Creepy Clowns Are Nothing New: A Brief But Disturbing History

You can't escape the clown epidemic brought on by Stephen King's It, Joker, and other works of fiction.

Despite what the media has told us whenever the phenomenon has come up, creepy clowns have been lurking among us for a very long time.

In September 2014, the residents of Northampton, England began reporting a deeply disturbing stranger in their midst. The Northampton Clown, as he came to be known, was said to resemble Pennywise from Stephen King’s 1986 novel It, complete with baggy one-piece suit, white face, big red nose, and wild flame red wig. He didn’t frolic or make balloon animals. He didn’t have a seltzer bottle or do pie gags. At the same time he did not hurt people, never spoke a word, and that may have been part of the problem. All he did during his sporadic and unexpected appearances was stand on street corners and glower at passersbys. If you ask me, that’s a hell of a lot scarier than if he had a chainsaw.

I suspected from that initial appearance, there was something more sinister afoot, that the Northampton Clown was merely a harbinger of the dark times ahead, and the past five years have proven me right. After the Northampton Clown vanished (supposedly revealing his identity as a local actor and artist), others began appearing. In May 2014, another clown (this one with a female accomplice in a monkey mask) robbed yet another bank in West Virginia. In early October 2014, a number of residents of Bakersfield, California  reported seeing several clowns prowling the night streets. Those clowns were armed… One appeared on Staten Island, New York. Like the Northampton Clown, he did nothing but stare at strangers in cold silence. But then a clown showed up in an Alabama parking lot, and this one began terrifying the families trapped inside their cars.

Since 2015, creepy clowns have been spotted in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin, upstate New York, New Jersey, and half a dozen other states. Some are armed, some allegedly tried to lure children into the woods, and several arrests have been made. Those people, who not long ago were flapping their arms about the zombie apocalypse, have finally recognized (as I’ve been warning for the past thirty years) that the real threat is arising not from the shambling undead, but from the clown population.

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And believe you me: this recent rash of sightings is nothing new.

It’s no surprise, really, that the image of clowns has come to this, because in a way, that’s where it began. There’s hieroglyphic evidence that a form of clown existed in ancient Egypt. We know that the Greeks and Romans both had their clowns. Clowns worked the courts of the Middle Ages. The interesting thing is that until the Middle Ages, the clown and the performing freak were essentially the same thing. The jesters and fools who entertained kings, along with wearing bizarre costumes, which presaged the bright outfits worn by today’s clowns, were often dwarfs or those who were deformed in some way.

It was only after the Middle Ages that the clown and the freak split–the jokester, the prankster, the one in the funny outfit going one way, the twisted human monster going the other, both ending up in travelling circuses–one on display in cages and on stage.

The first modern clown–that is, the first of the clowns as we’ve come to accept them–was Joseph Grimaldi, a hugely popular British entertainer in the late 18th century. And that, I’m guessing, is where the trouble really began.

There was always something insidious about clowns, and kids far more than adults seemed to recognize this instinctively. You never knew what was going on behind the greasepaint and those hidden eyes, those mouths carved into artificial smiles. They sounded happy and they acted happy, but it was a happiness which danced on the edge of hysteria, a manic joy which threatened, in a second, to slip over into murderous rage or cold hatred without missing a heartbeat.

So here’s a brief and woefully incomplete smattering of some of history’s more notorius clowns, both fictional and otherwise.

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Pagliacci (1892)

So you think murderous clowns with butcher knives are something new? Some recent invention of a cold and cynical postmodern world? Then just go back and take a listen to Leoncavallo’s short opera… or the later and even shorter Spike Jones version, which ends with an obsessive, paranoid and insanely jealous clown going on a Shakespearean rampage, stabbing his wife, her lover, and himself to death. As Spike Jones pointed out in his adaptation, “‘Tain’t very sanitary.”

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Leoncavallo always claimed Pagliacci was loosely based on an actual murder case from his childhood, but he was sued by another composer, Pietro Mascagni, who claimed the story had been stolen from his own 1890 opera. Leoncavallo countered by claiming the earlier opera had itself been stolen from yet another, even earlier French play about a knife-wielding clown. Point being, it sure didn’t take long after the emergence of Grimaldi as a hugely popular entertainer before people recognized the murderous potential of these frolicking white-faced horrors in the baggy suits and funny hats.

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

The highly stylized and deeply disturbing silent film about a masochistic and vengeful Parisian circus clown was based on an early 20th century Russian novel by Leonid Andreyev, which was turned into a stage play and a 1916 film before being translated into English in 1922. Two years later it became the very first film shot at the newly-formed MGM Studios. Which in itself is a little weird and creepy, when you think about it.

Lon Chaney, of course, stars as a young scientist whose life is ruined when his wealthy patron steals all his research before humiliating him in public and running off with his wife. Chaney, seeing no other alternative, becomes a clown in a small French circus whose act involves recreating his public humiliation night after night to the delight of the roaring crowds. But disguised behind the face-paint, he’s free to hatch a devilish, insane and bloody revenge plot against the man who betrayed him.

read more – Joker: 6 Actors Who Played The Clown Prince of Crime

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Although the story is fairly standard-issue melodrama, director Victor Sjöström’s style that pushes the film into nightmare territory, transforming the usually bright and happy circus into a dark psychological Hell swarming with tormenting demons. Even though our sympathies are with Chaney here, it remains the most effective cinematic portrayal of a clown pushed well past the breaking point.

We wrote more about He Who Gets Slapped right here.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel, The Man Who Laughs may not exactly be a true clown film as we know them, but dammit it’s close enough considering where clowns come from. When a 17th century nobleman gets a little uppity with the king, the king not only has him killed, but also orders the face of the nobleman’s son be carved into a permanent wicked grin.

As he grows older, the boy (Conrad Veidt) is tormented by thoughts of revenge, but who can tell, right, considering he’s always smiling like that? He becomes a popular performer with a small traveling carnival, falls in love with a blind girl, and plots revenge against the king.

It’s long been believed that Veit’s makeup here would go on to become a central influence on Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, and Bob Kane when they were first sketching out legendary Batman villain, The Joker. Some people also claim The Man Who Laughs was a direct inspiration for the iconic grinning logo of Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park. Long after Steeplechase was gone, Funny Face as he’s sometimes known remains Coney’s unofficial mascot. Only problem with the latter theory was that the leering Steeplechase logo premiered in 1897. But Steeplechase also featured an evil clown dwarf who used to chase visitors around with a cattle prod, so maybe it’s worth noting anyway.

Read more about our thoughts and study of The Man Who Laughs right here.

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Laugh Clown Laugh (1928)

The same year as Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, Lon Chaney donned the clown makeup again for another turn as a sympathetic but deeply troubled Harlequin in Laugh, Clown, Laugh. In many ways nearly as twisted as his earlier clown film, here Chaney stars as a man who suffers from unpredictable and uncontrollable bouts of weeping. After he meets a local count who suffers from unpredictable and uncontrollable fits of laughter, the two decide to team up as a popular clown act. But then they both fall for the same girl and, well, things don’t end well.

Although not as stylish or troubling as He Who Gets Slapped, Laugh, Clown, Laugh (which spawned a hit song of the day) remains a rare and honest portrayal of clown-on-clown violence.

The Day the Clown Cried (1972)

Rumors have been swirling for over 40 years about the Most Famously Unreleased Film of All Time. Some say it was never completed and only exists as scraps. Others say it’s just a very rough first cut, and still others insist it was indeed completed and polished before writer/producer/director/star Jerry Lewis locked it away in his vault. Apart from some leaked footage, we’ll all have to wait another quarter-century to find out for ourselves, as per the rules laid down by Lewis when he handed the film cans over to the Library of Congress.

But having read the script, what I do know is this: Lewis plays Helmut Doork, a clown in a concentration camp charged with dancing groups of children into the gas chamber, and he feels bad about it. Harry Shearer, one of the few people who’s seen the film, reportedly turned to Lewis in the screening room afterward and asked, “What in the hell were you thinking?” Personally I don’t know what the big deal is anymore, given the film has already been remade twice (once with Robin Williams and once with Roberto Benigni), and no one noticed.

The Groove Tube (1974)

Writer-director Ken Shapiro’s raucous and often tasteless media satire marked a new era in American comedy, paving the way for Kentucky Fried Movie, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, Animal House, Airplane, and pretty much every lowbrow comedy that followed. Among the film’s countless and still timely sketches, few are more notorious than The Koko Show. While the Bozo-style kids show host was not terrifying in the traditional sense—there were no axes or knives involved—Koko did reveal a deep-seated perversity most of us always suspected was there beneath the red nose and fright wig.

In a way, watching a straight-faced and sober clown read passages from Fanny Hill to a presumed audience of horny nine-year-olds is far creepier than watching one disemboweling a real estate broker with a samurai sword.

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John Wayne Gacy (1978)

No single historical figure has done more to cement the public’s fear and mistrust of clowns than Chicago-area contractor, amateur magician and painter, cop groupie, and fame-whore John Wayne Gacy, who spent his weekends entertaining at children’s birthday parties as Pogo the Clown. Gacy was active in the local Chamber of Commerce, was well-known around the community, was photographed with several celebrities, and in his spare time raped and murdered an estimated 33 young boys, many of whom he buried in the crawlspace beneath his house.

After his crimes were uncovered and he was arrested in 1978, the media honed in both on Pogo and Gacy’s bright, even garish paintings, many of which were self-portraits as the party clown (one of which I acquired back in the late ’80s). The big question a lot of people were asking back then was, “How could a clown do such terrible things?” Yes, well, let’s just say a few of us simply saw it as a given. Christ, even his makeup design was a giveaway.

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Sure, Gacy may have been bad news for the party clown industry, but at least he inspired a decade’s worth of horror movies, which I guess is worth something.

Carny (1980)

Carny wasn’t by any stretch a horror film. It was an honest and insightful peek into life in a contemporary traveling carnival. It tends to be a secretive and insular subculture, and if you’re at all interested in the sometimes seedy carny life, the film (with Jodie Foster and Elisha Cook) is pretty wonderful. But the opening sequence, in which Gary Busey applies his clown makeup before climbing into the dunking booth still creeps the hell out of me. Hell, just the thought of Gary Busey in clown makeup creeps the hell out of me.

Busey’s Frankie is not the kind of clown you’d want at a kid’s party or anywhere near the center ring of a circus. No, he’s a professional Bozo, the technical term for a dunking clown, whose job it is to insult, goad, and chide passersby viciously enough to make them want to fork over a couple bucks for the chance to knock him off his perch into a pool of cold water.

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It’s worth noting here that Busey’s portrayal is based directly on an actual Bozo I had the misfortune of encountering a few times. Being a Bozo is not easy; it calls for the ability to recognize a passing stranger’s weak spot in an instant and know exactly where and how to stick the knife. No, they may not draw blood, but the damage they do can linger for a long time. Across the wide spectrum of serious professional clowndom, Bozos remain the single subsect whose job it is to make people cry, which Busey’s Frankie here does with relish.

Poltergeist (1982)

Of all the legitimate otherworldly shocks in Tobe Hooper’s (well, okay, Steven Spielberg’s) suburban haunted house film, nothing affected me more deeply or lingered longer afterward than that fucking clown doll at the foot of the bed. For some reason (and this has been recognized by several other filmmakers), clown dolls tend to be a hell of a lot scarier by nature than the flesh and (cold) blood variety.

In and amongst all the other chaos and terrors, the clown doll attack was a simple but masterful scene that used lighting, a slight alteration in the dolls makeup design, and some muffled cackling to dredge up everyone’s buried fear of clowns, whether they realized it was there or not. Just how widespread the fear was proven to me the first time I saw this in ’82. When Robbie (Oliver Robbins) throws the coat over the now-restored and apparently harmless clown, the entire audience cheered.

Creepy Clowns History - Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Tim Burton and Paul Reubens both had an innate understanding of how kids think and perceive the world, and particularly of what scares the bejeezus out of them. This is why it was no surprise to see clown imagery (both sinister and otherwise) snaking its way throughout the film. Most memorably in coulrophobic terms, we get the happy, innocuous mechanical waving clown to which Pee-Wee chains his bike transformed into a leering, malevolent, cackling clown after the bike is stolen. In his later nightmare, that single wicked mechanical clown comes to life and multiplies, becoming an army of sinister clowns who prance about to ominous music as they methodically destroy the bike.

For me, the capper, the image that revealed Burton and Reubens took their clown fear seriously, of course comes when Francis, disguised as the bike doctor in that same nightmare, rips off his surgical mask to reveal a clownish skull. And isn’t that what lay at the heart of it all? A clown’s face-paint is merely a highly stylized and colorful death mask.

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Out of the Dark (1988)

The masks worn by Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees may have gone on to become iconic, but from a low-budget filmmaker’s perspective, clowns were easy and always scary. Amid the slew of Gacy-inspired clown slasher films that came out in the ‘80s, Out of the Dark stands out for a very simple reason. The plot was strictly by the numbers, as a clown named Bobo stalks, torments, and eventually slaughters a slew of young women working as operators at a phone sex line.

But unlike most low-budget slasher films of the era, especially the clown slashers, Out of the Dark features an all-star cast of B film luminaries, including Karen Black, Geoffrey Lewis, and Tracey Walter. The film’s real claim to fame, though, remains the fact that it was Divine’s last screen appearance, this time playing a gruff detective! No, it may not have been his proudest moment as an actor, but given the present clownpocalypse, you might say he, as per usual, was ahead of the curve.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

Toward the tail end of that mid-’80s run of zany but influential punk rock comedies that included the likes of Human Highway, Repo Man, Return of the Living Dead, and Straight to Hell, came Stephen Chiodo’s Killer Klowns from Outer Space. After punk alien conspiracy movies, zombie movies, and Spaghetti Westerns, this one almost seemed inevitable. For all their own funny hair and outfits, 80s punks across the board seemed to recognize and celebrate the inherent evil of clowns.

Written by Chiodo and his two brothers, at its heart the film is structured like a classic ’50s alien invasion picture: a group of bloodthirsty aliens land in a small town and begin knocking off the locals. The only ones who realize what’s really happening are a group of teenyboppers, and who the hell is going to listen to them? The twist here is that that teenyboppers are punk rock kids, and the marauding alien hordes look just like circus clowns. They even wield clownish but deadly alien weapons, that smother people with cotton candy and the like.

Although the cast is made up of mostly unknowns, Animal House’s John Vernon, legendary character actor Royal Dano (who played a lot of exploitation film farmers in his later career), and comedian Christopher Titus also make appearances. Sadly, as bright and wacky as it all is, it’s one of those films where the admittedly brilliant and inspired core idea (and a soundtrack provided by The Dickies!) far outshine the finished film, but so what? Given our present predicament, it remains the most timely film of the lot.

Shakes the Clown (1991)

Somehow it only seemed fitting Bobcat Goldthwait’s directorial debut would turn out to be an epic about an alcoholic loser party clown. And I gotta admit the first half of the film is pretty great, From the opening scene, in which a young boy pisses on a passed-out Shakes (who’s just had a one-night stand with Florence Henderson), through our introduction to Palookaville, a town populated exclusively by clowns, it’s a meandering, hilarious, stupid, dark and wholly original portrait of a character and setting.

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Unfortunately, as so often happens, somewhere along the line someone decided the damn thing needed a plot, and that’s where things go wrong. But at the same time, that’s also where we run into the honestly evil clowns, who frame Shakes for murder.

It’s interesting to note, as dumb and silly as it all is, Goldthwait clearly did his research into clown culture. His decision to make the film’s villain an Auguste clown (you can tell by the makeup and costume) is a telling one. Within the clown hierarchy (and I’m serious about this), in which white-face circus clowns are at the very top, Auguste clowns are in the gutter, the most reviled and dismissed breed there is. So it only makes sense one of them would let his bitterness get the better of him. After spending a lifetime being spat on by those fucking hobo and whiteface clowns, what choice does an Auguste clown have but to become a vicious if sniveling killer, right? Here is a clown who would not take it anymore! In that, the film also exists as yet another rare cinematic example of clown-on-clown violence.

Puddles Pity Party

Forget Insane Clown Posse. As comedian Eruk Bergstrom put it, “the problem with Insane Clown Posse is that there’s no such thing as a SANE Clown Posse.”

A year or so back, upon first seeing Puddles, a seven-foot-tall clown in stark white greasepaint with only the most minimal of red accents, singing some of the saddest songs in the world, my immediate gut reaction was “this is so very deeply wrong on so many levels.” The more I saw him. however, drawn back again and again the way you can’t help but revisit a nightmare or a car accident, i started to reconsider that initial response.

Setting aside my own inescapable and paralyzing coulrophobia for the moment, there is something absolutely perfect about Puddles the Clown.

On the surface Puddles may be just another musical comedy act with a hook, but at heart he’s a 21st century Pagliacci, a larger than life funnyman being devoured by his own inner demons. Only difference is Puddles has yet to pick up the knife.

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Puddles does not frolic or caper or take pratfalls. He stands in existential isolation onstage and sings heartbreaking songs in a soaring baritone reminiscent of Scott Walker. It’s a gimmick of course, and in simple visual terms it’s profoundly and hysterically funny (or would be if he didn’t sing so beautifully), but at the same time he’s dredging up the tragedy at the core of all clowndom the world over and laying it bare.

Stephen King’s It (1990)

For all the evil clown movies that came before, and all those that would come after, in the public consciousness, Tim Curry’s turn as Pennywise became the gold standard against which all other evil clowns were measured…. at least until Bill Skarsgård portrayed the same insidious role in 2017’s big screen retelling, It. The original sort-of all-star miniseries (with John Ritter, Harry Anderson, Tim Reid, Richard Thomas, and other familiar TV types) was, like so many other King miniseries from the era, pretty laughably awful. I mean, I still get a big hoot out of the climax. The exception to the silliness, however, is Curry, who is pitch perfect as the fun-filled, capering clown in his baggy white suit, big red nose and fright wig, inviting children to come play with him in the sewer where he promises they will, um, float. The moment he first bared those rows of razor-sharp fangs, he instantly established himself as the King of the Demon Clowns.

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My only problem with Pennywise’s M.O., at least in demonic terms, is this: No kid anywhere, at any point in history, save for a small New England town in Stephen King’s imagination, has ever trusted a clown. Kids know better.

There are hundreds of other examples out there, from the pilot episode of Fantasy Island to assorted episodes of The Simpsons to Koko the Killer Clown who was on display in a cage at the Coney Island Sideshow for years to dozens of straight-to-video cheapies with many more to come. Hell, It has been remade with extreme excellence, which along with Joaquin Phoenix’s apparently nasty turn as the Clown Prince of Crime will continue to trigger a new string of hand-wringing articles.

The point is, anyone who tries to tell you the present clownpocalypse is a new and unique phenomenon simply hasn’t been paying attention. And you ask me, for that reason alone they’re getting what they deserve.

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