Why Are Clowns Really Good Villains? - Red Noses, Smiley Faces, and Pure Terror | Fanboys Anonymous
Most of us have heard this campfire story. Parents enjoying a date night at a nice restaurant receive a call from the babysitter who is watching their two children. "Sorry to bother you," says the girl, "But is it okay if I cover that big clown statue you have in the living room with a blanket? I'm trying to watch TV, and it's creeping me out. I feel like its eyes are following me."After a brief silence, the father speaks nervously: "Where are the children? Get them and leave the house immediately!"

Scary Clown Terror Teeth Blood Nightmare Halloween
Confused, the babysitter tries to ask what is going on, but frightened by the emergency in the father's voice, she rushes toward the children's room. "As soon as you get the children, go to the neighbors and call the police!" The man continues. "But sir! Tell me what's going on!"

The father finally responds: "We don't have a clown statue!"

In some versions of the story, the babysitter and the children are able to escape and the clown statue, which turns out to be a criminal who has escaped from prison, is caught by the cops. In other versions, however, the police arrive to find both the girl and kids dead and, more importantly, no sign of the clown.

Creepy Clowns Heads Scary WTF From urban legends, literature, and movies to the most recent season of American Horror Story: Freak Show, fear of clowns, or coulrophobia, has become an increasingly common plot device used to scare audiences and readers. It was not too long ago clowns were mainly associated with the circus, children, laughter, cotton candy, and "Happy Meals"; how did these balloon-holding, colorful-makeup-clad circus entertainers become the base of one of the most rapidly growing fears in recent decades?

Clowns have always had a darker side. For ages clowns were considered to be adult entertainers, personifying characters who, according to historians, would openly "mock sex, food, drink, and the monarchy, all the while behaving maniacally for a laugh." It is documented that clowns already existed in ancient Egypt, Greek, and Roman societies, eventually becoming court jesters in the late Middle Ages.

As David Kiser, director of talent for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus puts it, "in one way, the clown has always been an impish spirit (…) as he’s kind of grown up, he’s always been about fun, but part of that fun has been a bit of mischief." They were able to ridicule leaders, religious traditions, and society in general with impunity. This transgressive behavior, which some equate to insanity and unpredictability, can easily be the cause of unease.

Grimaldi Clown Makeup History London
Grimaldi died penniless and an alcoholic in 1837.
Aside from their peculiar actions, clowns are easily recognizable (and feared) for their makeup. For that we have Joseph Grimaldi to thank, a 19th-century London clown who painted his face white and his cheeks red, wore colorful costumes, and had a blue mohawk. He is considered so important in "modern clown history" that, according to Andrew McConnell Stott, author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, a church in east London has conducted a Sunday service in his honor every year since 1959, with congregants all dressed in full clown regalia. Anyone willing to join?

Modern clowns use cream makeup to create abnormally large facial features, typically depicting an unchangeable expression of happiness and humor. Researchers who have studied coulrophobia believe some people's negative reaction to this aspect can be explained by the uncanny valley theory, which states that "when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some human observers." They also add that this fear may have less to do with clowns themselves and more with the fact that their appearance is"wrong in a disturbingly unfamiliar way." Their makeup acts like a mask and that can make one wonder: What are they hiding underneath it?

Clowns Crying Church Memorial Grimaldi England Makeup
Grimaldi's memorial service at the Holy Trinity Church, England
Anthropologists, on the other hand, see this masking from the clown's perspective. By wearing a "mask," one allows oneself to be free and, at the same time, limit the range of emotions other people are supposed to feel: "The clown insists that we laugh. We may not want to laugh. The situation becomes, at best, awkward, and at worst—combined with the unsettling colorful familiarity—terrifying."

Unfortunately, the idea of the depraved killer clown is not just based in these theories. Jean-Gaspard Deburau, another 19th century major clown figure known as Pierrot, killed a street boy with a blow from his heavy cane after being taunted by the youngster. The most famous killer clown however, was John Wayne Gacy, who—aside from working several children's parties as Pogo the Clown—was responsible for raping and murdering more than 33 teenage boys and young men. Most of his victims were found buried in the crawl space of his home.

Pogo John Wayne Gacy Clown Murder Serial Killer Balloons
"Clowns can get away with murder" (Gacy). He didn't.
In prison, Gacy interestingly seemed to celebrate his clown persona by painting pictures of clowns and self-portraits of himself as Pogo.  As the media dug more into his past, it was found that even though Gacy had already been convicted of sexually assaulting a boy years before the killings took place, he still had easy access to children as Pogo. This intensified public fear of strangers and clowns became real targets of suspicion.

Pogo Clown Serial Killer Painting Memorabilia Scary
One of Gacy's self-portraits.
Movies were fast to cash into this fear. In 1982's Poltergeist, an evil spirit takes possession of a clown doll and tries to drag a little boy under his bed; in 1986, Stephen King released It, a horror novel in which children are terrorized by an evil being who disguises itself as Pennywise the Clown; 1988 brought Killer Clowns From Outer Space, featuring sadistic alien clowns; 1989's Clownhouse told the story of mental patients dressing up as clowns and attacking a small town and Tim Burton's Batman counted with an intensely clown-esque Joker played by Jack Nicholson; in the 2000's, a scary clown also appeared in House of 1000 Corpses, Amusement, Saw (that little puppet resembled Grimaldi, didn't it?), and many others.

Although there are numerous examples in this short list, no one can deny Pennywise the Clown from It is one of the most terrifying clowns in literature and movies (technically mini-series, but it was released as a full movie on VHS and DVD). This creature, whose true physical form is unknown, is also called the "eater of worlds" and, just like pure fear and evil, has existed since the beginning of times.

Tim Curry Pennywise It Stephen KIng Killer Clown Horror Halloween
"You all taste so much better when you're afraid!" It, 1990.
The eater of worlds, or It, tends to take the form of its victims' darkest fears, but mainly disguises itself as Pennywise the Dancing Clown to attract its favorite target: children.  Once the child gets close enough to it, Pennywise scares the victim to "salt the meat" and kills them. It can also take the shape of other people, manipulating others into doing its bidding or by promising them the realization of their desires. In other words, It is evil in its purest form; the personification of a nightmare.

Another interesting (but different) example of the evil clown is Batman's arch enemy, the Joker. Although the main inspiration for his appearance comes from the 1928 silent movie The Man Who Laughs, the Joker was fashioned after the playing card with the same name and by the idea of an evil court jester. Never seen without his clown-esque makeup, the Joker is portrayed as a psychopathic, calculating, vicious killer who murders his victims for his own amusement (except for a brief period from the late 1950s to early 1960s where he was depicted as a goofy prankster). His masking is so important he has made himself forget who he really was before the birth of his clown alter-ego. In Batman: The Killing Joke he says:
If I have to have a past, then I prefer it to be multiple choice (...) Memories can be vile, repulsive little brutes. Like children I suppose. But can we live without them? Memories are what our reason is based upon. If we can't face them, we deny reason itself! Although, why not? We aren't contractually tied down to rationality! So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there's always madness. Madness is the emergency exit. You can just step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away...forever." 
Joker Joke Batman Funny Comics Kill Murder
The Joker creates chaos just for a good laugh. His most famous weapon, the Joker Venom, also known as laughing gas, causes uncontrollable spasms of laughter, which are followed by either permanent brain damage or a painful death. The drug also causes the victims' jaw to lock, forming a grotesque grin, reminiscent of the villain's own. He will get them laughing no matter what.

The recent season of American Horror Story: Freak Show has its own version of the killer clown: Twisty, played by John Carroll Lynch. Wearing soiled clown clothes and a partial mask containing a deranged grin, Twisty uses juggling pins, which he carries inside his bag of tricks, to incapacitate his victims.

If you have not watched Freak Show yet, I suggest you skip the next two paragraphs. 

Twisty stabs to death or beheads some of his victims. Others, he takes to an abandoned school bus, where he forces them to watch him attempt to make balloon animals or play with wind-up toys. According to Lynch, he wants to have the perfect audience watch his act.

Twisty Clown AHS Freaks Freak Show Killer Villain Scary TV
Lynch's Twisty.
Twisty's terrifying appearance and violent antics in the TV series caught the attention of the Clowns of America International, a real-life club for professional and amateur clowns. Glenn Kohlberger, the club president, stated in an interview that they "do not support in any way, shape or form any medium that sensationalizes or adds to Coulrophobia or 'clown fear.'" However, series creator Ryan Murphy did not take the criticism in a negative light, tweeting: "Should I be proud or worried that people are freaking out so badly about Twisty?"

Other nonficitonal "characters" seem to be getting inspired by the scary clown motif. In Wasco, California, residents are being terrorized by people dressed up as clowns, some reportedly wielding machetes or baseball bats. Although it started out innocently on Instagram when pictures of scary clowns posing in different landmarks in the area were uploaded, things escalated quickly, with 20 clown sightings being documented in a week and a teenager ending up in cuffs for chasing children. In addition to California, surveillance videos in Florida and New Mexico have capture clowns walking up to people's porches and sidewalks. On October 15, the Fisher's Police Department, Indiana, also started receiving reports of a clown scaring residents.

Wasco Clown Creepy Halloween Instagram Scary Killer
For more Wasco Clown check out instagram.com/wascoclown
Psychologists believe that negative clown images have been replacing positive ones long before Twisty and the Wasco Clown. Dr. Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of the Anti-Anxiety Work Book states that "kids are not exposed in that kind of safe fun context as much as they used to be and the images in the media, the negative images, are still there." This situation creates a vicious circle where scary clowns diminish the opportunities to create good associations with clowns altogether, generating more fear. Consequently, the growth of clown fear causes the media to increase the circulation of these negative images. Kiser, Ringling’s talent scouter and a former clown himself, acknowledges the challenges to his profession this cycle generates and believes "[they] are going to have to work hard to overcome [this] one."

If you suffer from coulrophobia, you do not have to go through this alone. You can find support at www.coulrophobiafacts.com and at www.ihateclowns.com. Good luck!

Are you afraid of clowns? Do you think scary clowns are here to stay? 

Let us know by leaving your comments below!

If you would like to join the team as a contributor or are interested in sponsoring a post on this site, purchasing an ad, becoming an affiliate, or taking part in any kind of promotional opportunities, please use this contact form to send us an email and we will get in touch as soon as possible with more information.