Monday, October 9, 2017

Monsterology: Clowns

Way-hey, kids! Are you ready to have some fun? Because I’m the fun fellow with the floppy feet who loooooves to have fun! I love all kinds of fun! Like luring you into the sewer to play with my collection of balloons! They float! They all float down here, kids, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float too! Sounds like fun, don’t it? I may take your arm, but just consider that the price of admission to my fun, fun sewer circus! You’re not scared, are you? I’m just the friendly, funny fellow with the floppy shoes, and everyone knows that a clown is a kid’s best friend, right? Right?

Wrong! In fact, the creepy clown has become such a common horror figure that it’s hard to imagine there was a time when children laughed along with the likes of Clarabell, Bozo, and Ronald McDonald. These days it seems that the easiest way to get distribution for a cheap-o, direct-to-video (sorry…I mean “direct-to-streaming”) horror movie is to stick a leering, fanged clown in it. Stitches (2012), Sloppy the Psychotic (2012), Mockingbird (2014), All Hallow’s Eve (2013), and of course, Clown (2014) are just a few of these fun flicks.

Looking farther back to the beginnings of horror, evil clowns were less plentiful. Clowns were still widely regarded as the ultimate children’s entertainers despite their deathly pale faces and grotesque smiles and footwear and occasional aberrations, such as Jean-Gaspard Deburau, a French mime who murdered an under-aged heckler in 1836 and Punch the clown puppet who’d been entertaining gawpers for centuries by slapping Judy over the head with a bit of wood. The killer clown was even a relatively recent creation in terms of non-cinematic entertainment. Hop-Frog, the title pyromaniac clown of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short tale, first appeared in 1849. Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci first wailed in opera houses in 1892. These were extreme rarities rather than clear genre pioneers. When horror’s most iconic early star, Lon Chaney, portrayed a clown in 1924’s He Who Gets Slapped, he was the victim of the piece, getting locked up with a lion and stabbed with a sword before dying on stage. Not even the introduction of that most famous homicidal funny man of all, Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker, in 1940 was enough to ignite a killer-clown craze.
The Clown Prince of Crime on his inaugural splash page.

The thing that really turned things around for the currently ubiquitous monster was real life. In 1972, John Wayne Gacy of Cook County, Illinois, began a six-year terror spree in which he raped, tortured, and murdered 33 boys and young men. Gacy’s other face was that of Pogo the Clown, a performer at charity events and children’s parties. The nature of Gacy’s crimes would make him a figure of revulsion under any circumstances, but the fact that he was also a clown, a character born to make children happy, made his story extra disturbing. If you couldn’t trust that friend to all little people, whom could you trust?

So maybe that smile has to be painted on because the mouth within it is actually sneering. Maybe that suit is so baggy because it is concealing a straight razor. Maybe that face is so white because it is the face of death. Maybe the clown is no friend of the young at all. Maybe the clown looks so monstrous when you really consider its features because it is a monster.

John Wayne Gacy’s horrific crimes made national news, and the media branded him “The Killer Clown,” but killer clowns still were not quite poised to take over the horror genre. The next such creature was as much a murderous doll as a killer clown, wrapping its distorted limbs around a little boy in Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist in 1982. This scene is among the film’s most infamous, and it certainly instilled a fear of clowns in many viewers, yet much of the horror is derived from the idea of a doll—another trusted friend of the young— coming to life. This clown does not have the articulation to caper about hilariously before luring a child into its grip.
"Hiya, buddy!"

The walking, talking killer clown needed to wait four more years to receive its first full-blooded embodiment. In 1986, horror maestro Stephen King published his masterpiece, a 1,138 doorstop of terror called It. The tale’s monster is an ancient, intergalactic evil that preys on children by tapping into the things that frighten them most. It may appear as a leper, a giant bird, or a Universal monster (and he covers all those bases by taking the forms of Dracula, Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Gill Man). His actual state is closer to a creature from one of those atom-age monster movies: a giant spider. However, It’s form that we all remember most is that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. It is in this state that It communicates with the novel’s young heroes. It is in this state that It commits its first and most horrific crime when Pennywise pops up inside of a sewer grate to entice little Georgie Denbrough into an underground wonderland before tearing the child’s arm from his body, leaving him to bleed to death.

In one stroke, King crystallized the killer clown for horror fiction. Pennywise is no victim, inanimate doll, or opera singer. He is a promiser of fun and fantasy like all good, real-life clowns. He is a betrayer of that promise when he kills the very innocent he is expected to befriend.
Get ready to float!

In 1990, Tim Curry gave a viewable face to that monster, becoming the undeniable highlight of an undeniably uneven made-for-TV adaptation of It. Curry’s is a brilliant performance, as funny as the antics of any good-old clown, as terrifying as the attacks of any monster. Probably not coincidentally, a term for the fear of clowns—coulrophobia (coul is a derivative of the Greek word koulon, which means limb, suggesting the stilts upon which many a clown walks)—was coined shortly after the It TV movie aired. The previous year also saw the killer clown working its way into B-pictures such as the comedy horrors Out of the Dark (featuring the final role of Divine, who’d played psychotic killers in clown-like makeup in Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble) and Killer Klowns from Outer Space, as well as the more traditional slasher horror Clownhouse
Divine looking rather clowny in Pink Flamingos.

Perhaps the explosion of recent clown horror movies is the result of the kids traumatized by Tim Curry’s Pennywise growing up and making movies rooted in their own fears. Along with the glut of direct-to-video clown horrors, there have been higher profile examples of this creature in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects as embodied by Sid Haig’s grotty Captain Spaulding. John Carroll Lynch’s even more terrifying and more complex Twisty the Clown stalked through TV’s American Horror Story: Freak Show (2014) before turning the trope on its head with a tear-jerking back story. In the following season, Lynch would portray the ghost of John Wayne Gacy, tying the trope to its origin explicitly.
Twisty the Clown does it all! He'll make you laugh! He'll make you scream! He'll make you cry!

Last month saw the long-anticipated release of the first cinematic adaptation of It with Bill Skarsgård in the role of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. To be expected in this age of subtlety-devoid shock-scares and noise, the mythology of Kings novel was sidelined and the vogue for clown fear was at the fore as Pennywise is front and center for most of the movie. Young Richie Tozier is even given a dose of coulrophobia and dumped in a room full of creepy clown statues to pile drive the point home: scary clowns are scary.

More disturbing than these screen depictions are the recent “clown sightings” reported by children claiming that clowns tried to lure them into woods. Such reports are either the results of disturbed adults attempting to get a piece of one of today’s most prevalent fears or the overactive imaginations of children who no longer trust those fun fellows in floppy shoes. Way-hey, kids!

Essential Viewing

Poltergeist (1982)

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1989)

Clownhouse (1989)

Stephen King’s It (1990)

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

The Devil’s Rejects (2005)

American Horror Story: Freak Show (2014)

It (2017)

Essential Reading

“Hop-Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe (1849)

“Batman vs. The Joker” by Bill Finger (1940)

It by Stephen King (1986)
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