by Emily Barsic
His face peers into yours with a bright red painted smile, but only he knows his real emotions hiding behind the mask. Despite his fake smile, he begs you to laugh at his painted face and squeaky nose and quirky actions. As he comes nearer, uncanny fears arise. You know that the person you fear standing before you is only a person … and yet he is a clown, which makes your mind define him as monstrous.
Clowns have a long history. They have been around since 2500 BCE when Pygmy clowns served Egyptian pharaohs as entertainment. Clowns not only served ancient Egyptians but were also a pivotal part of entertaining royalty in ancient China. In ancient Rome, they were fools known as “the stupidus.” Hopi Native American societies included clown-like characters “who interrupted serious rituals with ludicrous antics” (McRobbie). Medieval European court jesters provided a way for people to poke fun at the feudal system and the royalty in charge. What connects all of these historical clowns is that their profession allowed people to make fun of serious issues and certain morals. Clowns have provided a way to enjoy rule-breaking throughout history, as “academics note that their comedy was often derived from their voracious appetites for food, sex, and drink, and their manic behavior” (McRobbie). However, although clowns have been seen as quirky and satirical throughout the ages, the idea that clowns are monstrous to those who fear them is a relatively new concept.
So, what exactly is it that makes clowns terrifying in our day and age? Andrew Stott, who is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo, finds that “clowns have always been considered socially marginal, always on the edge of society” (qtd. in Waxman). Although clowns have not always been seen as monstrous, clowns have always had a unique ability to comment upon society in a satirical way. Their jokes have not been seen as serious comments; they were regarded as entertainment. Therefore, clowns have had a peculiar way of living on the margins of the world; they did not fit into normal societies, as they were given special permission to criticize those with social power. Being “on the edge of society” is one reason why clowns may be viewed as monstrous by those who fear them today.
Clowns are also seen as monstrous due to the conflict between their outer physical appearances and their identities, as their faces may not truly reflect the inner emotions that they feel. Not only may their faces not truly reflect their emotions, but their actions and behavior may contradict their actual personal identity. This deconstruction of the psychological border between inner motives and outside appearance incites a common cultural fear: the fear that a person may not be who he or she portrays himself or herself to be.
In “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen offers a further reason why the physical appearance of clowns can be disturbing: a monster is “defeaturing, self-deconstructive, always in danger of exposing the sutures that bind its disparate elements into a single, unnatural body” (9). Clowns have the capability of being seen as monstrous because of their painted faces, which give the clowns a “defeaturing” or disfigured appearance. The clown becomes “self-deconstructive” in the eyes of people who look at clowns, as they do not know how to classify the clown’s emotions within the available categories, such as happiness or sadness. Lastly, this breakdown reflects the “danger of exposing the sutures that bind its disparate elements into a single, unnatural body.” As those who view clowns realize their unusualness, the “single, unnatural body” of the clown begins to break down.
Cohen also writes that “The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible,” which confirms that “deconstructiveness” is a large aspect of determining monstrosity. The monster’s “‘deconstructiveness’. . . threatens to reveal that difference originates in the process, rather than in fact” (Cohen 14-15). If we look at the “fact” behind clowns, we realize that clowns are people who have emotions just like us, despite their “always happy” painted-on face. This revelation is not scary or monstrous; it is just “fact.” Therefore, the monstrous fear of clowns “originates in the process” of categorizing clowns within the social margins.
Although these psychological aspects of clowns certainly explain why clowns can be seen as monstrous, this reasoning does not explicitly help us understand why clowns are feared today but were not in the past. One reason that clowns are more feared today is due to the media’s reports about killer clowns in the past few decades. For example:
John Wayne Gacy was charged with the murders of 33 people, mostly adolescents, committed over the course of the previous decade. Gacy worked as a clown for charity – so there was a lot of preexisting fear around this image of a dangerous clown. And for the next 25 years, appearances kept happening . . . East Chicago in 1991, Washington D.C. in 1994, South Brunswick in 1997. When you think about what first made people afraid of clowns, it’s tempting to pin it to Gacy or movies like It, Poltergeist, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space [sic]. (“America’s creepy clown craze”)
Images of the clown as a monstrous killer were replicated in the film industry alongside the news media, provoking fear not only in imagination but also in real life. John Wayne Gacy displays the manic, murderous, uncanny, and unpredictable behavior that fosters fear. This categorization of Gacy as monstrous for the terrible behavior he indulged in as a clown makes it easy for the media to profit from the fear that clowns are killers.
So the next time you see a scary clown movie, watch for the signs that prove clowns embody the cultural fear that everyone may not be who they present themselves to be.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 7–16.
McRobbie, Linda Rodriguez. “The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian, 31 Jul. 2013, smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-and-psychology-of-clowns-being-scary-20394516/.
“America’s creepy clown craze, explained – Vox.” YouTube, uploaded by Vox, 11 Oct. 2016. Accessed 18 Nov. 2016.
Waxman, Olivia B. “The Surprising History Behind the Scary Clown Phenomenon.” Time.com, Time Inc., 6 Oct. 2016, time.com/4520149/clown-attack-sighting-craze-history/.