A History of Killer Clowns and Coulrophobia
Clowns have been ruling the nightmares of movie-goers for decades. Recently, 159 people voted on a poll with www.quibblo.com/ where it asked “Are clowns scary?” 52% voted yes, 23% said sometimes, and only 26% percent voted no. So what is it about clowns that has half of our society so spooked? After all, a clown is nothing more than a human being. Is it the possibly of real-life killer clowns? Or maybe their freakish white face paint and ever-smiling mouths. No matter what the reason may be, coulrophobia, aka the fear of clowns, is a real thing. Here’s a theory on how clowns progressed (or regressed) from the innocent and loved jesters of yore to the feared and dreaded characters portrayed in some of the genre’s biggest titles .
“Are clowns scary?” 52% voted yes.
The first recollection of clowns goes as far back as late 2500 BCE where dwarf clowns were hired to provide the pharaohs with a much-needed chuckle. The most popular history known however, is the stable of court jesters throughout the Renaissance Era and Medieval Times. Similar to the Egyptians, Jesters were hired by noblemen to entertain them and their guests. At this point clowns were adult entertainers, and their jokes were said to be too crude for children. It’s even believed that these characters often derived their comedic acts from their lust for sex and food. Basically, the clown is the perfect reflection of human sin. Still, the corrupt behavior and notorious reputation of clowns goes far beyond lust and gluttony.
The portrayal of clowns as we know it didn’t emerge until the 1800’s where a Brit clown named Joseph Grimaldi painted his face white and red. As history tells it, Grimaldi had a rather unfortunate life. His wife died at childbirth, and his son died at 31 due to alcoholism. But at the end of the day Grimaldi was harmless. Following Grimaldi, Jean-Gaspard Deburau was very well known in France. However, Deburau didn’t seem to operate by the same moral compass as Grimaldi. He went so far as to kill a young boy who shouted insults at him. Deburau was eventually found Not Guilty of the slaying – which makes his story all the more unsettling. This is perhaps the first killer clown in history, and he got away with it.
Following in Deburau’s footsteps many years after comes John Wayne Gacy. He would dress up as Pogo the clown and perform at children’s parties and parades. Gacy appeared hard working and harmless on the exterior, but between 1972 and 1978 Gacy raped and murdered multiple teenage boys and buried their bodies on his property. He pled guilty on 33 counts of murder, and was quoted saying “a clown can get away with murder”. Gacy became known as the ultimate Killer Clown.
Between 1972 and 1978 Gacy raped and murdered multiple teenage boys.
Perhaps Gacy was the igniting spark behind killer clowns in horror movies. Hollywood began producing films such as Poltergeist, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and Clownhouse. After Gacy’s case, a character that was once charming and funny was now often portrayed as a brutal killer, and the perception hasn’t changed over the decades. Perhaps now more than ever, we’re seeing more and more white-faced advesaries appearing in our beloved genre. There’s the iconic Pennywise, played by Tim Curry in the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It, Jon Watts’ Clown, where a father dresses up as a clown for his son’s birthday and ends up getting trapped in a suit that slowly turns him into a flesh-hungry clown, and of course Twisty – from American Horror Story: Freak Show. Killer clowns are even invading this year’s Sundance Film Festival with Rob Zombie’s 31. There are countless other examples – just know that this isn’t a fad, and the trend of psychotic clowns in horror isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
My parting words of advice? Steer clear of people in face paint – they’re typically not to be fucked with. But if you do find yourself face to face with one of these smiling sociopaths – just don’t make fun of their jokes. Otherwise, you might find yourself mentioned on a horror site in another 100 years or so.