The clumsy circus clown—a figure of fun or…the personification of evil? If you suffer from coulrophobia then you are convinced of the latter, because that is the fear of clowns. In the same way as arachnophobia, many of us, to a greater or lesser extent, are affected by this irrational fear.
Or is it irrational?
Those of us of Generation X were brought up with clowns as a staple element of any good horror story. Pennywise the clown in Stephen King’s novel IT (1986); a demonic clown toy in Tobe Hooper’s film Poltergeist (1982), who you just knew would try to kill those kids. It didn’t help that in the 70’s John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer, committed a series of gruesome murders across Chicago, in the US—he worked as a professional clown named Pogo. Perhaps Gacy was a source of twisted inspiration for these modern day horror classics; after all, what could be more sinister than a man with a painted mask that displays only a permanent grin? A clown beckons children to watch his comical shenanigans and they watch because he looks so funny. He looks a lot like a real person, but not quite…his face is distorted; his mouth kind of deformed…and there’s that horrible grin. According to experts, our fear of clowns is a very natural reaction to anything that looks familiar and, at the same time, unfamiliar. This mixture, or “cognitive dissonance”, causes nervousness and revulsion, and it’s a psychological concept known as “the uncanny”.
Clown – a figure of fun?
But it hasn’t always been like this for clowns. In the sixteenth century, the word clown appeared in English print and, rather than having an association with circuses or entertainment, it simply described a rustic or peasant. In Hamlet (1603), Hamlet asks Rosencrantz about a troupe of actors coming to entertain the Court and makes a reference to a clown, who at that time was a Court jester or fool: “He that plays the king shall be welcome…the lover shall not sigh gratis, the humorous man shall end his part in peace, the clown shall make those laugh whose lungs are tickle o’ th’ sear…” Clowns or jesters performed farcical comedy, yet their antics were sometimes to mock the behavior of the human audience that watched them. In the seventeenth century, clowns started to appear in the British Harlequinade comic theatre. This was silent visual comedy with a harlequin, pierrot, and a clown who was involved in a lot of slapstick elements. In 1892, the popular Italian Opera Pagliacci (“clowns”) featured a clown who murders his cheating wife in the final act, perhaps helping to seal the fate of the modern day clown.
Although clowns continue to appear at children’s parties and events (and Ronald McDonald has done quite well from the role), their ghoulish faces can make children and adults, alike, squirm with unease. It seems that their slapstick routines will always be clouded by a sense of mistrust. The final line of Pagliacci was “The comedy is finished!” and, for many of us, this is certainly how we feel about clowns.