Professional clowns complain Stephen King's 'IT' movie damaging their image

Professional clowns complain Stephen King's 'IT' movie damaging their image

CultureSeptember 19, 2017 By Will Brendza

A remake of Stephen King's IT hit the big screen this month, with Pennywise the Dancing Clown’s horrifying antics drawing over $123 million in ticket sales just over opening weekend. In the same week, American Horror Story’s latest season aired, showcasing an entire troupe of violent, cultish clowns.

With Halloween on the horizon, it seems the scary clown icon is once again looming. It’s a seasonal phenomenon that has actual clowns all over America up in arms — this is, after all, their image being corrupted, their livelihood up on those screens all covered in blood and gore.

A recent press release from World Clown Association expressed disgruntlement, and aims to reassure the world that horror characters are not real clowns:

Just as a Haunted House event may have a ‘doctor’ wearing surgical gear, carrying a bloody chainsaw, people need to understand that this character is NOT a real doctor. He is a person portraying an evil character in order to scare people. In the same way, people dressed as horror clowns are not ‘real clowns.’ They are taking something innocent and wholesome and perverting it to create fear in their audience.”

Indeed. Clowns were never meant to be monsters — for thousands of years they were entertainers: pygmy clowns amused the Pharos of ancient Egypt, the Romans and Greeks had theatrical “rustic buffoons” and the royalty of medieval Europe enjoyed the infamous court jesters. Even the modern circus clown remained a popular icon of entertainment throughout the early twentieth century. In perspective, clowns have been generally well-liked for most of their history.

Not these days, though. In 2017, anyone going around bragging about an affinity for clowns is part of a clear minority. It has become hip and “normal” to fear them, and even, to hate them. Forums, like ihateclowns.com, are a perfect example of this; they're online communities for “people who have realized they are not alone in their fear or hatred of the grease painted ones.”

That “fear or hatred of the grease painted ones” is known as Coulrophobia. And while it is not a condition officially recognized by any psychology manual, it's clear through personal testimony that a lot of people suffer from a real fear of clowns — or at least, an intense dislike of them.  

John Wayne Gacy, the famous “Killer Clown” of the 1970’s, certainly played a part in that fall from favor. Gacy, a rapist and serial murderer, was convicted in 1978 after the bodies of 33 young boys were found buried in his basement and around his home. He was dubbed the “Killer Clown” for the charitable appearances he often made at fundraisers, parades and children’s birthday parties as “Pogo the Clown.”

[Serial killer John Wayne Gacy in his iconic clown costume.]

Eight years later, Stephen King came out with the famous clown horror novel, "IT." Regarded as one of the writer’s most frightening books, it terrified generations of readers and eventually spawned two different film adaptations.

King and Gacy aren’t the only ones making a bad name for clowns, though ... The Insane Clown Posse, an angst fueled cult-music group, has earned itself the title of “the most hated band in the world” for harshly misogynistic lyrics and a controversial Juggalo fan base.

Last fall, a bizarre wave of “clown hysteria” swept the nation as reports of scary clowns flooded police stations in 37 states across the country, too. Many took to the streets like harlequin specters, spooking eye-witnesses and antagonizing innocent onlookers all across America.

Unfortunately for professional clowns, a 2008 study by the University of Sheffield, England, found that most kids are just naturally averted to make-upped entertainers. Child psychologist, Patricia Doorbar commented on these findings bluntly.

“Very few children like clowns," she said. "They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they just look odd.”

That oddness has a lot to do with the “uncanny valley” effect, when something looks almost human, but isn’t exactly. It is a fundamental reflex we have no control over that sets off alarms in our brains, fosters anxiety and cultivates fear.

That’s not the only thing working against clowns, either: the heavy white make-up makes their faces look corpse-like, the contrast between their painted expression and the human expression beneath instinctually sows distrust, and the inherent and erratic unpredictability of the clown character have all also been floated as reasonable grounds for despising clowns.

Guilford Adams, a professional clown from Los Angeles, doesn't try to sugarcoat it: “It’s a dying profession, and the people who do it and scrape together a living have to grapple with the fact … No one sticks up for a clown,” he told MEL Magazine.

C’est la vie. Clowns, like ventriloquist dummies and porcelain dolls, might not be long for this world. That is, happy clowns, at least. According to the money made from the recent movie remake, scary ones may have a place in the world — and, as professional clowns everywhere lose their business, there might be a lot more scary clowns wandering our streets in the near future.