Clown hysteria may seem relatively new, but it is hardly a modern phenomenon. For many audiences over the centuries, the clown’s seemingly joyous face has detracted from something more sinister—some darker, hidden quality in the character. As a type, the creepy clown comes to us from centuries past. Like Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT, the clown is the monster that escapes a prior age, returning once again to stalk our nightmares.
The journey from sideshow amusement to modern horror film started with the first well-known clown, Joey Grimaldi, who during the Victorian period led a sad existence rife with poverty and personal misfortune. Popular authors at the time began to feature in their novels the sad performer with a frozen smile. The more the clown smiled, the emptier its expression became.
And what a word! It! “It” lacks all reference to an identity, perfectly symbolizing the eerie ambiguity of the clown, as painted faces disguise all connection to the human. Yet, clowns also represent childhood innocence and wonder, making clowns both unfamiliar and familiar—like Sigmund Freud’s uncanny.
Which is why clowns are creepy: they are uncanny “its.” In John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), for instance, Michael Myers commences his killing spree as a child in a clown costume. He is a murderer behind an expressionless mask. Later in the film, Dr. Loomis refers to him as an “it” and pure evil.
There is also the reanimated dead clown in Zombieland (2009), the clown doll in Poltergeist (1982), the red-nosed fiends (aliens without a definite origin) in Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), the creeptastic clown Twisty in American Horror Story: Freak Show, and the grotesque Stitches (2012), a movie about a deranged clown cult. All of these are in some way “its” void of personality and depth. The character type even appears in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which a maniac clown forms the basis of Xander’s night terrors.
Pennywise, the monster from the aptly named IT, though, is the most famous of these killer clowns. Not only does It kill children, It consumes them. It is a terrifying creature haunting the centuries, reemerging now and then to feed on local youngsters. To attract them, It poses as a clown, offering slap-stick humor and promises of sweets to come. Disturbingly, a real-life killer also once impersonated a clown and attended gatherings of children. John Wayne Gacy, known as the “killer clown,” sexually assaulted and murdered at least thirty three young men in Chicago between 1972 and 1978. He dressed and performed as a clown named “Pogo.”
Thus, clowns will always likely remain ambiguous figures. On the one hand, they attend children’s parties and help sell hamburgers at fast food restaurants, while simultaneously, for some of us at least, they are horrific visions, inciting cries of “stranger danger.” After all, modern society has increasingly viewed with suspicion anyone wanting to be close to children. Clowns can be sources of merriment—but, they can also be our worst fears come to life.
Michelle Mastro is a graduate student at Indiana University, Bloomington’s English PhD program. She studies the development of the novel (loves the Gothic) and never tires of reading Dickens or Wilkie Collins—believe it or not. But most of all, she adores horror films!