|The Burnley Clown|
Bringing terror to the streets
- or just clowning around?
Clowns are supposed to make us laugh, but some people find them creepy or plain scary. The sinister clowns of horror films have stoked fears - or have they merely exploited a fear that was already there? In the following article, which originally appeared in The Stage, I trace the history of scary clowns.
Coulrophobia - the fear of clowns - is estimated to afflict 2% of the adult population, but anecdotal evidence including the existence of websites such as I Hate Clowns.com suggests the figure is much higher (you can even sign up for your own ihateclowns.com email address).
Clownhouse, Mr Jingles, In Fear Of Clowns and Killer Clowns From Outer Space are just some of the horror films to feed or exploit the fear of white-faced funny-men. The Joker in Batman and the toy clown that comes to life in Poltergeist are further examples, while Bart Simpson embodied childhood fears when Homer built him a bed in the shape of a scary clown.
"Can't Sleep, clown will eat me!"
The father of modern clowning was Victorian pantomime star Joseph Grimaldi, after whom clowns are still nicknamed Joeys. Grimaldi popularised white face paint with red markings on his cheeks as a way of making his expressions more visible in smoky, candlelit theatres.
Grimaldi was a massive celebrity but a memoir posthumously edited by Charles Dickens revealed him to be a tragic, depressed figure in private who punned, “I’m grim all day, but I make you laugh at night.”
|The Fear of the Mask|
- Dr Who goes to the circus
Whenever a director needs a
scary villain, you can always
count on a clown
According to author Ramsey Campbell, who employed sinister clown themes in The Grin Of The Dark, “It’s the fear of the mask, the fact it doesn’t change and is relentlessly comical.”
Grimaldi’s French contemporary Jean-Gaspard Deburau, who created the pantomime character Pierrot, became the first real life killer clown when he struck a boy and killed him after being taunted in the street.
Fictional killer clowns quickly followed with the 1892 Italian opera Pagliacci (Clowns) depicting a Grimaldi-type character who murders his wife.
The mid-20th century was a golden age for loveable clowns as television spread the fame of Bozo the Clown in America and Charlie Cairoli in Britain. The popularity of clowns was reflected by the decision of McDonalds to adopt Ronald McDonald as its mascot in 1963 - although opponents of the fast food chain may regard the Happy Hamburger Clown as a prime example of a smiling clown with a sinister agenda.
making another fan for life
Real life added to the image of clown as predator when John Wayne Gacy - a registered clown called Pogo - was convicted of killing 35 men in Chicago between 1972 and 1978.
“Clowns can get away with murder,” quipped the man newspapers dubbed the Killer Clown.
Today’s clowns are well aware that many people find them more scary than funny. Some circuses in America run clown therapy workshops in which children watch clowns applying their make-up to demystify the transformation.
What makes him such a funny clown?
Could it be his anarchic streak
makes him just a little bit scary?
“Too much make-up scares the kids,” says Adams. “I’ve never worn a lot and over the years it’s got less and less.”
Jasper King of musical clown troupe the Chipolatas wears no clown make-up at all, saying, “When I started out I had a white face and I soon realised that wasn’t the way to go. It alienates people - you’re someone different. I want the kids to think, ‘He’s the same as me.’”
But if you take away a clown’s make-up, is he still a clown?
Slapstick movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were direct descendants of the American circus’ hobo clown or character clown, and were clowns in every respect except face-paint, which on the big screen they didn’t need. The most successful clown of recent times is Mr Bean, although few fans of Rowan Atkinson’s mostly silent creation ever recognise him as a clown.
The world will probably always need clowns to hold up a distorted mirror to the absurdities of life.
But perhaps because they no longer appear in smoky Victorian theatres they no longer need exaggerated faces to be seen.
|"A passionate, up-to-date|
look at the circus
and its people"
- Gerry Cottle
"Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
- Mail on Sunday
Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.