clowns: creepy or not?


Clowns have been with us at least since the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and eventually evolved into court jesters in the late Middle Ages. The modern “clown” character developed out of the “rustic fool” characters of the 16th century Commedia dell’arte, which were themselves directly based on the “rustic fool” characters of ancient Greek and Roman theater.

Clowns have been seen throughout history as trickers, fools, and more. But as they always seem to be in control, they can speak their minds and usually get away with doing so. Court jesters would openly mock sex, food, drink, and the king himself, all the while behaving maniacally for a laugh. They may have been silly, but they often doled out the sagest advice at court.

grimaldiEnglish entertainer Joseph Grimaldi was said to have invented the modern clown in the early 1800s. Grimaldi performed physical comedy while wearing white face paint with red patches on his cheeks and bizarre colorful costumes. He was known for being extremely depressed outside his routine: His first wife died during childbirth, his father was tyrannical, and his son became an alcoholic clown who drank himself to death at age 31. “I’m GRIM-ALL-DAY so you can laugh all night!” was Grimaldi’s favorite saying.

pierroAround the same time in France, everyone was laughing at Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s Pierrot, a clown character with a white face, black eyebrows and red lips—one of the first professional silent mimes. He was universally beloved in France, but in 1836 Deburau killed a boy with a blow from his cane after the boy taunted him. Though he was ultimately acquitted, the image of the killer clown stuck.

enrico_caruso_as_canioIn 1892, an Italian Opera called “Pagliacci” became extremely popular with the public. The main character was Canio, a cuckolded clown who murdered his cheating wife on stage during the final act. It’s still a widely-staged play to this day.

Clowns became an integral part of big-top circuses, acting as comic relief to the death-defying circus stunts. At the circus, humor, horror, and death were all intertwined. By the late 19th century, clowns and circus acts had blossomed in America. Three-ring circuses traveled around the US on trains and “hobo” clowns—sad-faced clowns with five o’clock shadows and tattered clothes—became popular. One of the most famous was Emmett Kelly, whose “Weary Willie” was born in the Great Depression.

ronald-mcdonaldDuring the 1950s and 1960s, clowns became silly characters meant to entertain children. Thanks to TV programming, Bozo the Clown and his buddies were in every living room making children laugh. McDonald’s even cashed in on the trend by creating its famous brand ambassador, the hamburger-loving Ronald McDonald, in 1963.

pogo-the-clown-cropClowns never much creeped me out until the arrival on the clown scene in the 1970s of mass-murderer John Wayne Gacy. He was a registered clown who went by the name of “Pogo,” but he was arrested for sexually assaulting and killing more than 35 young men in the Chicago area. He told investigating officers, “You know…clowns can get away with murder.”

He was wrong. Gacy was executed in 1994. Gacy was also sort of a tipping-point in the history of clowns.

In 1986, Stephen King wrote It, a horror novel where a demon attacks children disguised as a clown. It was so popular that it was turned into a TV miniseries in 1990. Thereafter, clowns have become a common horror trope in movies like Saw, Funnyman, and Clownhouse—the so-called “bad clowns.”

55888_mr-punch_mdBad clowns have existed throughout history—the Harlequin, the King’s fool, and Mr. Punch. Clowns have long been associated with a dark and disturbing history—murder, financial ruin, infidelity, and pedophilia—but we tended not to see it. Now bad clowns permeate the media in movies, TV, music, comics and more. A psychiatric condition—Coulrophobia, an extreme fear of clowns—has even been named and though it’s still highly-disputed in the academic realm, many people admit that clowns totally freak them out.

Professional clowns are not generally fond of the bad-clown persona; they see them as “the rotten apple in the barrel, whose ugly sight and smell casts suspicion on the rest of them.” Some people believe the negative images of clowns are harming the clowning profession.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, negative images create “a vicious circle of clown fear: More scary images means diminished opportunities to create good associations with clowns, which creates more fear. More fear gives more credence to scary clown images, and more scary clown images end up in circulation.”

Yet research shows that “good clowns” actually outnumber the bad. Plus, there’s evidence that kids actually do like clowns, especially sick children. Two separate studies showed that there was a beneficial health effect on sick children after playing with a therapy clown. It reduced their anxiety and some children even recovered faster.

So most clowns are actually harmless enough to keep inviting to your kids’ birthday parties.


















Groove of the Day

Listen to Gary Lewis & the Playboys performing “Everybody Loves a Clown”


Weather Report

85° and Partly Cloudy




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