Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

Clowns, right? Terrorising towns with grins, games and exuberant exertions of fun and frolic; what was Joseph Grimaldi thinking back in eighteen-hundred-and-something, with that white face and all that slapstick? His persona was doomed from the start. For one, the world has always had something against gingers, and then there’s that whole cavort-around-like-a-crazy-person-wearing-a-supersize-grin-and-a-soccer-ball-for-a-nose thing. It’s weird. Even so, it’s not entirely Grimaldi’s misguided shenanigans that set the world askew. We’ve got to give credit where credit is due; a large chunk of the blame is usurped by nefarious serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who married ‘killer’ and ‘clown’ in a terrifying ceremony officiated by murder and signed by death, destroying the credibility of all innocent by-standing jokesters in the process.

Gacy’s Pogo, the (killer) Clown, paved the way for the likes of Pennywise (It), Jijsaw (Saw) and Twisty (American Horror Story), and with these smiling sinners prowling the tunnels of popular culture’s labyrinthine mind, it’s no surprise that Coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, is not something relegated to the pages of a really lame joke book. A couple of years ago the BBC reported on a study by the University of Sheffield, which revealed that clowns are universally disliked by children (aged 4 to 16), many of whom find them frightening and unknowable. And that’s it isn’t it – the inscrutability of the mask. Not only have clowns become proponents of chaos (thanks, Gacy) but a metaphor for what lurks beneath; the paint, the nose, the laugh… a mere disguise, obscuring the view of something scary, something sinister.

It’s that same old thing that Jane Austen so famously wrote about back in the 1800s – the ‘public’ versus the ‘private’; the face that people present to the world, which is usually only a version of the reality that lies hidden beneath the surface. Austen’s point, that people are often not what they seem, has transcended time (good job, Jane) but with the help of some fine art, over-sized shoes and a wig or two, Mr Darcy and co have undergone a severe symbolic makeover… (drum roll)…enter Krusty the Clown, the long-time host of Bart and Lisa Simpson’s favourite TV show. Expanding on Austen’s satire, Krusty the burnt-out, disillusioned, cigarette addicted, seismically cynical clown is just one modern example of the error of mistaken assumption; that smiles are easily forged.

Of course, in all likelihood, most of the people who have donned the clown façade through the ages (jesters, actors, circus folk) were probably quite nice in real life. But pop culture has banged a very firm nail into the coffin of that probability. So now, children and adults alike cringe at the irreverent playfulness dished by Bozo and the gang. And yet the strange thing about the stuff that skulks in the shadows, waiting to creep into our nightmares and send us shrieking down the passage, is that as much as we fear it, we are also desperate to take a look. There is something alluring about the unfamiliar, which is why the masses will undoubtedly arrive in droves to check out Cary Fukunaga’s It remake (set to start shooting this Spring); because of the dread as much as in spite of it.

In his novel, King dehumanises the clown, making it devoid of face – an ‘It’. And ‘It’ is the thing that wakes you up in the night; that threatens to destroy your sanity

The reason that It (1986) writer Stephen King is considered one of literature’s greatest story-tellers (no correspondence may be entered into) is because he reaches into the heart of man and squeezes until the blood not only flows but jettisons:

“He was wearing a baggy silk suit with great big orange buttons. A bright tie, electric-blue, flopped down his front, and on his hands were big white gloves, like the kind Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck always wore… And George saw the clown’s face change. What he saw then was terrible enough to make his worst imaginings of the thing in the cellar look like sweet dreams; what he saw destroyed his sanity in one clawing stroke.” Stephen King, It.

It is not just about some psycho clown that terrorises children; in his novel, King dehumanises the clown entirely, making it devoid of face – an ‘It’. And ‘It’ is the thing, whatever it may be, that wakes you up in the night; that sends chills down your spine; that threatens to destroy your sanity. By challenging the presupposed innocence of what is in effect a child’s game, King urges readers to confront the nature of the demons that drive their own personal fears, whether it’s Ronald MacDonald, Freddy Kreuger or your friend’s pet pug. Pennywise offers an invaluable lesson: that anything is fearsome if looked at in a certain light.

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