Do clowns deserve the bad rap they get?

With the holiday season in full swing and the Oscar season right around the corner, there’s already quite a buzz surrounding possible Oscar 2018 contenders. The 2017 remake of Stephen King’s It is one of them. Without the political intrigue of Get Out, the sensational twist of Split, or the franchising power of Alien: Covenant, It joins a recent trend of horror movie successes. The film’s plot is simple enough: a town receives a supernatural visitor in the form of an evil clown known as Pennywise. In a recent interview, King said he created this demonic character after asking himself, “What scares children more than anything else in the world?” His answer – clowns – isn’t anything new. They have long been featured as the antagonists of movie plots (think The Dark Knight’s Joker). But do these good-natured tricksters truly deserve the bad rap we give them? Before we discuss this, it’s worth noting just how much money It made and the resulting consequences for America’s clown industry.

Stephen King’s It is a smash hit

According to Forbes, Pennywise and company have amassed a whopping $651 million during its eight weeks in movie theatres. Had it not been for Hurricane Irma, It might have even made a few more figures. The film is already one of the top 10 highest-grossing films of the year and has toppled several records to become by far the biggest opening for any Stephen King adaptation. Unfortunately (or fortunately to some), this has meant some bad news for the clown business. According to Clown in Town owner John Nelson, “My partner and I had six cancellations of birthday parties [last week],” he told News 4 New York. “I have heard reports from other clowns, in New York and other cities, that they have been canceled as well.”

However, this is not an isolated incident more than it is evidence of America’s rising anti-clown sentiment – which is understandable, really. Clowns are mysterious and strange. Where do they come from? Who does their hair? Why are their shoes so big? No wonder children are scared of them. This phobia of clowns is not without its merits. In fact, polls conducted by Knox College researchers have repeatedly shown that clowns take the cake for creepiest profession. Last year, there were even alleged sightings of clowns almost every other week. What most likely started off as a prank snowballed into an unstoppable hysteria as clowns were spotted lurking in shadows near schools, and on highways and playgrounds. Even McDonald’s iconic Ronald McDonald was traded in for a sentient Happy Meal known as “Happy.” Make no mistake: clowns are under attack.  

The evolution of clowns from funny to scary

In order to better understand these misunderstood characters, let’s delve into their history. Clowns first originated in ancient Rome as jesters who made rude jokes and teased the populace. They popped up again in 17th century Victorian England as harlequins. In contrast to their earlier form, harlequins were sophisticated and often romantic figures. Throughout history, it’s evident that clowns were catered towards an adult audience, but clowns and the various forms they took were never supposed to be scary.

In the 1960’s, clowns became kid-friendly. They were the staple of circus acts, performing incredible acrobatic feats and clever tricks to impress their young audience. Furthermore, early television characters such as Bozo the Clown and Ronald Mcdonald became beloved media figures and their widespread popularity made clowns the pinnacle of entertainment for children. Yet, the figure of a clown’s striking dichotomy between silly and strange made them an easy target to exploit. Some of the first movies to feature killer clowns were Poltergeist (1982) and – coincidentally – the original It (1990). The fact that child serial killer John Wayne Gacy performed at parties under the moniker, Pogo the Clown, served to fuel America’s growing phobia of clowns. Ever since clowns became synonymous with themes of horror and murder, the public perception of them was never quite the same.

However, it’s clear that clowns are not inherently scary. While they may have some questionable attributes, their ghastly white face paint and bulbous red noses were never intended to be taken maliciously. America’s pop culture artificially transformed them into the eerie beings that perturb us today and their sinister history is too deeply embedded within the collective consciousness of society for it to be forgotten now. Unfortunately for clowns, there’s nothing more that can be done to change their reputation. Perhaps it’s finally time for clowns to move on from the circus and find a new dwelling within haunted houses.

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