Horror movies have all sorts of different characters that jump out at us and leave us hiding behind our cushions, from creepy kids to dolls with lives of their own. Over the past few decades, creepy clowns have become a type of character in horror movies and TV shows that are consistently terrifying and fit quite well into the horror genre. Even without a scary horror movie storyline, shocking twists or unexpected scares, clowns alone have become a fairly common fear, especially among young children. Is it because of their increasingly popular association with horror movies?
Where we used to associate clowns with fun make-up, jokes and kiddie entertainment, they’ve now taken on a darker and, in most cinematic cases, murderous disposition; from 2016’s Scary Clown Panic to the THIS franchise and the recent film The black phone, the clowns turned dark. So how did clowns find their role in horror movies, and what makes them go together so well to create a sinister atmosphere and generate such deep fear in us?
Where do clowns come from?
Coulrophobia is the extreme or irrational fear of clowns, but how did this fear become so popular? While most clowns try to be innocent, silly, and fun, most kids these days don’t like clowns and find them weird. Yet clowns were originally cheerful and playful characters — pranksters, jesters, pranksters and swindlers — who have been around for centuries and have been important figures in cultural history.
They typically appeared in most cultures long before the dawn of television and were used for entertainment, even making Egyptian pharaohs laugh. Ancient Rome’s version of a clown was a fool called the stupidus, and in the 18th and 19th centuries the Western European figure of the clown became the pantomime clown. Soon after, they started showing up at children’s birthday parties. All of these versions of clowning were made to be fun or jokes about, and the ultimate goal was to make people laugh, so where did it get this modern horrifying twist?
Well clowns are silly and mischievous — and mischief can easily be dark. The clown’s maniacal behavior and desire to do harm (as well as his love and joy for doing so) can easily be associated with chaos, which can be seen with the Joker from Batman, the ultimate association of the clown archetype with chaos itself. Moreover, the clown has recently become synonymous with wickedness and murder, which is exactly what has happened in the horror genre.
Clown mischief turns into murder
Clowns have now become a common theme in horror movies, which makes sense considering that horror often stems from childhood memories that turn dark; primal fear is harnessed and becomes more frightening when it resonates with the terror of childhood. Possessed creepy dolls and haunted childhood homes, for example, are easily transformed from an innocent memory into something that is capable of creating absolute terror.
So the clowns we may remember from the circus, or our birthday party, or the stories we hear about them being jolly and making balloons into funny shapes, or even McDonald’s, now have been rewritten and turned into something that scares us. However, is the fact that they’re supposed to be happy and fun even scarier? Sometimes the jarring incongruity creates the best horror, as things that should feel safe and fun are turned into terror (something seen in the many Christmas horror movies, the aforementioned dolls, the animatronic horror of Five nights at Freddy’s, etc). Clowns are usually tall, clumsy, and always smiling or laughing — imagine you are chasing with a chainsaw; it’s terrifying.
When clowns are portrayed in horror, they essentially act as the opposite of what they are meant to be. For example, Pennywise from THIS pray over the children; kids are supposed to like clowns and their relationship is supposed to be fun and lighthearted, but when it gets dark and disturbing, it’s no wonder people start freaking out. You wouldn’t expect the stereotypical clown personality to be a berserk, making for the perfect horror movie villain. The large physique can add to the dread the main character would feel as they are being chased, and the smiling, chuckling awkwardness is downright chilling. It can be seen beyond THIS in a wide variety of scary clown movies and series (Stitches, Carnival of Souls, Killer Klowns From Outer SpaceRob Zombie movies, american horror storyand more).
John Wayne Gacy and the Horror of Clowns
The appearance of clowns in real life and on the big screen alone can be terrifying, especially when overdone. What’s hiding behind that glowing white skin? Why is the painted smile so big? The features we recognize have been amplified and they look almost human, but not quite. They essentially blur the lines between human and demon, as makeup can distort their features. The reason we might be afraid of them releasing a creepy killer clown is because behind the makeup, you can’t tell who the clowns are or what they’re feeling. That’s part of what makes Ethan Hawke’s performance so chilling in The black phonehe perpetually hides his face, whether through thick clown face paint or terrifying masks.
For example, serial killer John Wayne Gacy was a beloved children’s entertainer, but soon became known as the Killer Clown. Something seemed incredibly but horribly appropriate about a serial killer dressed as a clown (something echoed in The black phone). Children are incredibly vulnerable and clowns are constantly associated with children, so we are scared when they become unpredictable. It is said that we only tend to be afraid when faced with the uncertainty of threat; as such, part of what makes clowns so scary and makes us so vulnerable to them is that their behavior can be so unpredictable, which is why they work so well in horror.
Maybe clowns don’t deserve the horror they’re getting now, but maybe they’re just too scary to return to their original happy, silly persona as entertainers. The scares clowns are now creating in the horror genre are hugely popular and, let’s face it, they can be terrifying. If we saw a man dressed as a clown, with that freaky makeup and creepy grin (not to mention weirdly big feet) walking towards us, we’d be scared. The union of professional clowns may be hurt by all of this, but horror fans can’t complain, because they make great villains and will likely continue to be for generations to come.