Just yesterday, Rob Dyke uploaded a new video in his ‘Seriously Strange’ series, about unexplained events caught on camera. The first phenomena that he mentions are people who dress as clowns, and act… strangely, I guess. I admit, if I saw a masked person in the dark, I would be freaked out, but being a clown costume doesn’t make it any worse.
I’m trying to understand the fear of clowns. Clowns, specifically, because I think it’s silly. It’s something that kids used to claim to get attention, always followed by ‘I saw ‘It’ when I was young, and it scarred me for life.’
Alright, first off, if you saw a movie when you were ‘young’ (you’re probably implying age seven or younger), I am nearly positive you don’t remember shit about it. And what you might remember has almost definitely been distorted by the passing of time, because that’s just how memory works, especially with kids. I don’t think that a lifelong fear of clowns can exist without actual in-person trauma.
Around the age of three, most children have a fear of masks. Apparently, this is pretty normal and expected. That’s why you get the hilarious photos of little kids terrified of Santa or the Easter Bunny or Spongebob. It makes sense, a least on a basic level. Kids have to read facial cues to understand what’s going on around them and who to trust. This carries through to adulthood, and it’s universally hard to trust someone concealing their face. But lacking trust isn’t the same as genuinely fearing someone.
I don’t simply mean a fear of masks, that’s been around for a while; at least the late 1830s, according to what I could find on Google Ngram. A fear of clowns is something distinctly 20th-century, and for the most part, the last 20 years of it. When I was researching this, the first thing to come to my mind was, of course, Pennywise from ‘It’. Why wouldn’t it be? That’s got to be the most famous example of an evil clown, maybe second only to Twisted Metal.
In 1940, the first appearance was made by The Joker in Batman #1. And a few years later, there’s another spike on our graph, which may be explainable by the Batman Theatrical Serial, which was in theatres around that time. The Joker was inspired by the character Gwynplaine, in the 1928 film, The Man Who Laughs. It’s hard not to be freaked out by that guy. I mean, look at him. He looks nuts. And he very clearly looks like The Joker. This might be the very first example of the evil clown trope, but it certainly won’t be the last.
There’s another spike in the 1960s, to which I can’t yet attribute a cause. In the late 1970s, John Wayne Gacy, Jr. was arrested for murdering 33 young men and boys. He also happened to be the guy who dressed in a clown costume and performed at birthday parties and charity events. As far as I know, there’s no connection between his clown character and his murders, but it nonetheless earned him the moniker of ‘The Killer Clown”. And, of course, we see a rise in the fear of clowns around that time. The media in the 1980s has been partially held responsible for a number of ‘Moral Panics‘ in the United States, and most have proven to be fear over nothing, and the fear of John Wayne Gacy was no different. He was clearly a heinous man, and a true danger to his community, but he has become a suburban legend, the fear that the nice old guy down the street is actually a serial killer exists largely because of him. And with that fear, came his clown costume.
All of this culminated with ‘It’. Stephen King capitalized on this growing, but not entirely uncommon, fear with a novel followed by a hugely successful film. At this point in the available data, we can see a huge, nearly exponential rise in mentions of the fear of clowns. I can only assume these are people who have a fear of killers, a fear of people covering their face, and found that a fear of Pennywise sounded unique and interesting, and ran with it.