Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Fear of Clowns

The camera pans in for a shot of a clown using shadow puppets to lure his next innocent victim in. Within moments clowns surround this unsuspecting human and shoot him with ray guns that emit a special lethal cotton-candy substance that entraps or cocoons him. 

This film, “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” made in 1988 has become a cult classic. This tongue-in-cheek romp was meant to be scary and comical but for some people--it was terrifying. Are more people afraid of clowns today?

If the answer to the question above is yes, then one has to wonder why. Growing up, I rarely encountered children or adults who stated they were afraid of clowns. Ghosts, yes, but clowns--not so much. 

My favorite clown, a hobo clown called "Weary Willie" was created by Emmett Kelly. Like most circus clowns Kelly’s lovable clown derived his comedy from pantomime. 

Audiences from around the world watched and laughed as Weary Willie, broom in hand tried to sweep up the other performers or the circus spotlight as they moved around the ring.

The clowns I grew up with were presented as innocent fun. The generations that came after cannot make this same claim. 

In the 1970s and 1980s pop culture started to portray clowns in a very different light. Now clowns were evil, sadistic characters that were out to kill anyone they could get their hands on. 

What caused this drastic change? I blame it on one man known as the "Killer Clown". John Wayne Gacy, a real life psychopathic ex-convict made headlines in the 1970s for sodomizing and killing 33 boys and young men in Chicago. 

Gacy often dressed as a clown to entertain children at parties and charitable events that his Moose Lodge sponsored. When putting on his alter ego “Pogo the Clown” Gacy would apply his clown makeup with sharp corners at the mouth, which is the exact opposite of a traditional clown’s rounded corners. 

While on death row awaiting execution he often painted pictures of himself as Pogo. These painting where bought for  $200 to $20,000 apiece. The publics’ fascination with this monster in part changed how films and television portrayed clowns.*

A good example of this change is Jack Nicholson’s “Joker” in Tim Burton’s “Batman” in 1989 as opposed to Cesar Romero’s “Joker” in the 1960s television “Batman” series. 

Here are some other examples. The film “Poltergeist”, made in 1982, has a particularly disturbing scene where an oversized clown doll--possessed by evil spirits--attacks the families’ young son.

A Stephan King novel entitled “It” was made into a film in 1986. This story has a monster that lurks in a small town’s storm drain. This dancing clown, in order to attract the seven children he terrorizes appears as a supposed friendly clown--who actually has fanged teeth. 

Even the original “Halloween” film made in 1978 has a scene where the young Michael Myers is wearing a clown costume--he is holding a bloody butcher knife because he had just stabbed his older sister to death. 

In the 1992 film “Shakes the Clown” Bob Goldthwaite’s plays a clown in the grip of depression and alcoholism who is framed for murder.

Scene from the film, "It".

Television shows started to reflect this new "fear" of clowns--using it as a vehicle for humor. 

In the sitcom “Frasier”, Dr. Frasier Crane has a patient that is deathly afraid of clowns. In another episode, Frasier Crane dresses up for Halloween as a clown in order to scare his father, Marin, a tough retired cop. The result is Martin has a heart attack and ends up in the hospital. Frasier accompanies him still in his clown costume. 

In the animated sitcom "The Simpsons", Homer the father of the family builds a bed for his son who is ready to leave the crib. He puts a clown-shaped headboard on this bed, which triggers insomnia in his son. 

Bart, his son starts to state repeatedly, “can’t sleep, clown will eat me”. This meme became such a big hit that Alice Cooper wrote a song entitled, “Can’t Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me”. 

The sitcom “Seinfeld” also had two episodes where one of the main characters, Kramer expresses his fear of clowns.

Kramers' fear of clowns.

Today many American Haunted Houses have clowns that are murderous psychopaths. The idea that clowns are evil has become more and more wide spread. 

A recent study conducted by the University of Sheffield in Britain, concluded, “clowns are universally disliked by children”. If I had been younger when I was first exposed to these evil images of clowns I would probably be afraid of them as well.

This post is not about ghosts but I place it here because it shows how the media can make people afraid. Granted people in general have always feared ghosts--but today’s media is making them out to be much scarier than they really are. This is saying a lot considering some believe ghosts are “real” while clowns are not. 

* I would be remiss if I didn't mention some people are afraid of clowns because of what is called the "mask syndrome". A clown's make-up acts as a mask or covers up a person's normal features. This make-up also exaggerates a person's features. 

People, especially children often innately distrust or even fear people when they can not see their face or true features. 

No comments: