*Please note that this episode may not be suitable for children younger than 13.
Creepy, creepy clowns are this week’s topic. With an origin in Greek funerary services, how did coulrophobia go on to create such a stir? And why are scary clowns so popular in Hollywood today? With promoters such as Stephen King’s IT, American Horror Story, and Serial Killer John Wayne Gacy, it’s obvious that scary clowns are just getting started.
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Hello everyone and welcome back to Strange Origins. With this third episode, I wanted to research the history of a group of people that I’ve always been wary of growing up: Clowns.
Clowns are not everyone’s favorite topic. And I don’t blame them. Maybe it’s the fact that one of Stephen King’s most famous antagonists is a clown that lures children to the sewers. One of the first horror films to scare me to death as a kid was the 1990 made-for-tv film, IT starring Tim Curry. I can still remember hiding behind a couch crying.
Or maybe you have memories of the 2016 clown sightings when strangers would dress up and attempt to scare the public. What not many people know is that this mass sighting of clowns began as a stunt to move traffic to a Facebook page advertising a horror film in England. Somehow, through the public's twisted sense of humor, it evolved into something much bigger. Random clowns began making appearances in every U.S. state, nine territories in Canada, and all together eighteen separate countries.
I know that I personally have never been a fan of McDonald’s spokesperson, Ronald McDonald. Even though he does a lot to raise money for charity, for some reason he’s never been my favorite fast-food mascot. I think it has something to do with his height and that smile on his face. I’m not sure.
Maybe you are afraid of clowns because you had the misfortune of seeing the classic 1980’s horror film, Killer Klowns from Outer Space or Twisty from American Horror Story. I think it’s safe to say that there’s a lot about clowns in today’s world that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. So it’s not surprising that Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, is a pretty common fear.
Historically Beloved Clowns
But, as history will often show me, this wasn’t always the case. Clowns were, at one point in time at least, beloved by all. In ancient Rome, there were several different types of performers that are considered to be the grandfather of clowns. They were usually just opening acts for more serious performances, or simple characters that helped to push the plot along for the more necessary actors.
But sometimes performances were required off the stage. One notable type of jester that was hired was the Roman archimimus. These people were paid to attend a funeral where they had to imitate the deceased in their voice and mannerisms. Essentially, they were hired to make fun of what was going on. A lot of the time they would mock how expensive the funeral was, or just generally rude things about the event, in order to lighten the mood.
Over time, especially through the middle ages, clowns became more of an entertainment fixture, entertaining nobility at large parties under the name of jesters. Later on, they would become famous for performing as humorous servants in Italian Operas. Generally, they were around to keep spirits high and people laughing.
So, I guess that begs the question: where did it all go wrong?
Now, I think that to preface how the modern image of the clown was built, I need to introduce you to the basic idea of what I believe to be the archetype of a clown; a trickster. A trickster is a Jungian archetype that can be found as far back as the Bible. The devil was an original trickster, as far as I can tell, but there are Greek and Roman versions that are prevalent such as Prometheus.
If you don’t remember who Prometheus is, he is the guy that stole fire from the Gods and gave it to mortals, only to be punished by being chained to a rock by Zeus. If that wasn’t bad enough already, Zeus also had a crow eat his liver every day, only to have it grow every night, continuing the torture for eternity. What I’m getting at is though, is that Prometheus used his wiles for survival. I’m not sure if he meant to give fire to the world, as much as he meant for it to help just him.
Other examples of tricksters include Bugs Bunny, and a fan favorite, Loki, from Norse Mythology, who has found a home in the Marvel Universe. These characters all share the traits of being mischievous and clever, and of using all of their wiles in order to survive. If you think about it, this is, in essence, what a clown does. They deceive people with their looks, and their mannerisms in order to survive.
Born of the medieval court Jester, Joseph Grimaldi is an excellent example of this archetype. Born in London during the Regency era, Joseph created the image of what we today see as a clown, or rather he created the first white-face clown. He was a storyteller, an actor, and with the creation of a character referred to as a Joey, he commanded large audiences and their pockets.
His life didn’t start out this way though. He grew up dirt poor, which is ironic as the origin of the word Clown comes from 1500’s England, meaning someone who is poor, rustic, or a rude peasant.
Joseph was mostly raised by his mother during his first few years, but when he was able to walk and talk, he was given jobs by his father who was an actor. A serial philanderer who was said to have had at least ten children with three different women, Joseph’s father was known for taking dangerous parts in performances.
On one occasion Joseph was even thrown by his father into the orchestra pit by a chain. Joseph was playing a monkey who was swung around by its owner. Somehow, whether by a fascination with these stunts, or desperation, Joseph stayed on with his father, earning a living at whatever job he could get in the entertainment industry.
Later in his father’s life, he became abnormally fascinated with the idea of death. He would use his acting skills and fake his own death in front of his children in order to gauge their reactions. He even went so far as to have his eldest daughter decapitate him post-mortem, to ensure that he wasn’t buried alive. This earned her an extra five pounds in his will.
After his father’s death, (which I’m sure he didn’t have a doubt about,) Joseph was left as the primary male breadwinner. Years later he would finally find lasting success with his character of Joey. With a painted white face, red triangles on his cheeks, and large red lips, he was praised for his trickster like-ability to entertain with the greatest of flourishes.
Today Grimaldi is remembered for his contribution on the first Sunday of February at the Holy Trinity Church in Hackney. Hundreds of clown performers attend a service in full costume every year. Even Charles Dickens, who as a child saw the clown perform in 1820, was surprised at how well a biography of him, which he helped to edit, had sold. This may have even have played a part in his literary creation of the alcoholic clown character in his 1836 novel Pickwick Papers.
While Grimaldi thrust the modern image of the clown into society, he wasn’t the one that attached fear to the character. When clowning became comic relief in circuses, Edmond de Congourt a French literary critic in 1876 succinctly said about the act that "the clown's art is now rather terrifying and full of anxiety and apprehension, their suicidal feats, their monstrous gesticulations and frenzied mimicry reminding one of the courtyard of a lunatic asylum.”
Edgar Allen Poe's Hop Frog
This quote may have been influenced by another famous literary character, created by Edgar Allen Poe. The short story Hop-Frog, or Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs, was published in 1849. The story follows a person with dwarfism, who is taken from their homeland to become a jester for a king fond of mean practical jokes. After a few incidents’ where he witnesses the king abusing his friend and fellow dwarf, he dresses his king and the court for a masquerade. Little did they know that their costumes were made of highly flammable material and that Hop-Frog would later set them all on fire that night and lock the doors.
It’s interesting that, while entertaining for enjoyment and happiness, jesters and clowns always seemed to have an undercurrent of darkness about them.
In turn, and most likely inspired by the aforementioned stories, one of the more famous plays involving a clown, titled Pagliacci, premiered London in 1892. A tragedy, the story centers on a clown named Pagliacci who finds out that his wife is cheating on him. Though a lot of Italian operas focus on marital discourse, this one was a bit more dramatic. While in the middle of a performance he begs his wife to give him the name of his lover. When he is overcome by anger, he stabs his wife and her lover. With the audience assuming it’s all just part of the play, they applaud the act, and the main character replies with the words “The Comedy is Finished.”
John Wayne Gacy
In the 1960s John Wayne Gacy would forever create a link between clownery and horror in the minds of the public. After a childhood of being both physically and verbally abused by his father, Gacy slowly began to get away with, in turn, abusing young boys in his hometown. A very good liar, Gacy knew how to twist a story to his benefit. This culminated in an interest in becoming a clown for fundraisers, parades, and even children’s birthday parties, where he would perform as Pogo the Clown. A side note that I think is ironic is that it was noted by a few more professional clowns at the time that Gacy used sharp corners at the edges of his red lipstick. This was in contrast to the more traditional round corners created using lipstick, which was used by the majority of clowns so as to "not scare children."
If you’re interested in researching serial killers, I would suggest listening to a full podcast of Gacy, as he is a noteworthy person to research from a psychoanalytical point of view. After he was convicted for thirty-three murders in 1980, all of them male, with a horrific twenty-six of those found in a crawlspace under his home, he was sentenced to death row.
It is important to note that Gacy never used his clown outfit to lure children to him, but rather just enjoyed performing at carnivals and children's parties. But the fact that he painted self-portraits of himself as a clown while on death row interlinked the two ideas permanently in the public’s mind. Today his paintings have fetched from up to $175,000 for a single piece.
From Joey to Ronald, where did it all go wrong? I do know that a majority of today’s professional clowns truly only wish to see people smile. But historically speaking, I don’t think that clowns were ever really that good, to begin with. Tricksters have often used their wiles for good, but historically speaking, they aren’t all-giving or moral creatures. Simply put, they have a will to survive and that seems to be the only thing they care about.
I enjoy the fact that Stephen King wrote Pennywise as a clown for this reason. It sometimes surprises people to find out that Pennywise isn’t actually a clown, but rather a shapeshifter. He’s the ultimate trickster who turns into whatever is necessary to scare and eat children in King’s fictional town of Derry, Maine. Somewhere down the line, though, this creature saw that clowns were tricksters too. They gained your trust, entertained you, and then took what they wanted.
In my opinion, clowns are a basic part of pop culture at this point, and we won’t stop seeing them around at Halloween anytime soon. With popular characters such as DC’s the Joker, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, and American Horror Story’s Twisty, clowns are now just a part of the public state of mind. But what started out as a way to entertain the masses, has morphed into something dark, a warning of some sort. Clowns, to me, are a reminder to stay out of the woods at night. Stay away from storm drains. And stay away from strange men offering you a ride somewhere.
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