Nightmares in Face Paint: Why We’ll Always Be Afraid of Clowns
Terror in Bakersfield, California. Terror in American Horror Story. Terror in our minds. The subtext of the clown is that life is a joke and can be snatched away at any moment.
Suddenly, they’re everywhere—clogging up your social media feeds, offing people with scissors on your favorite cable show, terrifying the same Bakersfield, California, streets where in kinder times country music legends like Buck Owens once roamed. Creepy clowns are all of a sudden having the kind of cultural moment typically reserved for especially talented or angry cats—and you don’t need to be an actual clown to be concerned about that.
The patient zero of the current creepy clown epidemic is the “Wasco Clown,” a balloon touting joker whose scratched and goateed visage has been spotted in a small California town formally best known for its state prison. According to media reports, the poor guy is a husband helping his so-far anonymous photographer wife in an art project. However, they have nothing to do with the copycats their clown has inspired: there have been twenty separate reports of clowns in an around nearby Bakersfield, some of them said to be wielding weapons and frightening children. There have more recent reports of Wasco Clown inspired sightings from as far away as Fishers, Indiana.
Enter American Horror Story’s Twisty. Just as the word “Wasco” first started showing up on our Facebook, Ryan Murphy upped the ante on the phenomenon by introducing the world to AHS’s resident serial killer in grease paint. Played by Zodiac’s John Carroll Lynch, Twisty has quickly become (with apologies to Krusty) the most talked about primetime clown since Chuckles bit the dust on The Mary Tyler Moore Show almost 40 years ago. In doing so, Murphy and his show have pissed off some actual clowns, which is never a wise idea. "They can take any situation no matter how good or pure and turn it into a nightmare,” Clowns of America International president Chuck Kohlberger, AKA Clyde E. Scope, told the Hollywood Reporter.
Truth be told, “we are way past clowns being figures of innocent pleasure,” says Andrew McConnell Stott, an English professor at the University of Buffalo and author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, the definitive biography on the Regency Era clown and actor. “They have been sinister figures for so long it is impossible to remember when they weren’t.”
Stott argues that they were somewhat questionable figures to begin with. “Really, it existed since middle ages,” he says. “There was the sense of the clown being embodiment of frailty and the absurdity life. The subtext of the clown is that life is a joke and can be snatched away at any moment.” The concept of the bifurcated clown was solidified with Joseph Grimaldi, the celebrity clown from the early 1800s who was also well known for his depression, alcoholism, sacrificing his body for comedy, and dying in penniless obscurity.
If they have been around forever, why are they all over the place right now? It’s the economy, stupid.
“Clown sightings are cyclical,” says Stott, who says that urban legend of creepy clowns in ice cream trucks ran rampant during the economic downturn of the 1980s. “They tend to be recessionary. It is not surprising that these images should be showing up during a time of unraveling of job security. They go back to clowns being at the bottom of the economic and social ladder, and to them being tied to the unreliability of work and the fragility of the structures that used to be counted on, like having a single job for your entire career. They are a reminder that human endeavor can be reduced to ashes in a blink of an eye.”
It’s not by accident that two of the most historically famous American circus clowns, Emmett Kelly and Otto Griebling, were both of the “hobo” subset, and that Batman’s Joker was a product of the depression.
While the recession may bring all the clowns to the yard, it’s still childhood trauma that tend to make them such sticky figures in our collective unconscious. Indeed, the term for clown fear, coulrophobia, was coined in the ’80s by the generation that grew up with sometimes distant parents and The Howdy Doody Show’s Clarabell as a regular plug-in companion.
“If somebody has a real fear of clowns it has to do with something from their early childhood,” says Dr. John Tsilimparis, founder of the Anxiety and Panic Disorder Center of Los Angeles. “I don’t know if it is a culture boosted thing. I was a very phobic kid, so I know that if some guy in a clown outfit at a birthday party scared me for some reason, I would be afraid of them. There is something about a clown that stays with people: the bright colors, their tendency to be demonstrative. Plus they are always in disguise, and you never really know who they are.”
While the clown community may feel that the sense of unknown is being unfairly exploited by Hollywood, California’s conceptual arts community, and the unfortunate souls who are copying them to freak out children and adults with bad birthday party memories, it is something they are sadly used to, and it is not going away anytime soon.
“As children we sensed the sinister part of it the moment we realized that that clowns are adults,” explains Stott. “They are adults engaging in a strange form of a-sexual transvestism—that is startling by definition. It doesn't take an especially astute social critic to question why a man would be covered in make-up, hiding in plain sight.”