Was there ever a time when people liked clowns? Did a time exist where children wholesomely giggled for the antics of a cheery, face-painted jester with no taint of darkness, no anxious swelling string arrangement to create foreboding? Surely there is something terrifying in the very DNA of clowns.
The Cackling Gaze
Clowns don’t have a lot going for them. They occupy the same tranche of creative monster development as zombies, smashed against the creaking oak that makes up the bottom of the monster barrel. It’s like black-haired girls in Japanese horror: the creepiness is automatic, included for free thanks to the legacy of the scary clown.
The greatest indictment of clowns is also their most obvious attribute: they hide their faces. And hidden things are, by definition, creepier than revealed things. A monster may be monstrous, but when its black grabbing tentacles are illuminated by banks of brightly glowing work lamps, it feels less threatening, less other-worldly. If something can be seen and studied, it can be understood. No matter how much light you shine onto a clown, it never gets any brighter, or any more knowable. They repel examination, like magnets of matched polarity.
In humanoid characters, a hidden face may indicate criminality. We hide our faces when we want to be anonymous. And being anonymous is ideal for committing dirty crimes. Where the liquor-store stickup boy hides his face with a ski mask, the scary clown hides his face with paint, a cheery facade as shallow as the grease paint it’s made with, artificially bright and tastelessly cartoonish.
But our face is also a symbol of our humanity and individuality. A clown relinquishes their human body to meld with the clown consciousness. No longer are they Dave from Venice Beach, but Bozo the Clown, unknowable yet universal. If a clown robbed a store, who would be able to identify them in a clown lineup?
A Horrific Visage
Everything about a clown’s appearance jars the eyes, unnerves the senses. The clothes are intentionally ridiculous but also strangely anachronistic, like what a possessed doll might wear in the Netflix version of Annabelle, a parody of a style long since fallen out of fashion, like flowers that evolved to lure a now-extinct species of bee.
The costume of a scary clown appears old-fashioned in an unsettlingly vague way, like gargoyles or creaking doors, cut from cloth no human being should voluntarily wear. Are clowns another spawn of the collective unconsciousness that gave us the gods and demons of our own earth? Perhaps clowns model themselves after their dark progenitor, just in the way that man models himself after his god.
The character of a clown is similarly like their clothing, timeless and unanchored from the confines of the reality we find comfort it. It has an unknown but assuredly dastardly origin, creeping and crawling from the muck of a time long forgot, an enemy once feared but now recalled only in the pale imitation, like a children’s show recreating the Civil War as a parable about learning to work together.
Do clowns have a clown canon, a recognized list of clown character traits, or do they simply reach into the dark void that rests inside of all humans, reach down deeper than most of us would dare, to access the grim and tortured remains of what man’s dark core: what man had once fought, what man had once been, and what we fear to become again.
Clowns vs Man: The Primordial Struggle
Clowns represent something horrid, something natively repulsive to the human psyche, the polar opposite of healthy behavior. They are the twisted remnants of a shadow society, a world that exists beyond the comfortable boundaries of our own times. So they are ideal villains, but perhaps too ideal. Like zombies, their threat is obvious. But unlike zombies, clown horror has not come to dominate storytelling.
Which is largely thanks to one highly-successful portrayal of demon clowns: Stephen King’s It. As the seminal work of clown anthropology, this completely true documentary follows the story of several children who’d rather play with a clown than discover their latent sexuality, but eventually are convinced of the opposite. This was the work that codified the clown as an entity in horror, moved it from vague portent of doom to shambling monstrosity that god himself would recoil from.
It’s incredibly how firmly this one work has planted in our collective unconsciousness the idea of the killer clown. But the story must have struck something latent in the minds of the audience, some dimly realized childhood trauma at the hands of a grinning monstrosity, the poorly understood but tectonically powerful rumbles of childhood emotions long since past at last acknowledge and given air. Yes, said King, clowns *are* scary, and it’s high time we recognized that.
Since then, the scary clown character has become so firmly written in the canon of horror that it’s been essentially used up. Thanks to an early clerical error, the idea of zombies has been largely in the public domain, both literally and metaphorically, and they’ve spread to every new medium like the measles: hyper-contagious and shockingly virulent. Clowns, on the other hand, have been largely left to kick their heels against the dustbin of film and television history, too well done the first time to try again, and too encumbered by copyright to bother reproducing without license.
But their infrequency does little to dull their horror. It perhaps even magnifies their malignancy. Clowns are the grin in the shadows, the grown man chuckling in a darkened room, the shell of our sanity cracking as the world pushes harder, then harder still. Perhaps we all have clowns inside, and that’s what scares us: the reflection of our own inhumanity; our dark clowniness, waiting for the moment to strike.