Bill Skarsgård in ITi(IMDB)

Clowns Are Up to a Different Kind of Funny Business, These Days

"Creepy clowns" have become the rule, not the exception. How and when did clowns change from entertainers to tormentors?

Who Lives to Laugh Another Day?

Pennywise the Clown is a big draw at the box office right now and has, in fact, been a huge draw for me ever since I first read Stephen King’s It way back in the late ’80s.The trans-dimensional being that disguises “Itself” as an innocent children’s performer and then frightens them to feed on their fear is nothing if not compelling. Luckily, the 2017 film really captures that fascinating terror and brings it from the book to the screen.

Yet something doesn’t quite sit right about this version of Pennywise. When the initial stills of Bill Skarsgård in skillfully rendered Pennywise makeup were published to promote the film, I got an uneasy feeling.

“That’s the point, fool!” many of you might respond. “No, it’s really not.” I maintain.

I don’t find this version of Pennywise particularly frightening. However, it’s clear he was intended to be frightening, not inviting, at first glance. True, Skarsgard does a fine job of portraying the monstrosity and his acting makes Pennywise remarkably and immediately scary. But that’s just the thing. In his present movie form with the dingy clown suit and unsettling, sharp-pointed makeup, “It” is just that — an immediately scary monstrosity.

And that rather misses the point. Why, exactly, would It disguise Itself as a dancing clown? Because clowns are scary?

No, that would be ridiculous. The entire purpose of the clown disguise is to disarm children so that they would be comfortable approaching Pennywise and, thus, It. Had the intent been simply to be terrifying, It might as well have presented itself as a giant spider.

Let’s take a look at Pennywise’s first depicted and arguably most iconic kill, that of Georgie Denbrough (from the original novel). This murder of the innocent boy with the newspaper boat exemplifies Pennywise’s modus operandi.

As Georgie approaches Pennywise (admittedly ominously hiding in a storm drain) he sees him as a cross between Bozo the Clown and Clarabell the Clown, both popular on television in Georgie’s 1957. King speculates that Georgie might have been reminded of Ronald McDonald, had he lived longer. What Georgie sees is not the terrifying clown of 2017, but “the kind of smile you just had to answer”, eyes of “bright, dancing blue” (that remind Georgie of his mother), a white face, “funny tufts of red hair on either side of his bald head” and a “big clown-smile painted over his mouth”. This all matches with Pennywise’s attire, “a baggy silk suit with great big orange buttons” over which a bright electric-blue tie hangs down “and on his hands were big, white gloves, like the kind Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck always wore.”

This is hardly the description of a child’s nightmare. This is the comforting form Georgie feels safe with to the point that he reaches inside the storm drain to retrieve his paper boat and a balloon. It isn’t until after Georgie is seduced by feeling safe that Pennywise’s face changes into something terrifying enough to make nightmares look like sweet dreams. By that time, however, It already has Georgie and all fun and games fall to the wayside.

This friendly lure is not quite what we see in the Pennywise of 2017. Instead, Andy Muschietti’s It (2017) goes immediately for the scares with unsettling makeup. The film definitely delivers those scares but one must wonder, why would Georgie (or anyone else) approach such a terrifying beast in the first place? Even when Pennywise demonstrates his funny dance he’s surrounded by flames and wears a menacing grimace on his face. Shouldn’t this scarier version of the clown be a transitional form revealed only after the seduction?

The answer is, of course, that public opinion of clowns has changed drastically since It was published in 1986 and It had a lot to do with that changing opinion. Whereas once upon a time clowns were seen as playful, comical, friendly creatures, today, clowns are scary.

What led to this change in opinion about clowns and why? The popularity of It certainly contributed greatly over the years and the success of the film version surely has amplified the scary clown impact. British Clowns claim the new film is ruining their already fragile reputation. American clowns are not terribly happy about this either, as clown hosted events are canceled and clowning schools are forced to close.

However, let me make this clear, not only for the sake of this article but as a Stephen King fan. King, himself, definitely did not originate the concept of the “scary clown”. Oh, sure, his book (and the 1990 TV mini-series based upon it) helped perpetuate and popularize this theme, but this dark version of the merry prankster did not begin with King.

There’s a name for this phobia in the form of the neologism: coulrophobia. Coulrophobia describes a very real fear which is closely linked to the Uncanny Valley. For more on that phenomenon, see “Celluloid Androids“.

With often exaggerated features and bizarre movements, these entertainers can evoke the Uncanny Valley syndrome in children. Unfamiliar clown features, coupled with the somewhat familiar human form, can terrify as easily as amuse. Clowns are lifelike to the point that they seem “almost human” but are disturbingly not quite there when interpreted by the psyche.

Coulrophobia is, most assuredly, a new psychological trend that only arose in the past few decades; however, some of the earliest depictions of the “evil clown” character go back over a hundred years. Edgar Allan Poe wrote about a murderous clown in his short story “Hop-Frog; Or, the Eight Chained Ourangoutangs” (1849). Catulle Mendès’ dramatic play La femme de Tabarin (1874) and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s very similar (to the point of plagiarism accusations) play Pagliacci (1892) both prominently feature clowns that commit murder. Yet for almost a century clowns remained mainly comical, nonthreatening performers who entertained children with ease.

Contemporary to these literary works is the creation of the “Joker” playing card. German settlers in Pennsylvania brought with them a game called Juckerspiel, which became the Euchre sometime before 1850. As that game evolved players began using blank cards as the highest “trump” card. As this game is pronounced something like “juker” the blank cards became colloquially known in English as “Jokers”. In the 1860s, the first cards were produced specifically for the game of Euchre with the word “Joker” printed on them. Due to the English word “joker”, images of clowns and jesters began to be printed on these cards. This made the Joker card instantly recognizable even to the illiterate. Due to this popularity Joker cards were soon used in other card games.

By the ’40s, Joker cards were so ubiquitous that they inspired what may well be the first modern day “killer clown” in DC Comics’ The Joker. The character of Batman debuted in 1939’s Detective Comics #27. When Batman was launched into his own title with Robin the Boy Wonder, DC looked for a memorable villain to kick off its first issue. They found one in The Joker.

The Joker: A Celebration of 75 Years, DC Comics (2014) (Amazon)

The Joker: A Celebration of 75 Years, DC Comics (2014) (Amazon)

Artists Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane worked with writer Bill Finger to perfect the “Clown Prince of Crime”. It was a photo of actor Conrad Veidt grinning like a carnival freak in character as Gwynplaine, whom he played in the 1928 romantic melodrama The Man Who Laughs that provided the visual reference for the new character. Together the trio created a maniacally laughing murderer who constantly taunts the police and proves to be a match even for Batman himself. Although intended to die in the first issue, editor Whitney Ellsworth ordered a last-minute change to the final panel indicating the Joker survived and thus, Batman’s arch-villain (and arguably the first and best-known pop-culture killer clown) lived to laugh another day.

Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (1928) helped inspire the look of The Joker (IMDB)

Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (1928) helped inspire the look of The Joker (IMDB)

The key to the Joker, like most of the early scary clowns, is irony; the bizarre twist that someone so hearty in laughter and boisterous in jest could also be so terrifyingly menacing. As comics, in general, softened in tone, so too, did the Joker’s approach to crime. As the Comics Code put intense censorship on the medium, the Joker’s once-murderous crimes became silly pranks. By the time the 1966 Batman television show debuted, one of the Joker’s most noteworthy crimes in the comics was to paint Bruce Wayne’s house. Thus, his days as a killer clown as opposed to, well, just a clown, were numbered and the reputation of clowns remained positive… for the time being.

It’s difficult to pin down just when the tide began to turn for our made-up comedians, but no discussion of creepy clowns is complete without mentioning the triumvirate of white elephants in the room: the three clowns who influenced Pennywise. As mentioned above, King described Pennywise in the original novel as something like a cross between the famous television clowns Bozo and Clarabell. As Georgie was murdered in 1957 he did not live long enough to witness the birth of Ronald McDonald, but King couldn’t help including a reference to the hamburger clown to help the reader imagine the look of Pennywise.

WGN-TV Bozo's Circus 1968 (Public Domain/Wikipedia)

WGN-TV Bozo’s Circus 1968 (Public Domain/Wikipedia)

Bozo the Clown was created in 1946 for the first-ever phonograph and read-along book set entitled Bozo at the Circus. The scariest thing you could possibly pin on Bozo at the time was that he became a corporate mascot for Capitol Records. “Bozo the Capitol Clown” was so popular with children that this and subsequent releases became bestsellers and even non-Bozo read-alongs had a “Bozo Approved” seal on the cover for marketing purposes. Bozo jumped to the tube with Bozo’s Circus in 1949 featuring Pinto Colvig as the now famous clown in his blue and red costume, huge red hair, white face, bald head, maraschino nose and big painted smile. Bozo became a franchised hit with different actors playing Bozo in different markets, so kids around the country found the character funny and friendly as opposed to scary. Chicago’s very own Bozo’s Circus went national in 1978 when network WGN became a nationally available cable “superstation” and the classic Bozo experienced a resurgence in popularity.

Lew Anderson as Clarabell the Clown in Howdy Doody (IMDB)

Lew Anderson as Clarabell the Clown in Howdy Doody (IMDB)

Clarabell the Clown followed Bozo in creation but predated him on television, becoming a nationally popular character on The Howdy Doody Show (1947 – 1960). Originally played by Bob “Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan, Clarabell was a mute sidekick who used pantomime to express his thoughts, feelings, and intentions and answered yes or no questions by tooting a handheld horn. “The funniest clown we know” with the big feet, stout tummy, “fuzzy- wuzzy hair” and honking horn was so popular with young people that even when Keeshan moved on to Captain Kangaroo in 1955, Clarabell continued with different actors.

Much like the later band KISS, Clarabell’s non-made-up face was kept a closely guarded secret, regardless of who played the character. Lew Anderson was the last actor to play Clarabell on the original television show and in the hour-long series finalé, Anderson delivered the only line of dialogue Clarabell ever spoke. It was the final line of dialogue for the entire series. Just before the camera faded to black, the teary-eyed Clarabell surprised everyone by whispering, “Goodbye kids!”

Clarabell was off the air for the moment, but Bozo was still popular. In fact, it was Bozo who led to the last of that pancaked triumvirate who inspired Pennywise. Willard Scott played Bozo on WRC-TV in Washington D.C. from 1959 through 1962 with the local McDonalds franchisee as the show’s sponsor. Thus, Bozo successfully helped sell hamburgers by plugging McDonalds. When Bozo went off the air in the D.C. market in 1962 (returning nine years later with a different actor), Willard Scott was hired to co-create and portray a new McDonalds clown to sell the burgers. These initial ads featuring “Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy Clown” ran in 1963 and were such a hit that (like Bozo) Ronald was soon nationally represented by different actors in different markets with an altered costume.

It’s a good thing the costume was altered, as even I will admit the original version of Ronald was somewhat terrifying. With a box on his head, fries for hair, a drink cup for a nose and a bizarre grin, Scott’s original Ronald was not exactly someone I would want to share a burger with. Of course, this was a “more innocent time” and even the fact that commercials featured Scott urging kids to sample fries from his built-in tray (attached to the actor near his nether regions) did not stop the clown from becoming an international hit. Ronald McDonald remains the mascot of the burger chain to this day. One can argue that Ronald is one prime example of a non-creepy clown who has endured throughout the decades of changing opinions on his kind. Then again, when one thinks about the “billions and billions” of unhealthy meals Ronald has sold, it is clear that might be responsible for killing more people than Pennywise every did.

And this is only the beginning of the darkening of the clown.

In 1960 John Newland directed “The Clown” (as written by Gabrielle Upton), a horrific second-season episode of the pre-Twilight Zone suspense anthology series One Step Beyond (1959 – 1961). This episode features Mickey Shaugnessy as the titular clown Pippo who, like Clarabell, is mute. Though friendly, Pippo exhibits psychic powers to appear in the reflection of a guilty murderer. Soon that reflection manifests itself in real life, coming out of the mirrors to take deadly revenge on the killer.

Mickey Shaugnessy as Pippo the Clown inOne Step Beyond (TMDB)

Mickey Shaugnessy as Pippo the Clown inOne Step Beyond (TMDB)

Although this clown does commit murder, it’s notable that Shaugnessy is the hero of this episode. The man he kills is the husband of a murdered woman (Yvette Mimieux in her screen debut) who had befriended the clown. Tragically, although his heroism is notable, Pippo is arrested after returning from his trance — but not for the murder of the husband, but his friend. Pippo has no voice with which to defend himself. Regardless of Pippo’s good intentions, the sudden appearance of this angry, garishly grinning, avenger bent on executing his victim was a horrifying sight to see in this suspenseful episode. In those supernatural moments, the otherwise playful and friendly Pippo more closely resembled Freddy Kruger than Bozo.

By the ’70s Batman had darkened once again and The Joker was back to murdering. His signature killing device, poisons that leave the victim twisted into a sick smile, also returned and lent ominousness to the Clown Prince of Crime. It’s unclear how much the Joker’s impact had on the peoples’ negative impression of clowns, as this character rarely dressed in traditional clown attire, instead opting for purple suits, trench coats, and fedoras.

However, the tide may already have been turning for clowns.

In 1973, the band KISS (Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, Peter Criss and Gene Simmons) took to the stage wearing stylized makeup with a clown white base (partially inspired by shock rocker Alice Cooper). By 1974 KISS was releasing albums and they became the dominant rock ‘n’ roll band of the late ’70s. Later band members Eric Carr and Vinnie Vincent also wore their own makeup until the band removed the makeup for the 1983 Lick it Up album. Although not exactly “clowns” themselves, KISS did appropriate that image somewhat and brought a darker tone to their makeup. They even made their own semi-horror film in the TV movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, which first aired in 1978, just as Bozo went national.

John Carpenter’s Halloween (also 1978) was originally planned to feature slasher killer Michael Myers in a clown mask before the eventual William Shatner mask (not kidding) was chosen. However, the killer appears in the prologue and commits murders as a little kid wearing a clown suit and mask. That’s two innocent forms turned horrifying for the slasher genre.

Also in 1978 one registered clown and member of the kid-friendly “Jolly Jokers” clown club began taunting the police surveilling him. He even invited some of the surveilling officers to have meals with him. At one of these meals he quipped, “You know… clowns can get away with murder.” Two days later, on 22 December 1978, that clown proved true to his word and confessed to murdering 30 people (“give or take a few”). That clown’s name was John Wayne Gacy.

Although he never killed in costume, Gacy was dubbed the “killer clown” by the press, because he both painted clowns and performed as a clown at parties. Professional clowns, however, point out that Gacy’s characters of “Pogo the Clown” and “Patches the Clown” did not represent clowns properly and already displayed his deranged personality. The sharp corners painted at the edges of the clowns’ mouth and eyes conflicted with the rounded look most clowns employ so as not to frighten children. Note that the 2017 version of It features a Pennywise with extremely sharp points in his makeup. Neither clown is the type children would be comfortable with.

The television show Little House on the Prairie (1974 – 1982) featured clowns positively in the 1979 episode “Annabelle”. Ken Berry plays the ringmaster London, who is also secretly the main clown of the circus. Using the Cole Porter song “Be a Clown” (popularized by Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in 1948’s The Pirate) London urges Laura to put on the makeup as “all the world loves a clown” and she playfully joins the circus to pay back a rival. This “revenge” was far from fatal in this family program and consists only of her dumping a bucket of water on her “victim”. Such innocence was not to last.

By 1981, a darker tone took over that same “family program” and their next depiction of clowns. In the two-part episode “Sylvia” (1981), written and directed by Michael Landon, a new girl in town gains the attention of the local boys. Sylvia (Olivia Barash), however, is innocent and virginal, even as her abusive father accuses her of “makin’ eyes” at the boys. Horrifyingly Sylvia is first stalked then brutally raped by a man in a clown mask. Both episodes are filled with the overtone of “slut shaming” the victim, first because she has developed quickly and later because the rape results in a pregnancy. To make things even more horrifying, Sylvia does not survive her second episode, finishing her short run every bit as dead as her attacker. Clown rapists and dead innocent girls are the stuff of horror movies, not family television. It’s unclear what Landon was thinking but he certainly didn’t do any favors for clowns.

Note that the more innocent “Annabelle” episode aired less than a year after Gacy’s arrest, when details and nicknames were still being revealed. “Annabelle” was likely written significantly before its October air date, possibly before the Gacy case came to light. “Sylvia”, on the other hand, was written, directed and aired after Gacy had become a part of the collective consciousness.

The evil clown trope was now permeating everywhere.

Still on television, the 1983 episode of Simon & Simon (1981 – 1989) “What’s in a Gnome?” features a plot somewhat reminiscent of Phantom of the Park in which amusement park rides are being sabotaged before the grand opening. To investigate this, Rick (Gerald McRaney) goes undercover as one of the park’s gnome trainees. Although called gnomes, their colorful clothing, wigs, and makeup are evocative of clowns more than anything else. In the episode’s most memorable scene Rick’s trainer tests him with the hypothetical situation of a child walking away from his parents to play with one of the gnomes. Challenged on what he might do to keep the child safe, Rick, in character, growls out the warning that “gnomes like to eat little boys”, implying that scarring children for life by instilling a fear of clowns might keep them from wandering away from their parents. Spoiler warning: that isn’t quite what the trainer had in mind.

A year after “Sylvia” but before “What’s in a Gnome?” came the groundbreaking blockbuster haunted house film, Poltergeist (1982). Written by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist features a number of terrifying moments, including toys that come to life. One particularly disturbing toy is the innocent looking clown doll that Freeling son Robbie owns. As ghosts begin to tear the family apart, the clown comes to life, takes on a furious and frightening visage, and brutally attacks Robbie. Bravo later listed the clown scene as one of the 100 Scariest Movie Moments (2004).

Poltergeist (2015)

Poltergeist (2015) (IMDB)

A similar toy appears in Poltergeist‘s 2015 remake. That popular clown scene led to many imitators, including the ridiculously bad Italian horror film, La Casa 3 (1988). Ironically an unofficial sequel to The Evil Dead, La Casa 3 reenacts the clown doll moments in their entirety, but with much less aptitude, which results in no small amount of unintentional comedy.

By that time King’s It was already a bona fide phenomenon. Released on 15 September 1986, the original cover to It featured no suggestion of a clown, scary or otherwise. Instead, the cover featured a monstrous, suggestively reptilian claw grasping the storm drain as Georgie’s paper boat floats to its final resting place.

Unsurprisingly considering the events of that year, King indicates he first came up with the concepts behind It in 1978. It went on to win multiple awards and became a bestselling novel in 1986. For a time It was virtually synonymous with the name Stephen King. It was a monster hit that proved to be incredibly influential over the years, especially when it came to Pennywise. Of course, there were other evil clowns already coming to be.

In 1988 the science fiction horror comedy Killer Klowns from Outer Space was released and surprisingly achieved some pretty positive reviews. In this film, the grotesque clowns are aliens from outer space whose resemblance to clowns and circus culture seems to be coincidental. The film has since become a cult classic with a potential sequel suggested to be in the works.

Although not exactly “killers”, a group of alcoholic, despondent clowns in smeared makeup and filthy clothes debuted in the 1989 first issue of Piranha Press’ comic series Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children. These clowns are more akin to the title character in Shakes the Clown the black comedy film written by, directed by and starring Bobcat Goldthwaite from the same year. While calling these clowns “evil” might be a stretch, they certainly qualify as “creepy” and didn’t do much for clown reputation. The dichotomy of innocence versus corruption is all over both projects.

Also in 1989, Tim Burton’s hit film Batman became a box office smash. Its villain? None other than The Joker himself, armed with that same scary murder poison now dubbed “Smilex”.

The Detroit band Insane Clown Posse formed in 1989 wearing KISS-reminiscent makeup. The band has since sold 6.5 million units and earned two platinum and five gold records. The “ICP” duo of Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J have no qualms about being identified as clowns or frightening and have proudly dubbed their mix of rock and hardcore hip-hop “Horrorcore”.

The biggest killer clown event of the ’90s arrived during the first year of that decade in the form of the TV miniseries Stephen King’s It. The ABC two-parter featured Tim Curry as Pennywise and was directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (who made his name with Carpenter’s Halloween films). The miniseries features an all-star cast and does a fairly decent job of the very difficult task of telling the entirety of the novel while remaining safe enough for ABC television censors. The standout cast member is Curry himself. Setting aside his “sweet transvestite” guise and his “Lord of Darkness” persona (or, perhaps, combining them), Curry gives us a Pennywise we can believe children could be comfortable with. He’s playful, fun, laughing and — just when we all least expect it — absolutely terrifying and demonic. This iconic performance stuck in the minds of viewers and proved to be very influential over the years.

Tim Curry's Pennywise in TV Mini Series It (IMDB)

Tim Curry’s Pennywise in TV Mini Series It (IMDB)

By 1992 the killer clown phenomenon stretched out into other media with Doink the Clown appearing as a World Wrestling Federation villain and Violator, a demon commonly appearing as a grotesque clown debuted in Spawn comics. Burton’s follow up to his Batman film may not feature The Joker, but Batman Returns (1992) does focus on a gang sprung from a corrupted circus, including many killer clowns in the service of The Penguin. Although The Simpsons featured kid favorite Krusty, a decidedly non-scary clown more akin to Goldthwaite’s Shakes, the show also delved into the creepy clown cesspool in the 1992 episode “Lisa’s First Word”. In this otherwise Lisa-centric episode, Bart is given a new garish clown-shaped bed by Homer, which causes the young boy to stay up all night chanting “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me!” (a phrase later adopted by Alice Cooper). The ’90s also saw killer clowns invading video games, starting with The Legend of Kyrandia (1992).

(Simpsons Wiki)

(Simpsons Wiki)

In 1996 the original four members of KISS reunited in full makeup and regalia for a reunion tour. The 1998 album, appropriately called Psycho Circus, featured not only all four original members of KISS but also a frightening clown on the cover. This successful reunion album was accompanied by the comic book series KISS: Psycho Circus (1997 – 2000) published by the studio of Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn and Violator, through Image Comics. KISS continues to perform in makeup with newer members Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer adopting the personas originated by Frehley and Criss.

The Coulrophobia amped up again in the year 2000 with Full Moon entertainment’s Killjoy. This fright flick features the titular demon in creepy clown form who assists good guys with revenge plots and then becomes their worst nightmares. Killjoy has had three sequels to date, most recently in 2012. Also in 2000 was the black comedy film Vulgar, the very dark story of a party clown who is viciously attacked and plots his revenge with a handgun. It’s too bad Vulgar the Clown didn’t see Killjoy, as I’m sure that revenge would have been much simpler. Vulgar was released by Kevin Smith’s View Askew productions and, like Bozo at Capitol, Vulgar the Clown even became View Askew’s mascot for several years.

In 2003 Rob Zombie shifted from making music to making largely terrible films starting with House of 1000 Corpses, featuring the very Violator-like Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig). Haig reprised his role in the inexplicable 2005 sequel The Devil’s Rejects. Rob Zombie coincidentally went on to remake John Carpenter’s Halloween in 2007.

The “scary clown” is everywhere these days.

From 2013 on a series of real life “evil clown” sightings occurred in England, the United States and beyond. As soon as these stories hit the news, imitators followed and the scary clowns became a phenomenon, terrifying children and adults alike.

American Horror Story John Carroll Lynch as Twisty the Clown © Copyright 2014 FX Networks. All rights reserved. (IMDB)

American Horror Story John Carroll Lynch as Twisty the Clown © Copyright 2014 FX Networks. All rights reserved. (IMDB)

In 2014 American Horror Story: Freak Show introduced us to “Twisty the Clown” (John Carroll Lynch) a once-innocent performer whose abuse turned him into a murderous psychopath. In September of 2017 a group of Insane Clown Posse fans known as Juggalos marched on Washington D.C. (many in full makeup) to protest their designation as a gang. This gathering far outnumbered the sparsely attended “Mother of All Rallies” held in support of Donald Trump. Halloween stores are filled every year with evil clown masks and props in far greater numbers than the friendly Halloween clowns of the past.

Recent films featuring scary clowns include Scary or Die (2012), Stitches (2012), All Hallows Eve (2013), Clown (2014), Rob Zombie’s 31 (2016) and Behind the Sightings (2017), inspired by the real life scary clown sightings of 2016. Let’s not overlook the appropriately entitled 2004 film Fear of Clowns and its 2007 sequel.

Over the years Pennywise has appeared explicitly and implicitly in other Stephen King works. Appropriately right after the film adaptation of The Dark Tower (2017) hit theaters, viewers got It (2017), which recreates about half of the novel (focusing on the Losers Club as children). The 2017 film has proven to be a critical and commercial success. A second “chapter” is set to complete the adaptation and will, of course, prominently feature Pennywise, the inter-dimensional child eater in clown form.

Is It the final nail in the clown coffin? Is the era of the happy, friendly clown a thing of the past as the terrifying monster in makeup takes its place?

Perhaps, as it’s the popular view right now, clowns are doomed. In 2016 a Vox/ Morning Consult poll showed that 42 percent of Americans are afraid of clowns with that number jumping to 60 percent for those between the ages of 18 and 29. Also in 2016, Chapman University’s poll showed that coulrophobia is bigger than any other fear including terrorism, heights, climate change, dying and even family members dying. A Chicago Tribune commentator has advised that clowns simply must embrace their scariness as there is no way around it: clowns are scary. Humorously, the tongue-in-cheek article even refused to spare Chicago’s own Bozo from the designation of “creepy”.

Then again, the key here is “tongue-in-cheek”, unpainted though the cheek may be. Realistically, does anyone truly believe that clowns are more frightening than terrorism or death? Isn’t it more likely that this claim was made simply because it’s funny? As I said before, it’s popular these days to say “clowns are scary”. To an extent this is simply cool because it’s humorously absurd to say that something so obviously innocent is terrifying. Who doesn’t love the humorously absurd, right? Well, that’s ironic, because guess who gave you all the humorously absurd: CLOWNS!

Real, non-terrifying clowns are fighting for a comeback. In response to the popularity of It, a company called Clowns in Town staged their own (presumably Juggalo-free) September 2017 march in New York City. Even so, this phenomenon might just burn itself out. Recently, speculation has arisen that the success of 2017’s It may have resulted an oversaturation of the creepy clown trope. Thus, the joke may well have been pushed too far already. If “scary clowns” are now the norm, there will be a backlash, as always.

NPR commentator Murray Horwitz (a former clown himself) recently lamented the end of an era as the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus closed its doors. With sorrow, Horwitz blamed the closure, in part, on “attitudes toward clowns” which he said, “really hurts”. To drive the point home Horwitz added “Believe me. I was never scary.”

Having seen that circus (where Horwitz got his start) as a child and, in fact, being one of the lucky kids brought down to the center ring to spend time with the clowns in front of the huge audience, I can tell you, I believe him.

Scary clowns only terrify because they are an innocent, playful icon that has been twisted into something evil. The same is true for the “scary dolls” and “evil little kid” tropes. By the same token, a look at abandoned playgrounds or amusement parks can be disturbing. These are happy things that have been corrupted, not things that were dark to begin with.

Once we take non-evil clowns and try to force them into the mold of the “killer clown” and call them creepy (even in jest) we are contributing to the end of an era of innocence. This isn’t to say that clowns are never scary; rather, they’re only scary because they have been twisted from innocence into scariness. Pennywise works! Boy does he work. But Pennywise only works because he represents the exception, not the rule.

See you clowns in the Next Reel.