Who’s Laughing Now?: The Surprising History of How Clowns Went From Silly to Scary

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In 2014, Clowns of America International, a real organization absolutely not affiliated with the Republican Party, issued a grave statement disavowing the media’s enduring portrayal of the clown as a figure of evil. “Hollywood makes money sensationalizing the norm,” it read. “They can take any situation no matter how good or pure and turn it into a nightmare.” Why so serious? In the US, at least, clowns have gone from children’s party buffoons to terrifying specters lurking on society’s fringes, more likely to inspire creeping dread than delighted chuckles. How did we go from Cole Porter’s “All the world loves a clown” to Pennywise demonically cawing, “You’ll float, too!”—and, were movies to blame?

Clowns have long been purveyors of mischief, if not outright anarchy: whether entertaining the reigning pharaohs of ancient Egypt, lampooning the emperors of China, or serving as comedic foils in the culture of Hopi Native Americans, they were free spirits who played an essential role in puncturing the pomposity of society. Even as their familiar iconography crystallized—via the eighteenth century emergence of London pantomime Joseph Grimaldi and Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s incarnation of commedia dell’arte’s Pierrot—clowns remained an impish, sometimes melancholy refraction of culture, a funhouse mirror held up to social mores. It’s there in early cinema: in the funny-sad routines of Chaplin and Keaton, in the pathos of Lon Chaney (He Who Gets Slapped, 1924; Laugh, Clown, Laugh, 1928), in the kindly Phroso of Freaks (1932) and the antics of the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939).

Clowns inhabited the carnivalesque worlds of the circus-obsessed Fellini, from Giulietta Masina’s naïf in La Strada (1954) to the grotesques of Satyricon (1969) and the reveries in I clowns (1970) and Amarcord (1973), and drew European filmmakers as diverse as silent prankster Jacques Tati (Parade, 1974), comedian Pierre Étaix (Yoyo, 1965), and Jean-Luc Godard, whose Pierrot le Fou (1965) memorably put Jean-Paul Belmondo in explosive blueface. Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, himself a mime, reveled in surreal imagery of the clown, a recurring figure in his films The Holy Mountain (1973) and Santa Sangre (1989).

Maybe it was that America sowed the seeds of its own coulrophobia—that not-entirely-scientific term coined for an exaggerated fear of clowns. By the 1950s and ’60s, with Bozo the Clown a nationally-syndicated TV star and McDonald’s whiteface mascot hawking hamburgers to hungry consumers, clowns went from complex comedic performers to children’s party simpletons, infantilized and franchised like so much burgeoning pop culture. If national treasure Jimmy Stewart could play a circus clown in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), surely these erstwhile comedic miscreants were fit to babysit a generation of American toddlers. But balloon animals alone couldn’t repress the national idea, and the clown’s eerie, fixed visage came to imbue them with sinister potential.

Cackling from the shadows, that Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker—inspired by Conrad Veidt’s demented smile in The Man Who Laughs (1928)—would track the clown’s downward spiral, taking on ever more macabre dimensions: Cesar Romero’s ’60s goofball had turned decidedly psychotic by Jack Nicholson’s Batman (1989) portrayal—a homicidal artist wearing flesh-tone makeup over his toxic white skin, effectively transforming the human face into its own clown mask.

Distortions of whiteface makeup were everywhere, most notably in shock rockers Alice Cooper and Kiss and in David Bowie’s cosmic Pierrot in the music video for “Ashes to Ashes” (1980)—aligning the clown with images of deviancy and subversion. The suburbs got a taste of terror in the leering clown doll of Poltergeist (1982), inaugurating a cinematic run of murderous clowns (Killer Klowns from Outer Space, 1988), deranged jesters (Clownhouse, 1989), and alcoholics (Shakes the Clown, 1991), while clown make-up became a go-to disguise for terrorists and criminals (see Hanna Schygulla in Fassbinder’s 1979 thriller The Third Generation, or Bill Murray in 1990’s Quick Change.)

But it was Stephen King’s 1990 miniseries It that fatally shredded America’s childhood image of the clown, introducing the world to Pennywise, a saw-toothed, red-balloon-toting shapeshifter who surfaced like an ancient evil in the stormwater drain of small-town USA—and accelerated an entire industry of creepy clowns, from the tricycle puppet of Saw (2004) to the malevolent phantom haunting the 2017 It remake.

If clowns were the distorted image of society, then one of America’s most prominent examples was also its most monstrous—blackface. An unsettling negative image of the whiteface clown—cruelly exaggerated dark skin tone, smeared red mouth, and shock wig—blackface originated as a form of racist, minstrel show performance and persisted on film well into the twentieth century; a phenomena satirized to barbed, brilliant effect in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000).

Is it any wonder that the clown has become a repository for American anxiety and terror? In the post-9/11 world of The Dark Knight (2008), the Joker returned less as calculating sociopath than unhinged force of chaos, while Joker (2019) saw Gotham’s jester channel shitposting, memes, and incel rage—not to mention a commander-in-chief who, with his unnatural skin, white-ringed eyes, and synthetic orange hair, all but embodied the clown’s rise to all-purpose national specter.

Not that there isn’t hope for the clown, especially in the mutable world of comedy. After all, as Nicholson’s Joker once wondered: “Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?”

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