Written by Erin Culf
Imagine being from the 1930’s. You’re still you, of course, but you’ve only ever experienced 1930’s things: you’ve drank 1930’s drinks, breathed 1930’s air, and watched 1930’s cars drive down the 1930’s streets for your entire life. Imagine prohibition, penny candy, and experiencing the effects of FDR’s New Deal firsthand. Now, imagine that someone from 2016 has Back-to-The-Future’d their way into your quaint little 1930’s life and begins explaining their time to you. The first thing they say? Clowns. Penn State, Austin, Texas, Boston, Coventry. Clowns everywhere. You suffer a 1930’s stroke and tragically pass away.
Coulrophobia, or the intense fear of clowns, is not a rare phobia. Throughout history, clowns have evolved – until fairly recently, clowns were not associated with children’s parties in the slightest. They took the form of jesters, jokers, harlequins – impish, mischievous, sometimes malevolent characters who often drew humor from intense mania and excessive appetites for food, drink, and sex. They were dirty, they were drunk, they threw themselves around with reckless abandon, they valued their safety even less than their audience valued their own. Ancient clowns were rooted in satire, a way for the common people who wriggled under the thumb of European feudalism to cope with their oppression. Imagine them as the modern boxcar hobo-clowns who never smile and paint on five o’clock shadow and drink from paper bags to make people laugh. In 1876, French literary critic Edmond de Goncourt wrote “[T]he clown’s art is now rather terrifying and full of anxiety and apprehension, their suicidal feats, their monstrous gesticulations and frenzied mimicry reminding one of the courtyard of a lunatic asylum.” A hundred years later, a clown named Pogo was sentenced to death.
Pogo is better known as John Wayne Gacy, one of America’s most prolific serial killers, who was convicted of the rape and murder of at least 33 teenage boys. In 1986, Stephen King published It, in which a demon disguises itself as a clown to hunt and kill children. In 1981, Boston police received reports of men dressed as clowns driving around neighborhoods in a van. Similar instances arose in Cleveland, Kansas City, the Carolinas, Chicago, Wisconsin, and California. Clowns with guns threatened schools and other public areas.
This week, this freakishly strange, way-too-long, clown-infested week, a “clown hunt” broke out at PSU as students rallied to defeat the makeup-caked terrorist who ended up climbing a tree to escape from the frenzied crowd. Even Rhode Island remains unsafe, as two Pawtucket schools were threatened by “Bozo Sullivan” over Facebook. Though police are convinced the threats are incredible, clowns have also been seen chasing people out of Slater park with a machete. Where the clown acquired a machete is still unclear to authorities.
Through all this craziness, I can’t help but feel empathy. For the grandpa clowns, for those clowns who genuinely love children and making people smile, for those who attended Real Life Clown College because of their passion for self-depreciating humor and balloon animals. I wonder if they’re okay; I want them to be able to tell their clown jokes and make their clown money and live their clown lives. Alas, the clown narrative may be too far gone in this day and age. When one searches “clown” on Google Images, pictures of scary, bloody harlequins are the first to appear. I actually had to scroll down to find stock photos for this article. Clowns have become more associated with horror movies than circuses – the profession has lost its good reputation, if it ever had one in the first place. To those poor career clowns, stay strong. And to those who were already scared of clowns in the first place and are seriously overwhelmed by this situation, just stay inside.