is it the result of movies that capitalized on some filmmakers clever idea for a counter intuitive quirk that twitched into the internet consciousness?
posted by sammyo at 7:10 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes I'm sure some little kids were scared when thrust at clowns at too young, but I just don't remember the "creepy clown" being around until some horror film used it as a mcguffin.
posted by sammyo at 7:13 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I honestly think Stephen King's It is a big reason. Pennywise is truly horrific.
posted by Fizz at 7:15 AM on August 2, 2014 [9 favorites]

I had forgotten his name, but yes, Bozo the Clown (entrance at 0:55) was truly the stuff of nightmares. I just read the Wikipedia page about him - he wasn't portrayed by one actor, he was some kind of franchise, which may explain some of the creepiness.

Normally, the actor would have to have some kind of complete character to make people like it enough to become famous, but this was just guys put into a suit.

Also, you could tell the linked guy at least is a...mature...man, trying to act all boisterous and fun, and while adults should be able to do that without censure, it's difficult for a middle-aged man to act like a kid without being a little scary.
posted by amtho at 7:21 AM on August 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

I certainly think that "It" plays a huge part - I, neither, remember any "scary clown" meme as a child. But...

I mean, you know... Aren't we all overlooking the giant elephant in Chicago?

Pogo the Clown
posted by symbioid at 7:38 AM on August 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

My mother tells a story that I'm too young to remember as anything but a story. I was not quite two, I think, when a few neighborhood kids that occasionally babysat me and my older brother stopped by the house on Halloween. My mom invited them inside and said to me, "Look, baby-o, it's Jimmy and Nancy!" or whatever their names were. Jimmy was dressed as a clown. Apparently I froze in my high-chair the way squirrels freeze when my dogs sight them, staring in noiseless panic at this thing that had violated the threshold of our home. Then the screaming started. Jimmy took off his wig and his fake nose and tried to console me, saying "it's OK, baby-o, it's me, Jimmy!" but I was inconsolable. Naturally this event scarred me for life and drove Jimmy to delusional guilt and substance abuse.

In short, fuck clowns.

In all seriousness, though, there's something elementally unnerving about the sort of unrestrained jouissance that clowns represent. I'm not quite willing to say it's universal, but we go way out of our way to set limits to enjoyment, pleasure, happiness, joy—and you don't have to agree with me, but this doesn't strike me as absurd. Every primal force is terrible. At some point silliness and happiness and fun and joy start to transgress itself and display its horror: the snake eats its own tail. I mean, we hardly know much at all about the Bacchic and Dionysian ecstatic rituals because the first rule about Pleasure Club is that we will fucking kill you if you talk about Pleasure club. A corpse's rictus grin; la petite mort of orgasm, especially autoasphixiation, where the link between death the pleasure of sex could not be more apparent; DFW's entertainment so powerful it kills you in Infinite Jest; overdose as outcome of pleasure-seeking; Christ's suffering on the cross as the representation of God's love for humankind. And didn't I read somewhere that disorders that evoke near-constant orgasms are nigh unto unbearable. I couldn't say when clowns in particular came to be creepy, but it does seem to me that the link between the pleasurable (the fun) and the terrible has been around a long, long time. So it seems to me only natural that our culture's archetypal evocation of The Fun should also lend itself to an enantiodromia wherein The Fun gnaws away at itself and shows The Fear within.
posted by mister-o at 7:51 AM on August 2, 2014 [126 favorites]

Mister-o, I'm told that babymc had a similar reaction when my mom put on a blond wig.
posted by jonmc at 7:53 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a kid, I loved Bozo. I was actually on the NYC Bozo Show in the early 60s. I was hoping to get Bosco chocolate milk but that was only given to the kids in the front row. I was very disappointed. But I still loved Bozo.
posted by tommasz at 7:53 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I honestly think it's the weird disassociation kids feel when they can see someone through a disguise. Giant costumes where the heads are completely hidden aren't scary to kids, nor are princes/princesses that come to parties. But mall Santas make kids cry so quickly, as do clowns, because you can see someone underneath all the trappings, and you don't know this person! It's like the actor can't quite stop being themselves, and they're certainly not who they're trying to be, which causes a little short-circuit that makes you think, "RUN!"
posted by xingcat at 8:05 AM on August 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Maybe they're just as scared of you as you are of them. Or, as Charles Mingus put it, "Don't Be Afraid, The Clown's Afraid, Too".
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 8:11 AM on August 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm surprised no one has even brought up Ouchy the Clown (link NSFW)
posted by surazal at 8:18 AM on August 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Awwwww, the WGN Bozo from the early 80's was an amiable, late-middle-aged dude who was totally nonthreatening. The main memory I have of him is him cheating to make sure really little kids who were terrible at The Grand Prize Game won at least a few trinkets.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:21 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had not thought about Ouchy in many years. That was OK with me.
posted by thelonius at 8:44 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's also the example of John Wayne Gacy, aka "the killer clown." (ETA: symbioid beat me to it!)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:56 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a world where the circus still came to town, and got taken to a few. All I ever remember doing is laughing at the clowns.

Mimes on the other hand -- well, let's just say they get what they deserve.
posted by philip-random at 8:56 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a picture taken of me, my brother and the actual-real-Ronald-McDonald* sometime around 1990. We were all smiles so it must have happened after then.

posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 9:03 AM on August 2, 2014

That was a surprisingly great article, thank you for linking it.

The first time I ever heard of clowns being thought scary was when one came to perform for my primary school. He came out un-made-up and said something like, "Now, I don't think you children are scared of clowns, but some grown ups are. So, just so I don't frighten any of your teachers, I'm going to put on my costume one piece at a time," and did so -- white face, red nose, big shoes and all. Now I think about it, that was a pretty clever approach.

I've seen some very funny clown performances and don't feel any fear of them as performers or in concept, but I could see running into a crowd of them in a hotel being very unnerving. Or even one, really.

Also, what list of scary clowns is complete without the Killer Klowns from Outer Space?
posted by daisyk at 9:11 AM on August 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

I can't remember finding clowns in general scary as a child, but I do remember seeing a real clown or two close up when I was little and being grossed out/creeped out by how greasy they looked. Also I found it creepy the way the wacky clown make up was at odds with the dead-eyed blank expression of the person beneath the make up.
posted by cropshy at 9:24 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

The first time I was "told" that clowns were scary was a very early episode of The Simpsons. Clearly the show didn't make this up entirely but it is an amazing cultural zeitgeist. I mean it was, and they coined the phrase "can't sleep, clowns will eat me."
posted by aydeejones at 9:36 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm convinced that what people hate about clowns is the makeup and costume, and this article confirms it. I have seen Cirque Mechanics Birdhouse Factory a couple of times, and there is a clown in it. Let me tell you, people LOVE this guy and are laughing and enjoying the show. But...he's not dressed in the damn makeup and clown costume, he looks like a regular guy who is quietly being physically funny. Nor is he being annoying or rude to people in the audience.

There are also a few girls I've met in this area that perform as clowns, doing balloon animals and the like. People adore them, and I've always found them to be very sweet and nice and not obnoxious at all (even if they are in the outfits to some degree).
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:46 AM on August 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's Gary Busey as a loveable Dunk Tank Clown in 1980's Carny.
posted by Cookiebastard at 10:28 AM on August 2, 2014

there's something elementally unnerving about the sort of unrestrained jouissance that clowns represent.

Yes, I think this is what does it for me as well. They're not scary in the way that a bird of prey flying angrily at your face is (ok, or even just a confused moth, no flying at my face allowed thx), it's more that they're unsettling and creepy in a way that seems to violate a deeply held inherent social contract. Forced jollity that doesn't break character passes easily over the line from just weird to outright skincrawly, and once you feel the creepiness of it, it's hard to let go of that feeling.
posted by elizardbits at 10:32 AM on August 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm thinking Something Wicked This Way Comes is probably also some kind of antecedent here — not for clowns specifically being creepy, but for circuses in general as creepy and evil and fucked up.

(And Stephen King was a big fan of Bradbury, and of that story in particular.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:29 AM on August 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

...huh. Okay. The Wikipedia article for "evil clown" is pretty damn thorough.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:30 AM on August 2, 2014

Clowns unsettle me, they don't freak me out, but ask me again if I see one in a storm drain. Good article.
posted by arcticseal at 11:37 AM on August 2, 2014

I've always thought that clowns are creepy because they hide their real identity and their real emotions. You see a person, but you can't see who it is; you can't read their real intentions behind that painted mask. That will always be a bit unsettling at least.

Oh, and with regards to scary clowns in popular culture: the murderous clown doll in Poltergeist is both a clown, and a doll, which is creepy in and of itself: it looks like a person, but it's not. It looks alive, but it's not. Or is it?
The Poltergeist clown manages to be at its most scary when it's suddenly gone from the chair it was sitting in a moment before.
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:39 AM on August 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

My grandfather was a Shrine Clown. Once, when I was maybe 6ish years old, he disappeared into the back bedroom and, sometime later, a clown emerged with his dentures in hand. In my young mind, the clown had eaten my grandfather.

Many years later, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He and his wife had a disagreement about proper burial dress. She insisted that the clown suit was inappropriate. Rumor has it that the compromise they came to was suit on top, with clown pants and shoes. The red nose was in his breast pocket.
posted by MuChao at 12:46 PM on August 2, 2014 [16 favorites]

Most clowns of the painted-face variety are Freemasons (Shriners), members of a secret society, in which the hoodwink or mass deception against the uninitiated is a primary feature. Tricking people is not done for mere entertainment of the audience, but as a ruse to raise animal spirits, as part of neo-pagan occult ritual workings. I view most clowns as agents of a sinister alternative religion.

Besides, clowns originated in medieval morality plays as representing The Devil. Yeah, lets invite the devil over to entertain the kids, great idea.

Comedic entertainment is fine, but a painted-face is not needed for that. Leapin' Louie Lichtenstein is a good example of clownish entertaining without the terrifying costume.
posted by obsolutely at 1:48 PM on August 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree that it's time for society to ease off clowns. Still, I had no idea that "gospel clowning" was still a thing. I am dubious in regards to this method of Christian apologetics. I had only heard of it because of Seanbaby's review of an old book called The Ministry of Clowning. ("Using a clown to share Jesus with someone is like using a bag of unexpected snakes to share Jesus with someone.")
posted by Countess Elena at 3:07 PM on August 2, 2014

Perhaps the real reason there are fewer clowns than there used to be is because of attrition from the grim and occult twilight war between gospel clowns and Satanist Masonic clowns.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 3:19 PM on August 2, 2014 [11 favorites]

Apparently I learned to talk in order to tell my parents that the clown face my grandfather painted inside my crib was terrifying the shit out of me day and night. I guess I'm a hipster now. Seriously, though, fuck clowns.
posted by darksasami at 4:18 PM on August 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

darksasami, this link's for you..

For those who are claiming the deadly clown is a modern idea.. surely it goes back at least as far as Pagliacci (1892), no?
posted by Nerd of the North at 4:23 PM on August 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ooh, another opportunity to drop in the Birthday Clown Consortium Price Guide.
posted by whir at 5:26 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

At least a dozen clowns will be at breakfast with your family, during which time they will make conversation in their goofy, high-pitched voices, and mechanically eat their food with giant fixed grins on their makeup-caked faces!
posted by whir at 5:27 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read an article about coulrophobia once. The author described treating a woman, who suffered from this, and who had become obsessed with the idea that her husband was leading a secret life as a clown. He gave her an affirmation to repeat. It went something like "Even if my husband turns out to secretly be a clown and a mime, he still deeply loves and respects me". I felt like a terrible person laughing at that - this was a real human being in pain - but I just could not stop.
posted by thelonius at 7:13 PM on August 2, 2014 [20 favorites]

I felt like a terrible person laughing at that - this was a real human being in pain - but I just could not stop.

That's pretty clown-like dude
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 7:18 PM on August 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

I filmed one of the neo-pagan occult rituals here. You can easily see what the Shriners are attempting to do, with their musical and visual interpretation of Abdul Alhazred's work, but fortunately they failed in their goal of summoning a shoggoth to Kansas.

Clowns in general, when I was growing up, weren't particularly scary until I read IT at a formative age. I used to love my area's version of Bozo. Somewhere in the closet, I have a bozo phone which has a kinda evil laugh as its ringtone.
posted by honestcoyote at 7:44 PM on August 2, 2014

Clowns make me deeply uncomfortable, but I wouldn't describe it as a fear; there's no panicky feeling. It's more of a hatred. I have very vague memories of being at a circus when I was very little and being "accosted" by a clown. I put it in quotes because I'm sure he wasn't being malicious, his job was just to engage with the kiddies and make everyone laugh. But I've always been been quite shy and withdrawn around strangers, and having to deal with someone who is aggressively jolly, trying to get you to play along, not taking the hint that you're not interested, and making you feel like the ass for not being a "good sport"... that's a fucked up situation for a little kid.

But yeah. Not a fear or clowns exactly, I just don't want to be in the same room as one. Though I did once find a clown nose in the gutter in front of my house, and that was pretty unsettling. Like I was being surveilled by the clownspiracy.
posted by rifflesby at 7:56 PM on August 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

I posted this old picture of me and a clown titled "Me and The Scary Clown". About two thirds of the way down the comments a guy schools me on the story of this particular clown. I ashamed.
posted by DaddyNewt at 8:37 PM on August 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

Poltergeist nuff said...
posted by pearlybob at 8:49 PM on August 2, 2014

I don't like clowns because they seem so aggressive. Like the article said, the traditional makeup seems like "the visual equivalent of screaming" and they're always getting in everybody's face and acting incredibly bizarre. I mean, that's their job, it's OK in general that they do that...but sorry, I personally just way too introverted to not be MASSIVELY uncomfortable around it.

On the other hand, I think physical comedy is hilarious (yeah, puns, too. What can I say? My dad is a Frenchman who took me to a 3-D Jerry Lewis marathon when I was a child because I begged to go. I mean, this is basically in my blood). And I don't think that people have the same reaction to slapstick as they do to clowning (IMO slapstick is more like comedic dance or acrobatics). Nobody was creeped out by Mr. Bean, as far as I know. What's really the difference between slapstick and clowning? I feel like with a clown's performance, there's this undercurrent of the audience being expected to get involved with the performance or interact with the clown himself, even if it's just by reacting strongly/visibly. That undercurrent isn't in a lot of slapstick performance or most scripted theater in general. Not even for performers that do "cringe comedy," that requires a strong reaction from other performers/characters and the audience (I'm thinking of something like Larry David's show). But that kind of extreme/visible reaction and undercurrent of expected interaction between performer and audience is in stand up, at least for crummy performers. That's why stand up gets hecklers in a way that other kinds of performance don't, I think.

So maybe clowning is related to stand up comedy, more than it is to slapstick? In that case, I wonder what kind of clown Jerry Seinfeld would qualify as. Not really a "sad clown." More like a nebbish clown?
posted by rue72 at 10:32 PM on August 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

I feel like with a clown's performance, there's this undercurrent of the audience being expected to get involved with the performance or interact with the clown himself, even if it's just by reacting strongly/visibly.
This is the missing piece of the observation that I was trying to put into words, which is that the "self enjoyment" to "audience enjoyment" ratio often seems to favor the clown. I understand the appeal of clowning; putting on a different mask/persona is a powerful thing. Just ask any kid on Halloween! But I think that participatory aspect is what I've always found off-putting about clowns.

(Then again, I'm one of those people who break out into a cold sweat whenever I'm in an auditorium and it becomes clear that the cast is going to come out and mingle with the audience during a musical number, or that somebody is about to be singled out for "audience participation". I just want to watch the show, leave me alone!)
posted by usonian at 6:52 AM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is the missing piece of the observation that I was trying to put into words, which is that the "self enjoyment" to "audience enjoyment" ratio often seems to favor the clown. I understand the appeal of clowning; putting on a different mask/persona is a powerful thing. Just ask any kid on Halloween! But I think that participatory aspect is what I've always found off-putting about clowns.

And yet, you remove the make-up and add a tuxedo, you have a magician. People are far more receptive to that particular form of entertainment. It's not entirely the same but there are many overlaps in the way that the audience is involved.

Sidenote: I fear David Blaine as much as I fear Pennywise.
*imagines David Blaine looking up from a gutter grill asking me if I have a moment to spare*

posted by Fizz at 7:03 AM on August 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

About two thirds of the way down the comments a guy schools me on the story of this particular clown.

Clown Alley! That's where they lie in wait to leap out at you and honk a toy horn in your face.
posted by elizardbits at 10:00 AM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Still, I had no idea that "gospel clowning" was still a thing.

Wow, a cousin of mine made a clown ministry movie around 1980. All I remember about it was that he cast his own dog as the pet of the clown minister. (My cousin was a fully grown adult, professional industrial filmmaker at the time.) I didn't understand it then, nor do I now. However, no part of the clown minister movie scared me.

Also, with regard to the source of the Evil Clown meme, Steven King as noted above is certainly a big part of it, but let's not deny Jack Handy his immortal contribution, which I think was first published around 1982 on the back page of Omni Magazine:

"To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kind of scary. I’ve wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad."
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 3:20 PM on August 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

And I had no idea that clown dog ministers was a thing.
posted by thelonius at 4:31 PM on August 3, 2014

I know exactly when I started to find clowns scary, and it was upon encountering the nightmarish Laughing Clown At a Blackpool Pleasure Beach at age 5 or so.

I honestly think clowns and fairs and circuses are supposed to be tapping into some weird pagan creepy folkloric stuff though.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:07 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I feel like with a clown's performance, there's this undercurrent of the audience being expected to get involved with the performance or interact with the clown himself, even if it's just by reacting strongly/visibly.

I don't know much about clowns, but I've marched in a couple of small town parades in the last couple of years, and the people watching are very passive. I think that passivity is killing parades, and it wouldn't surprise me if it was what killed clowns. I can imagine a time before TV/movies when live informal performance like clowns/jesters and parades were much more interactive, but we've become conditioned to just receive entertainment.
Think about the highest grade street performers and buskers you have come across. They invariably strongly engage with the audience, and as a group we still seem to be able to engage a bit with buskers, but make it the slightest bit more formal, like a parade or a circus ring and the part of our brain that is used to *watching* entertainment takes over and we become passive viewers.
I think this transformation might be even more recent. I can remember watching parades as a kid and having the crowd yelling and cheering and calling to the paraders, and that would have been at a time when the adults in the crowd would have grown up with no TVs.
posted by bystander at 3:13 AM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

That was a great article. People should read it.

Also, she got to the heart of what clowning is at the end. And it is a fierce, frightening discipline. I can't think of anything I've done that was more scary than being in a clown workshop - it's standing in front of a precipice with nothing but you to save yourself with, and that 'you' has an unpredictable tendency to shit itself. Which is where the laughter comes from.

The inoffensive well-meaning folks in the article aspiring to humour in make-up and big shoes - well, mostly inoffensive - they are just dipping their toes at the edges of a vast deep stormy ocean, and the writer got that.
posted by glasseyes at 5:15 AM on August 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

My mom made me a stuffed clown doll when I was a child. I still remember the black, lifeless patches of cloth where its eyes should be. Naturally, I was terrified of it. Naturally, she was offended something she worked hard on and made just for me would get buried in the closet or stuffed behind a shelf where it wasn't staring at me with dead, lifeless eyes. So we would play a game where I'd hide it and she'd get mad and put it back out in my room and I'd get the bejesus scared out of me because IT KEPT COMING BACK.

It finally ended when my little child brain convinced her it'd be great if she let me take it to the beach to play with, whereupon I grabbed it, splashed out as far as I could and hurled it into the sea shrieking "I DON'T LIKE CLOWNS."

She finally got the hint.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:14 AM on August 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

I've got to say, I read this article yesterday and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. Really excellent writing.

I've never really been afraid of clowns but I guess I've never really had a chance to see one in person other than, like, standing at the same stop waiting for the bus on the way to downtown Santa Monica.
posted by town of cats at 8:51 PM on August 4, 2014

I'm so glad that I kept reading till the end. I don't care about the clowns, but, well, I can't express my thoughts better than by pointing to what glasseyes said.
posted by hat_eater at 8:37 AM on August 5, 2014

I like how the reporting on clown conventions is somewhat similar to how they report on furry conventions.

(except less sex focus)
posted by Theta States at 12:01 PM on August 5, 2014

Clowns have always struck me as creepy because they seem like the one force in the universe that would have reason for revenge -- they are bound by their career to entertain, and if they don't, they are laughed at but not for the right reasons. They eternally walk the fine line between being entertainers and being humiliated for failing. Why wouldn't they want to get back at the people who shamed them? And what do you do when the thing that you used to delight in without a single thought for their well being turns on you? You realize how much they have in their arsenal to target back at you. Scary as hell, man.
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:29 PM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm another one who saw their first clown (at the age of four, according to my parents) and immediately began howling in terror. Still don't like 'em. Faces that look like they're smiling when they're not really smiling are creepy.
posted by nonasuch at 3:47 PM on August 9, 2014

Clowns are scary, and they always were, long before Stephen King and others. I always hated circus because of clowns showing up at unpredictable intervals.
However, it seems to me that older generations don't share this widespread fear of clowns. So it would be interesting to learn when this change happened and why.
posted by mumimor at 7:43 AM on August 15, 2014

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