The U.S. has recently seen a spate of “creepy clown” incidents, as clowns have allegedly been spotted walking around in suburban streets at night for no good purpose. It’s very hard to tell how much of this is really happening, and how much of it is media hype or urban myth. But it’s raised the “creepy clown” issue to a new peak.
What the hell? Why is this going on? Did something happen to make our view of clowns change? Or were they always creepy? To figure this out, you need to look at the modern and ancient and REALLY ancient history of the clown.
There have been clown-type figures in all kinds of different cultures throughout history, but let’s focus first on the clown as it exists today in the West, and especially North American culture. Where did it come from? As it turns out, there was a whole process of clown-evolution.
The modern American clown emerged from an English phenomenon called the “harlequinade”. To understand what that is, you have to go back one step further, to Italy and something called the “commedia del’arte”. This was a kind of “masked theater” that became popular in the late Renaissance. It was a comedic performance, seen as more low-brow than most theater, which had set characters and set scenarios, but was otherwise improvised. So think of it as a kind of sketch comedy improv with people in silly costumes.
When it came to England, it evolved into the Harlequinade, which was an even more low-brow slapstick style of humor (in fact, the term ‘slapstick’ comes from the Harlequin’s magic stick). The Harlequinade featured five main characters: Harlequin, a dashing and clever romantic trickster (often with magic powers), his love Columbine, her father Pantaloon (who wants to keep them apart), Pierrot (who was Pantaloon’s extremely stupid servant), and “Clown” (another servant of Pantaloon) who was a brutish country bumpkin. In English, the word “clown” first shows up in the 16th Century, and originally meant a “rustic” or a “peasant”. So the original clown was a crude and ignorant figure dressed in rags and embodying the stupidity of a kind of ‘redneck’.
By the early 19th Century, the Harlequinade evolved. In particular, popular clown-actors started to steal the show. The Pierrot gradually disappeared in favor of a policeman figure, the Harlequin became less comical and more of a dashing straight-man, and the clown became the central comedy figure. Along the way, his costume changed to become brighter, more outlandish, and basically the first appearance of what we associate with the “clown” look today:
The clown came to be the general mischief-maker of the Harlequinade and Pantomimes of the English theater. They were the figures that broke all the rules. This is an important part of what led to their modern creepiness: clowns have always been characters that don’t obey the normal social rules. They are unpredictable, chaotic, crazy.
But for a moment, let’s look back a bit further: the clown figure from the Commedia didn’t just come out of nowhere. If you go into ancient Roman and Greek theater, it also had a type of comic-relief character that was a “rustic peasant”. The Roman term for this was “fossor”, which literally means “ditch-digger”, that is to say a very low-class laborer. Later on, in the United States, we have the appearance of the Hobo Clown.
So there’s a kind of element of class-warfare in the clown. The clown is associated with the lower class, with the country-rustic rather than the civilized city-dweller. They provided an opportunity to laugh at the ignorant poor. But at the same time, they’d also often end up making fun of and getting the better of their social-superiors; causing havoc in the fancy party, making the rich dowager faint, throwing a pie at the policeman, etc. And when you imagine them as ‘creepy’, some of that class-warfare still comes through: a clown hanging around the suburbs where he has no business being is a lot like a hobo hanging around the suburbs, which is a lot like a homeless person hanging around the suburbs. Are they there to ‘get even’ with proper middle-class people?
Back to the history lesson: clowns started to get associated with non-theater contexts when an English horse-riding show added clowns doing tricks in between the different horse-tricks to keep the public from getting bored. The modern rodeo clown and circus clown both emerged from this. And even though they were an English invention, like with a lot of things, it was Americans who took the idea and made it bigger, tackier, louder, and probably better. The great American circuses cemented the place of the clown in our society by the late 19th century.
So when did clowns become creepy? And why?
In a way, clowns were always a little creepy. Their historical association with the poor, the lower-class country-bumpkin, was meant to always evoke a bit of disgust. They were crude, inappropriate, often alcoholic (this only got whitewashed out in the Hollywood and TV era), their humor was violent, they were sometimes lecherous, and most importantly didn’t follow either proper manners or proper rules.
The non-creepy clown period was kind of the weird thing, and it was only caused by clowns becoming associated with children’s entertainment, with TV (which had to be G-rated) making clowns “safe”. Clown humor was neither safe nor mainly for children before that, and the rise of the creepy-clown concept could be a pushback against that sanitizing.
Of course, it could also have to do with this guy:
That’s serial killer John Wayne Gacy. He was also known as “Pogo The Clown”. He raped and murdered at least 33 teenage boys. The fact that he worked as a clown at kids’ parties while he was brutalizing boys only a bit older than the kids he entertained was almost certainly a turning point in the American psyche as far as tainting clowns in the public image.
Clowns might have recovered from that, if it wasn’t for this:
The evil clown from Stephen King’s “It”. Now the clown was not just creepy, or criminally creepy, but supernaturally creepy.
And in a way, this takes the clown back to its most ancient roots. Before the clown was a character from theater-comedy, before the court jester, who were the people who dressed up in crazy outfits and did wild things? Shamans.
Ancient wizards, shamans, and clowns all have certain similarities. The Shamans, wizards or witch-doctors were allowed to be rule-breakers. In their cultures, they could do things that were taboo to other people in the tribe. They could be strange, and were often “crazy” by the standard rules of society. They would make themselves drunk or high or do crazy dances in order to talk to spirits. They would paint their faces or wear crazy masks or shake sticks to scare off evil spirits.
The shaman had the power to scare away the evil spirits, but he could also curse you or send those evil spirits your way. Shamans were dangerous figures, who existed at the fringe of society and reality.
The modern clown is in some ways similarly ‘dangerous’. They don’t follow the rules of society, they are meant to bring you happiness and laughter and ‘scare away’ the worries and problems and fears of everyday life, but they are so outside the rules that they might just be menacing. It’s a fine line between the power to exorcise our worries and become a thing that worries us.
Our modern world is a culture that doesn’t want to believe in ‘evil spirits’, that has a difficult relationship with religion, and that feels increasingly uncertain about what it’s social ‘rules’ are. If the clowns are a kind of watered-down descendant of our shamans, maybe it’s no surprise that they’ve turned on us. Or that we’ve turned on them.