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As a child, I didn’t find clowns to be frightening per se–just mildly annoying. But at that time, they were not very popular as entertainment for children (the heyday for that was the 1960s, the era of Bozo the Clown). I remember seeing a “clown performance” only once, at the state fair. And I think that’s the first time I ever shrugged and said “Meh.”

However, I became terrified of balloons around the age of 6. Either my brother or I had brought one home from a birthday party. It had been in the house a couple of days, and the helium had started to wear off. That night I got up to pee around 3AM, and, to my horror, lurking in the dark hallway was the balloon, hovering at eye level, drifting eerily toward me in the mild breeze of the air conditioning… Now that still gives me chills.

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By the time I hit middle school, a kind of “conditioned fear” of clowns was going around–a result of Stephen King’s It and lurid details about clown-turned-serial-killer John Wayne Gacy. Then the masks started appearing in stores–an array of hideously contorted clown faces, with pointed teeth and wild eyes. And of course, Batman villain the Joker (in all his incarnations) only reinforced the clown’s notoriety as an evil entity.

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Painting done by Gacy, who once said, “You know … clowns can get away with murder.”
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“Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

By the time I was old enough to go to haunted houses, it seemed like every single one featured an army of sadistic clowns and a “funhouse room.” Well, nothing strengthens psychological conditioning like grown men in polka dots and face paint chasing you with a chainsaw. So now, as an adult, I am officially scared of clowns.

And you know what? I’m kinda OK with that. I think the scary clown archetype is fascinating; I admire how it combines disparate elements: cheerfulness and terror, playfulness and the sinister.Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 12.27.59 AM And it’s even more interesting that, over the last few decades, the clown’s dark side has emerged as the more powerful one.

Read all about the history of clowns in the Smithsonian’s article on the topic.

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5 thoughts on “Clowning Around

  1. There is a ton of depth to the clown archetype. Historically it goes right back to the phrygians, the people who gave us the term “freedom”, as in the domain of the free people. Eventually they were conquered and turned into slaves and clowns. That’s why clowns usually have red hair, and wear a phrygian cap.

    Artistically the clown goes right back to the traveling morality plays of the middle-ages, and diverged from there into the comedia del arte, and the Punch and Judy show. There is Peter the sad clown, and Harlequin the crafty clown, and Punch the cruel clown. And death was a character in the play from the very beginning.

    Yes, there is a lot to clowns, and clowns feature prominently in our movie “Blackbird Pie”. The clown owns the vice, and so owns the whole of Blackbird county. Until the big bad wolf comes to town.

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