A Brief History of Scary Movie Clowns
For hundreds of years, we lived in a world where clowns were popularly understood to be funny and whimsical ... or, at the least, not absolutely freaking terrifying. Pop stars sang songs like “Everybody Loves a Clown” and “Send in the Clowns.” Parents hired entertainers in colorful satin outfits to do magic tricks and make balloon animals at their children’s birthday parties. Ronald McDonald sold us hamburgers. Emmett Kelly and Red Skelton were TV staples. We had a tacit cultural agreement not just to tolerate clowns, but to look forward to having them around.
Then at some point, someone sheepishly admitted, “Y’know, clowns kinda scare me.” What began as a quiet murmur of a resistance quickly evolved into a loud, “Eeek! Clowns!” Television shows and movie screens started filling up with demented creeps in pancake makeup, until “creepy clown” started to replace “kooky clown” as the default image in the media. The end result: 2016, where a string of pranksters across the country have panicked the populace by pretending there are hellacious harlequins lurking in the woods.
How did we get here? The movies bear some responsibility. The proliferation of dark and evil clowns in cinema is a relatively recent phenomenon, but each bad Bozo and crackpot Clarabelle on the big screen seems to beget another. Here’s a rough outline of how the clown-curse has spread:
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
In the first half of the 20th century, filmmakers frequently detoured through circuses and carnivals, occasionally even using them as the backdrop for horror and crime pictures. But storytellers back then seemed more unnerved by sideshow “freaks” and mesmerists than they were by the jesters. One odd exception: This silent melodrama, starring Lon Chaney as a disgraced academic who finds a job in the big top and then relives his greatest humiliation every night by having dozens of clowns beat the hell out of him in the center ring. This yeoman feat of self-flagellation became of early cinema’s most jaw-dropping nightmares—and a must to avoid for anyone who suffers from coulrophobia.
Terror on Tour (1980)
Alice Cooper and Kiss were the primary inspirations for this musical slasher, which follows a masked rock group called the Clowns as their gruesome stage act inspires a maniac to put on their makeup and stalk their groupies backstage. Though not a “killer clown” in the traditional sense (and honestly, it’s kind of disturbing that there is a “traditional sense”), the murderer in Terror on Tour does dress the part, thus making the film one of the first where a painted smile and a sharp knife are in close proximity.
Ask adults of a certain age about the first started to get skittish about clowns, and many will point to “the scene” in the original Poltergeist, where a young boy’s oversized stuffed merrymaker springs to life and starts attacking him. The moment’s so memorable that the 2015 Poltergeist remake added even more dolls, plus a menacing image of those toys on the poster. The first version though is still the scariest, because even before the the plaything goes nutzoid, it just kind of ... looms. This clown’s so un-cuddly that it’s hard to believe any child would ever want it in the room. Which quickly raised the question: Why do we want any grotesquely grinning masqueraders around the house?
Funland (1987)/Blood Harvest (1987)/Out of the Dark (1989)
Here’s where the whole murder-clown concept really begins to crystallize. In the second half of the ’80s, the notion of “the clown at whom no one is laughing” (to quote The Simpsons) was still fairly ironic, which helps explain the overall quirky/smirky tone of these three films. In the black comedy Funland, David Lander — TV’s “Squiggy” from Laverne & Shirley — plays a sad-sack theme park mascot who gets pushed too far. Blood Harvest has Tiny Tim (!) as a singing weirdo who may be behind a series of unexplained deaths. And Out of the Dark features a who’s-who of cult movie faves, including Bud Cort, Paul Bartel, Tab Hunter, Tracey Walter, Karen Black, and (in his last screen role) Divine. What connects these projects is a certain level of subversion: A gleeful, knowing trashing of cultural norms at the tail end of the Reagan era. That context was implied by these films’ casts, and by their willingness to make the mundane seem menacing.
Stephen King’s It (1990)
This one’s a bit of a cheat because it’s a TV miniseries and not a movie, but any list of scary clowns that doesn’t include It’s Pennywise will undoubtedly draw a slew of, “Um ... can’t believe you forgot...” tweets and comments. So to nip that in the bud, here It is. This mini is relevant to the larger discussion too, because Stephen King’s creation — first on the page and then on the small screen — is about the physical manifestation of deep-seated fears. By having the demonic villain most often take the form of a clown, King acknowledged how common and open clown-fear had become by the end of the ’80s. Plus, Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise is an all-timer, making a joker who talks like an obnoxious Borscht Belt comic into the ultimate embodiment of evil.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)/Clownhouse (1989)/Carnival Of Souls (1998)
This batch represents the next evolution in normalizing anti-clown hysteria. Here the trope becomes more ingrained—so much so that a movie like Killer Klowns from Outer Space can treat colorful monsters with warped faces as a world-ending threat, with only a minimal amount of snark. Killer Clowns is a quasi-comedy, but with makeup effects so grotesque that it’s horrifying anyway. Clownhouse is more of a home-invasion thriller with metaphorical overtones, about three criminally insane mental patients who escape from a supervised furlough by swiping the garb of carnival employees and breaking into the house of a boy who’s been told over and over that he needs to confront his fear of clowns. Carnival of Souls takes the title from an 1962 art-horror classic and applies it to an only tangentially similar story about a young woman stalked by a sicko clown. The latter film illustrates how much had changed in the 30 years since the original Carnival of Souls. By 1998 “carnival” meant “clown,” and “clown” meant “murder.”
There’s the “fun” kind of evil clown, and then there’s John Wayne Gacy, the real-life monster who raped and murdered dozens of young men, all while maintaining a part-time job as a children’s entertainer. Gacy’s 1978 arrest and 1980 trial went a long way toward fixing the image of a dangerous, duplicitous clown in the public imagination — or at among the subset of the public fascinated by serial killer kitsch. As early as 1981, reports of knife-wielding costumed maniacs started spreading throughout the Midwest (similar to the viral madness today). This low-budget exploitation picture was late to the Gacy/clown party, but it still takes advantage of the hysteria, emphasizing sex, mayhem, and greasepaint.
House of 1000 Corpses (2003)/The Devil’s Rejects (2005)/31 (2016)
Rob Zombie earns his own entry on this list for his first two films and the about-to-be-released 31, each of which treats deranged carnival workers—clowns included—as central to a larger vision of a world gone mad. Zombie doesn’t see these painted-up creeps as a big joke, or even as a nightmarish anomaly. In his America, everyone’s deeply damaged inside, and just waiting for the disguise and the opportunity to let loose the killer Krusty inside.
Fear of Clowns (2004)/Drive-Thru (2007)/100 Tears (2007)/The Last Circus (2010)/Stitches (2012)/All Hallows’ Eve (2013)
And now we reach evil clown overload. These six films represent just a small stack from the increasingly towering pile of circus-themed shockers released in the early 21st century, all populated by the usual assortment of lunatics: fast-food mascots, felonious fools, whatnot. Two in particular are notable. In Alex de la Iglesia’s arty The Last Circus, the lives of several clowns are intertwined with decades of violence in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. And in All Hallows’ Eve a woman receives a VHS tape containing short stories that predict her clown-related downfall. The world is so thick with crazed clowns these days that in cinema they’re woven through history, and capable of supporting their own anthology film.
Clown (2014)/ClownTown (2016)
These last two stand out from the previous pack for a couple of reasons: Both came out this year, and both offer a moderately fresh approach to the subgenre. The more interesting of the two is Jon Watts’ Clown, in part because it’s the debut feature film from the man who’d go on to make the excellent Cop Car (and, soon, a little movie called Spider-Man: Homecoming), and in part because there’s an impressively daring darkness to its story of a well-meaning dad who rents a symbiotic clown costume that turns him insane. The idea here seems to be that it’s impossible to play dress-up without eventually becoming a murderer. As for ClownTown, well, it’s a pretty tedious affair, following an annoying group of friends on a road-trip that detours through a community entirely populated by ... well, y’know. But the movie had the good fortune to arrive in theaters at the same time that the national headlines were dominated by clown-stalkings, making it seem the apotheosis of a played-out trend. ClownTown is predicated on the idea that it’s inherently scary to see a dude in rainbow wig lurking in the shadows. But in 2016, when do we not?