Non-fictionThe Horror Show

Why so serious? Punch, Pennywise, and the evolution of the bad clown in popular culture

“Storm just bleeew me away,” Pennywise the Dancing Clown said. “It blew the whole circus away. Can you smell the circus, Georgie?”

– Stephen King

If filmgoers and horror fans alike have an immediate association when they hear the phrase “bad clowns,” it is likely to be with Pennywise, the central villain in Stephen King’s 1986 doorstop of a novel, IT. Not content to remain confined to the pages of King’s massive tome, or the storm drain through which poor Georgie Denbrough has his fatal encounter with the monster in the book’s opening pages, Pennywise has infused popular culture for decades, thanks to a pair of iconic screen performances – the first by Tim Curry in the 1990 ABC miniseries; the second by Bill Skarsgard in Andy Muschietti’s feature films IT (2017) and IT: Chapter Two (2019). The former had the best opening weekend for a horror film in global box-office history, at $189.7 million USD. The latter came in just behind, at $185 million (observers blamed the oversized running time, just shy of three hours, for the shortfall).

It seems undeniable that something about Pennywise captured the public’s imagination, elevating him to the pantheon of iconic horror monsters, alongside Dracula, Hannibal Lecter, Pinhead, and Leatherface. And, if one wants to stretch a point, another intergenerational pop-culture icon who has crossed over media and become a bona fide phenomenon: the Joker. (Batman’s most notorious nemesis is the only comic-book character to have resulted in not one but two acting Oscars, for Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively.)

The Joker and Pennywise both feature prominently in Benjamin Radford’s 2016 University of New Mexico Press study Bad Clowns, about the dark side of clowning and the cultural baggage the clown archetype has shouldered over the course of centuries. Beginning with a short historical chapter sketching the development of clowning from its early days in ancient Greece, through the French Harlequin character and the Italian commedia dell’arte, Radford takes readers on a tour of famous bad clowns in literature, film, and life, touching on everything from the violent 19th-century English puppet clown Punch (of Punch and Judy infamy) to In Living Color’s Homey D. Clown, the Insane Clown Posse, the notorious insult comedy of sideshow dip clowns, and the modern internet troll as the 21st century online manifestation of the bad clown. He looks at Krusty the Clown and Killer Klowns from Outer Space, as well as lesser-known figures like Obnoxio the Clown, the satirical mascot of Crazy magazine, and Crotchy the Clown, who was responsible for forcing the Nebraska Supreme Court to watch a video of him masturbating in full clown makeup as part of an obscenity case arising out of his cable-access television show. (Radford puts this in perspective, writing, “The zero-budget Cosmic Comedy show, which aired around midnight, made Wayne’s World look like Avatar.”)

It is in these more outré moments that the book really comes to life. Of course there is a large subgenre of clown porn, and of course Radford makes mention of it. He quotes Chris Spoto, owner of a porn production company called Ramco, about the particularly esoteric fetish: “It comes from your typical clown-association things – like, we use cream pies. Well, that is an absolute niche fetish. There’s – let’s see, I forget what it’s called – splatter? People who get off on cream pies. And then there are the balloon people.” What is most interesting about the Spoto interview, however, is the producer’s stated reason for getting into clown porn in the first place. “It really wasn’t so much about making porn as it was dealing with my irrational fear of clowns.”

There is little doubt that a fear of clowns is irrational. They are, after all, mostly children’s entertainment, at least in their 20th and 21st century manifestations. There is also little doubt that, like dolls, clowns form a primal node of fear for many adults. Perhaps this has to do with imprinted trauma from childhood – an especially harrowing encounter with a clown at an impressionable age. With their makeup, costume, and oversized personalities, clowns are not the most serene figures to unleash on a child, particularly an emotionally sensitive one. And as Radford makes clear, the clown, fool, or trickster character has long been associated with anarchy and the breakdown of civility, which lends them an additional element of incipient fear.

The disconnect between the idea of clowns as harmless childhood entertainment and a potentially dangerous psyche that resides behind the greasepaint and rubber nose is part of what makes some people so skittish about clowns (and what makes many professional clowns upset about the co-option of their art form for cheap thrills or scares). It is precisely this disconnect that Rob Zombie exploits in the character of Captain Spaulding, the psychotic antagonist in the musician-turned-director’s House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects.

In fact, it is this very contradiction that makes the subject of bad clowns – and for “bad,” it’s easily possible to substitute the word “scary” – so much more interesting than so-called good clowns. “It’s difficult to assign a specific cultural meaning to the bad clown, because it is such a malleable archetype,” Radford writes. “Like any other symbol, the evil clown – unlike the default, ordinary, ‘good’ clown whose meaning is fairly fixed over time as playful, whimsical, and friendly – can be adopted or adapted to mean whatever one wants it to mean, and varies by context.”

Ronald McDonald, for example, is seen as a bad clown by activists who hold the corporate mascot responsible for any number of societal ills, from obesity to the degradation of the environment. In 1999, the magazine Adbusters mounted a campaign to “bring down the clown” as a means of culture jamming and battling what the magazine’s founder, Kalle Lasn, called “ongoing fast-food imperialism.” Ten years later, Illinois college student Firas Alkhateeb Photoshopped an image of Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup onto a poster of then-president Barack Obama; the provocative “blend of art, apparent social activism (whatever its intent), politics, and pop culture proved irresistible and the story made national headlines.”

Radford’s short volume is fairly comprehensive, though the continuing fascination with malevolent clowns means that it is somewhat dated, even a scant five years after its first appearance. It doesn’t, for example, feature latter-day bad clown movies such as Terrifier, Haunt, or Stitches. The last is a particularly interesting example in context, given its story of a murderous clown who returns from the dead to kill the kids who literally tormented him to death during a birthday party performance. The juxtaposition of childhood innocence with adult venality and cynical disillusionment here goes from subtext to text, carried aloft on the back of English comedian Ross Noble’s coruscatingly funny performance in the title role.

Stitches’s catchphrase, “Everybody happy?,” leans a bit too heavily on Heath Ledger’s indelible “Why so serious?,” though this also tilts in the direction of the close connection between horror and comedy, a subject worthy of a fuller examination on another day.

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