January 16, 2008 5:37 PM   Subscribe

Don't send in the clowns. Why are they considered scary by kids of all ages? Maybe it just makes sense.

Previously on MetaFilter: clowns have frequently been objects of disdain or ridicule, and some have earned their infamy. (At least we have, on rare occasion, acknowledged a good clown.)
posted by wendell (52 comments total)
Disclaimer: I was once paid to write up a List of Bad Clowns, (including, but not exclusively Evil Clowns). Your smileage may vary.
posted by wendell at 5:40 PM on January 16, 2008


It's a very tired cliché, but there is truth in it. I don't find clowns scary, but I sure as hell find myself imploding from cringe and distaste when they're around. I don't know anyone personally who actually likes them. So YAH UR RITE.
posted by everichon at 5:47 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I guess it all goes back to the time we went to the circus and a clown killed my father.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 5:49 PM on January 16, 2008

posted by katillathehun at 5:50 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Clowns are fucking terrifying. Clowns scare me now but they didn't when I was a kid - when I was a kid I merely *hated* clowns. Because an adult acting stupid and getting all up in my face embarrassed me for the both of us. And then other adults would look on and smile? GROSS. It's bad enough for people to act like creeps, and when they're wearing terrifying death-and-blood makeup on top of it it's even worse - and then when you add to that the knowledge that I'm meant to find this delightful? The whole scene is disgusting.
posted by moxiedoll at 5:54 PM on January 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Say what you will about the clowns, at least they're not mimes.
posted by yhbc at 6:02 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Please, please, someone else they actually like clowns. I feel so all alone. I played one in a movie and I was proud of the profession. Those Cirque d'Soleil shows you like? They have clowns. They don't have to be boring or unfunny. It takes a lot of work to pull off mime and make it interesting - another art form that has generated hatred among the ubercool.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:05 PM on January 16, 2008

yhbc, clowns are mimes.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:08 PM on January 16, 2008

Please, please, someone else they actually like clowns.

/me sheepishly raises hand

I like the clowns at Cirque d'Soleil shows. I like the very old-school Ringling Bros. clowns that actually do physical acrobatics.

Clowns at birthday parties, though? Screw that.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:19 PM on January 16, 2008

dances_with_sneetches, as a proud member of the clown profession surely you saw Shakes the Clown?

many shriner clowns are very cool, too, and do a lot of good work for children
posted by yhbc at 6:22 PM on January 16, 2008

Two words: clown ministry.
posted by the sobsister at 6:31 PM on January 16, 2008

posted by The Straightener at 6:35 PM on January 16, 2008

*raises hand*

Clowns are avatars of primal chaos. In the first act, they burst out of nowhere and wreak havoc on the previously-orderly scene. Second act, they are pursued by the forces of order but ultimately make them look like fools. Third act the clowns are finally brought to heel by a trickster or mindless force of nature, such as a gorilla in a tutu. (both semi-chaotic)

So, primal chaos in greasepaint and a fright-wig? What's not to love?
posted by lekvar at 6:35 PM on January 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

I am not anti-clown myself; I feel classic clown makeup can be made to look very friendly and funny if done right, and very creepy if done wrong. Many of my favorite comic actors, from Stan Laurel to Bill Irwin, are self-described clowns, and Red Skelton was a much better clown performer than painter of clowns (and I blame his pictures for a lot of the 'clowns are creepy' reputation.

Clowns are best doing physical humor, and that's probably why the 'birthday party clown', who must also be a ringmaster/emcee/host, just doesn't work for me (and most people, adult or child).

Maybe if we kept the clowns in the circus, and out of politics... (ba-dum-bum!)
posted by wendell at 6:35 PM on January 16, 2008

I read that they evolved from the creature that used to represent The Devil in medievel theatre.

Would be nice if I could provide a link, I know. But at work, on lunch, time is short...
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:03 PM on January 16, 2008

Pennywise scared the crap outa me. The made-for-TV movie incarnation wasn't a bad effort, either.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:05 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of my dear friends is a clown. He toured with Ringling Brothers for four years, as a clown and understudy ringmaster, and is currently touring the world. He's trained in acting, improv, dance, capoeira and other martial arts, and is a magnetically charming and funny fellow. Also - not scary at all. Kids adore him.

So I'm not clownist.

In fact, count me in as someone who's pretty over the whole "scary clown" cliche'. But it would have been fun to watch them jump the shark.
posted by louche mustachio at 7:16 PM on January 16, 2008

"Fuck you, clown!"
posted by sourwookie at 7:48 PM on January 16, 2008 [5 favorites]

Yes, I've seen Shakes the Clown. Funny move. Not a big fan of Goldthwaite - he's the opposite of a clown, expresses through noise what could be said in silence. Still, that's his shtick, so I can't fault him for it.
Bill Irwin is the greatest clown alive. (Alright, I haven't seen him in ten years, but he was the greatest.) (I performed with him once.)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:54 PM on January 16, 2008

BEEP BEEP Richie! They ALL float down here. When you're down here with us, you'll float too!

'Nuf said. Scarred me for life.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 8:00 PM on January 16, 2008

Bastards. I'll have you know that some of our finest humanitarians are clowns [warning: slide-whistle].
posted by horsewithnoname at 8:03 PM on January 16, 2008

I feel really bad for clowns; you enter a profession to make people laugh and all you end up doing is scaring the bejesus out of people. Also, I enjoy clowns and other entertainers like jugglers (even better when done together) as I like physical humor. Also there's that wonderful feeling of letting yourself be happy and silly with others who are happy and silly.

One of my friends has some clown training. She dressed up as a pretty good jack in the box for Halloween once.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 8:06 PM on January 16, 2008

Maybe it's that whole 'uncanny valley' thing. Clowns look like humans, but a bit off - so on some hardwired genetic level we're reacting with the revulsion usually associated with death or disease. I'm not scared of clowns - I just think they're mindlessly dull.
posted by RokkitNite at 8:08 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nightmare file #2,281: Clown porn. Antidote unknown.
posted by loquacious at 8:26 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

My father was a professional clown, and damn good at what he did.

He was the real McCoy too. Big rainbow colored wig with a red top hat. Wide billowy wild top and pants twice as big as him and he was pretty big, with suspenders and bells and big poofy pom poms and more colors than Joseph and the Technicolor DreamCoat. Full whiteface with a big honking red nose and size nineteen tennis shoes also dyed red. White gloves. He could make all kindsa balloon animals and had a wide arsenal of props and silly stuff. He could do anything from tell stories to simple pantomime to slapstick to just being in the moment with a child and point out the wonders of something as simple as a leaf. I can't count how many times I witnessed a child who looked bored or tired or just emotionless just suddenly exude this amazing glow on their face - like watching a flower blossom. The kid's face would literally light up in response to what Dad was doing. The mouth would grow wide with awe and then be all toothy grinny. The eyes would sparkle. Dad knew how to make a seven year old's day.

There was the occasional freak show kid who would take one look at my Dad and go ballistic. I recall once a kid just stood there wide-eyed and screamed at my father like a fire alarm. Complete neural overload. You'd think the kid was on fire.

Part of Dad's job was the access a sitch like that, sometimes win the kid over with a wide array of tried and proven methods, and sometimes gauge the parents' reactions and that of others in the immediate vicinity and determine that backing off worked best. Dad was a good judge of character. Most people, of all ages, dug his schtick and had a good time. He was a walking party, my Dad.

He made many children happy. He made many parents happy. My dad was a giant walking smile on legs. I'm very proud of my father. God rest his spirit-gum caked nose. =)
posted by ZachsMind at 9:00 PM on January 16, 2008 [15 favorites]

Oh, no, loquacious, you didn't... remember Rule #34: "If it exists, there is porn of it" and Rule #34M, "If you mention it in MetaFilter, someone will post a link to the porn of it."
posted by wendell at 9:00 PM on January 16, 2008

Considering the past clown-bashing I've seen here, the response to this post has been better than I expected. Thanks especially to dances_with_sneetches and ZachsMind for the personal stuff. And hey, I agree with Cool Papa Bell on something! And also thanks to katillathehun for getting it out of the way, I knew it was coming the first time I put the post title into preview.
posted by wendell at 10:24 PM on January 16, 2008

"if the kids just love me back..."
posted by maxwelton at 10:34 PM on January 16, 2008

I've never found clowns scary, just extremely irritating and annoying. As a child, I hated adults dressed up as characters, i.e. Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Mickey Mouse, etc. Maybe the hatred stemmed from resentment from my parents telling me from day one that there was no Santa and not being able to celebrate Halloween. But you know what I DO like? Killer Klowns from Outer Space!!!
posted by MaryDellamorte at 10:34 PM on January 16, 2008

All of the people defending clowning are citing examples of extraordinary clowns that they know. I'm sure do they exist, but the problem is... most clowns are not extraordinary. In fact, the majority of clowns are just random guys in bad makeup who clown part-time for birthday parties or malls or something. They're doing it for a quick buck. And since the only requirements for getting the job were 'vague balloon animal ability' and 'willingness to smear cheap paint all over yourself', they don't actually have to be GOOD at it.

These low-rent birthday/mall clowns are the kind your average kid is going to be most familiar with, and kids can tell that they're looking at grown men dressed like assholes doing something they don't really enjoy that much for money. And even little kids can feel embarrassed on someone else's behalf. I know I always did.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:20 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Clowns aren't so bad. The whole clown-phobia thing seems to have gotten started around the same time that kids started getting allergies and wearing bicycle helmets.
posted by washburn at 11:58 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Those Cirque d'Soleil shows you like? They have clowns.

Cirque d'Soleil freaks me the FUCK out. As far as I'm concerned...they're ALL CLOWNS!

I drove by their freaked me out.

I HATE CLOWNS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(apologies to your dad)
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:38 AM on January 17, 2008

No...seriously....even Ronald McDonald looks like a fucking axe murdering ghoul to me.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:41 AM on January 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

I think this sums it up rather nicely.
posted by Wolfdog at 2:19 AM on January 17, 2008

I like rodeo clowns. Those guys are badass!
posted by h00py at 2:26 AM on January 17, 2008

Wolfdog, my third link in the Original Post went to the same cartoon (different newspaper site). Bizarro does kick ass almost regularly.
posted by wendell at 4:19 AM on January 17, 2008

Oops. (Bizarro's about 80% miss for me, but the other 20% are big hits.)
posted by Wolfdog at 4:36 AM on January 17, 2008

I find clowns terrifying. I dislike it when I can't see people's faces to judge their expression (I also hate mall Santas and Easter Bunnies, the Burger King, and anyone else whose face I can't see for the same reason), and clowns are the worst. That smile? That smile is painted on. He's not really happy. That fucker could be thinking anything, he could attack at any moment and you'd never expect it because he'd still have that smile.

I recognize it as an irrational fear, and I've no doubt that the person under the face paint and nose are nice enough. I'm sure there are clowns that bring a great light into other people's lives. I've met people that were professional clowns (but not as clowns) and they were some of the nicest people on the planet.

But still... they scare the piss out of me.
posted by sephira at 5:06 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Can't sleep...clown'll eat me...can't sleep...clown'll eat me...
posted by zap rowsdower at 6:58 AM on January 17, 2008

It isn't the clowns.
It's the smell of the trunks of their cars.
posted by Dizzy at 7:02 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

For me it was the clown in Poltergeist. And Pennywise from It.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:14 AM on January 17, 2008

One time a few years ago I was in New Orleans, and right outside the Cafe Du Monde there was one of NOLA's many unique cultural delights...a street-performing clown! He was surrounded by kids, all of them smiling and giggling and obviously enthralled with this performance of one handed card-tricks. His other hand was down the front of his clown pants, moving back and forth furiously.
posted by Cookiebastard at 7:31 AM on January 17, 2008

"I guess it all goes back to the time we went to the circus and a clown killed my father."

I remember watching Batman 1967 as a wee boy and freaking out when the Joker pushed his face right up into tthe camera / tv set.
posted by celerystick at 7:42 AM on January 17, 2008

"Clowns welcome...clowns welcome..."

/the opening scene in "Quick Change"
posted by darkstar at 7:58 AM on January 17, 2008

I'm on a roll for hating traditional forms of entertainment today, apparently. I apologize to all of you who are clowns, friends of clowns, relatives of clowns, whatever--but I think the entire concept is disturbing in a fundamental way. I have always disliked clowns. The traditional makeup strikes me as most similar to a skull: the wide, unchanging grin, the whiteface, the accentuated eye sockets.

Their antics confuse me. I don't understand how any intelligent adult could enjoy doing it, and that makes me leery of them. It's also really difficult to judge any physical cues, because their clothes hide their posture to some degree and the facepaint obscures their expression.

Imagine if someone wearing nontraditional clown makeup approached you or your children. Would you be disturbed? My guess is yes--and those of us who don't like clowns have the same reaction even to the traditional makeup.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:53 AM on January 17, 2008

I've never understood the "clowns are scary" thing. I think the first I even heard of it, was in "Poltergeist". Maybe it's a case life imitating art.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 9:27 AM on January 17, 2008

The reason I hate clowns

I wrote that 4 years ago. I have hated clowns my entire life, no one can convince me that there is anything wrong with hating them, nor do I believe that it came along with bike helmets and allergies, as I'm old enough that we didn't have helmets, nor have peanuts banned in school.
posted by SuzySmith at 12:28 PM on January 17, 2008

ShowbizLiz: "...doing something they don't really enjoy that much for money..."

That's the operative phrase, Liz. This holds true for any profession. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well. The clowns that people hate aren't really serious about the craft, if they think all they have to do is dress the part and show up. It's more involved than that.

My Dad once met a cute little girl at the amusement park he was working for at the time. He learned while meeting her that she was deaf - this he figured out not by asking but by observation. He only knew the letters, how to say "I love you," and "you're beautiful" in American Sign Language. She gave a little squeal when he said that to her, and then she rushed into his arms for a big hug.

From then on, Dad went out of his way to learn more about American Sign Language, just in case that ever happened again. That's dedication. That's love for your work.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:53 PM on January 17, 2008

Say what you will about clowns and mimes, at least they're not nuns.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:03 PM on January 17, 2008

sephira writes "That smile? That smile is painted on. He's not really happy. That fucker could be thinking anything, he could attack at any moment and you'd never expect it because he'd still have that smile. "

I think you've hit it.

When I was a little kid, I didn't find clowns scary, just incredibly grating. They wore floppy shoes, and adults expected me to find that hilarious. They sprayed seltzer water at eachother, and adults thought I'd love it. Same with cream-pies to the face and multiple car exits. It was like rolling up every adult misapprehension about what kids enjoy into one. Luckily, I never had a clown birthday party or anything, so the fact that I hated clowns was never much of an issue.

I started to find them scary later on, I guess, maybe around junior high (which would be 1984, which was many many years before "kids started getting allergies and wearing bicycle helmets."). I think it's when I noticed that the human mouth inside the red mouth didn't always have the same expression. Maybe I saw a clown taking a break or something. Somewhere around them, I saw "being a clown" as being pretty much tantamount to putting on a happy expression to hide something, and since I was still young enough to think simply, it stood to reason that you'd act happy and good to hide the fact that you're dark and evil.

Apologies to ZachsMind. Maybe your dad would have been the one to make me not hate (if I were really young) or fear (in my middle years) clowns.
posted by Bugbread at 10:35 AM on January 18, 2008

Follow up: Clowns Respond
posted by wendell at 12:10 AM on January 19, 2008

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