The History and Psychology of Clowns as Frightening Beings

The History and Psychology of Clowns as Frightening Beings: You are not alone in your dislike of contrived entertainment; clowns have horrified humanity for millennia.

Excessive fear of clowns is a medical phrase. However, neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor a psychology textbook includes the term coulrophobia.

Although not many people are terrified of clowns, many more despise them.

There are around 480,000 likes on the Facebook page “I Hate Clowns.” Some circuses have sponsored programs to help customers overcome their fear of clowns by allowing them to watch performers transform into their clown personas.

In 2006, dozens of fiberglass clown statues – part of a public art exhibit called “Clowning Around Town” and a nod to the city's history as a winter home for traveling circuses – were defaced, their limbs were broken, heads chopped off, and spray-painted; two of them were kidnapped, and we can only speculate on their sad fate.

Even children, who are supposed to enjoy clowns, are claimed to despise them. In an exhaustive study of 250 children aged four to sixteen, the University of Sheffield (England) discovered in 2008 that most children despise, if not fear, images of clowns.

In a BBC report, a child psychologist mentioned the findings “Few children adore clowns. They are strange and from another period. They don't appear funny; rather, they appear strange.”

However, most clowns are not striving to be out of the ordinary. They're aiming to be charming and witty, personified enjoyment. So, when did the clown, who is fundamentally a charming figure of harmless, kid-friendly entertainment, become so burdened by fear and sadness? When did clowns start being depressed?

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Perhaps they have always existed.

Clowns have been utilized as pranksters, jokers, harlequins, and mythologized tricksters for millennia. In 2500 BC, Egyptian pharaohs were made to laugh by pygmy clowns; in ancient imperial China, a court clown named YuSze was supposed to be the only one who could derail Emperor Qin Shih Huang's plot to paint the Great Wall of China. There was a Hopi Indian custom of clown-like figures interfering with solemn dance rites with comical antics.

In ancient Rome, the clown was a jester known as stupidus; court jesters in medieval Europe were a sanctioned way for people under feudal fannishness to mock those in power; and the pantomime clown, a type of bumbling clown, was the dominant clown figure of Western Europe and Britain well into the 18th and 19th centuries.

According to David Kiser, talent director for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the wicked side of clowning has always existed.

They were, after all, personalities who represented society. Scholars observe that their insatiable appetites frequently inspired their witty remarks on food, sex, drink, and erratic behavior.

Murdering is one thing. Mischief is something entirely else. The way clowns transmit their wickedness has changed, according to Andrew McConnell Stott, dean of higher education and professor of English at the University of Buffalo, SUNY.

Stott has authored several articles about frightening clowns and humor, as well as The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, a 2009 biography of the famous London Regency theatrical mime.

Grimaldi was the first known ancestor of the modern clown, the homo Erectus of clown evolution. He is the reason clowns are still called “Joeys.” Despite the fact that his clowning was not a circus practice, Grimaldi is so intimately connected with modern clowns that an east London church has held an annual Sunday service in his honor since 1959, with all parishioners dressed in full clown gear.

In his heyday, one-eighth of London's population claimed to have seen Grimaldi perform. By changing the clown's appearance and temperament, Grimaldi converted him into the main character of pantomime.

Clowns used to wear makeup, although it was usually just a small amount of rouge on their cheeks to give the impression that they were florid, cheery drunks or country yokels. Grimaldi, on the other hand, wore oddly colored clothing, sparkling white face paint with bright red spots on his cheeks, and a blue mohawk.

He was a maestro of physical comedy, jumping in the air, standing on his head, and engaging in amusing fistfights with himself that fascinated the audience, as well as satire, mocking the absurd attire of the day, humorous impersonations, and obscene songs.

Grimaldi, on the other hand, was such fame that his constructed persona became inexorably identified with him. Grimaldi's real life was far from amusing; he was raised by a tyrannical stage father and suffered from depression.

His drunken son was a joker who drank himself to death at the age of 31; while Grimaldi's physical exploits, the leaps, and falls, and violent slapstick that made him renowned, left him in constant pain and handicapped.

“I'm GRIM all day, but at night I make you laugh,” Grimaldi explained. Grimaldi's capacity to make a joke about it illustrates how extensively his heinous past was known to the general population.

This is when a young Charles Dickens joins the scene.

The coroner found in 1837 that Grimaldi died “by the visitation of God.” Grimaldi's memoirs were commissioned to Dickens.

In the serialized tale, he narrates an off-duty clown whose alcoholism and ugly, bedraggled body contrast with his white face paint and clown costume, which is supposed to be inspired by Grimaldi's kid. Not surprisingly, Dickens' description of Grimaldi's existence was Dickensian and, according to Stott, required a “strict economy”: Grimaldi had to suffer proportionate misery for every laugh he elicited from his audience.

Stott connects the creepy clown to Dickens, even claiming that Dickens invented the creepy clown by designing a monster that self-destructs in order to make his audience laugh.

Dickens made it difficult to look at a clown without wondering what was going on beneath the makeup: “It becomes impossible to distinguish the persona from the performer,” Stott argues. Because Dickens' retelling of Grimaldi's story was so well-known, this picture of something dark and nasty hidden under laughter would endure.

Meanwhile, following Grimaldi's popularity in the United Kingdom, Jean-Gaspard Deburau's Pierrot, a clown with a white complexion, crimson lips, and black brows who delighted French audiences with his wordless gestures, was the most prominent clown figure on the continent.

Deburau was as well-known in Paris as Grimaldi was in London, and he could be recognized even when he wasn't wearing makeup. Deburau was sinister whereas Grimaldi was tragic. Deburau murdered a child in the street in 1836 with a strike from his walking stick after the boy insulted him (he was eventually acquitted of murder charges).

clowns face

As a result, the two greatest clowns of the early modern period were insane men dressed as clowns.

After the height of Grimaldi and Deburau, mime and theatrical traditions split; clowning completely abandoned the circus arena's relatively young theater. In the mid-1760s, British entrepreneur Philip Astley founded the circus, performing “feats on horseback” in a circular arena.

Other performers, such as clowns, jugglers, trapeze artists, and acrobats, were quickly drawn to these equine exploits.

By the mid-nineteenth century, clowns had evolved into a “hybrid Grimaldi character [that] fitted significantly better with the general, entirely less sophisticated method of clowning under the circus tent,” according to Stott.

Clowns provided comedic relief from the thrill of the daredevil circus shows, with their rambunctious presence matching the precision of the acrobats or riders.

Simultaneously, their wit had to broaden – the clowns had more space to fill, so their movements and gestures had to be more obvious.

“[T]he art of the clowns is now really dreadful and full of terror and worry, their suicidal antics, grotesque gestures, and violent facial expressions are suggestive of the courtyard of an insane asylum,” French literary critic Edmond de Goncourt wrote in 1876.

Then there's the 1892 debut of the Italian opera Pagliacci (Clowns). During a performance, an actor dressed in the style of the Grimaldi clowns murders his cheating wife on stage. Clowns were both frightening and amusing.

The circus and its clowns were brought from England to America, where they thrived. In late-nineteenth-century America, the circus evolved from a horse act to a three-ring spectacular that traveled throughout the country by rail.

Clowns from America's “hobo” culture

Emmett Kelly, for example, was the most well-known of the American “hobo” clowns, the sad-faced men with the shadow of a five o'clock shadow and ragged clothes who never smiled but were nevertheless entertaining.

Kelly's “Weary Willie” was inspired by a true tragedy: the dissolution of his marriage and America's deteriorating financial circumstances in the 1930s.

Clowns enjoyed a renaissance in America during the television age, owing to children's entertainers such as Clarabell the Clown, Howdy Doody's silent sidekick, and Bozo the Clown. Bozo was the beloved host of a hugely popular children's show that aired internationally in the mid-1960s – tickets to his show sold out in 10 years.

Ronald McDonald, the hamburger-loving clown, debuted in 1963 and has been a brand ambassador ever since (despite the fact that the head wearing a red wig is heavy – in 2011, health activists claimed that, like Joe Camel for smoking, he was promoting an unhealthy lifestyle for children; McDonald's did not dump Ronald, but he was seen playing soccer much more frequently).

This heyday, however, also represented a considerable shift in the clown's role. Prior to the early twentieth century, there was less assumption that clowns had to be pure emblems of fun, frivolity, and laughing; for example, mime clowns were figures with a more adult-oriented story.

Clowns, on the other hand, were almost exclusively utilized for children's entertainment. What lay beneath the makeup became terrifying as their made-up persona became more strongly associated with children, and thus with the expectation of innocence, creating an enormous treasure trove for artists, filmmakers, writers, and creators of popular culture to exploit with relish and terrifying effect. “We believe there must be something bad if there is a secret,” Stott claims. As a result, we wonder, ‘What are you hiding?'

Most clowns have nothing to hide unless it's a bogus flower bouquet or a balloon animal. But, as with Grimaldi and Deburau, it was what a real clown was hiding that changed public perception of clowns. This time, it wasn't a melancholy or troubled figure beneath the clothing, but something much deeper.

While Bozo was still romping around the stages of America, a far more terrifying clown was at work in the Midwest. John Wayne Gacy seemed to the public as a cheery, hardworking man; he was also a registered clown who acted as Pogo at community gatherings.

He did, however, rape and murder approximately 35 young men in the Chicago area between 1972 and 1978. Before being captured, he told authorities, “You know… Clowns get away with murder.”

clown in suit

Gacy did not get away with it; he was found guilty on all 33 counts of murder and executed in 1994. However, because of the shocking manner of his death, he was called the “Killer Clown,” a convenient label for journalistic accounts.

Gacy also seemed to like his clown persona: in incarcerated, he began painting, and some of his paintings depicted clowns, as well as self-portraits of him pogoing. It was alarming that Gacy, who had already been convicted of sexually abusing a teenager in 1968, had access to children while disguised as a harmless clown.

This added to America's rising fear of “stranger danger” and child sexual abuse and made clowns a legitimate target of suspicion.

Following the unexpected discovery of a natural killer clown in America, depictions of clowns took a deadly turn. Previously, films like Cecil B. DeMille's Oscar-winning The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) could play with the concept of a tragic clown—Jimmy Stewart played Buttons, a circus clown who couldn't remove his makeup and later revealed himself to be a doctor on the run after “mercy killing” his wife—but now clowns were truly terrifying.

The 1982 film Poltergeist focused on making ordinary banalities – a California suburb, a dish of fried chicken, and the TV – into genuine shocks; however, the pivotal moment was when the tiny boy's clown doll came to life and sought to drag him under the bed.

Stephen King published It in 1986, about a horrible demon dressed as Pennywise the Clown attacking children; the book was adapted into a TV miniseries in 1990.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space, a B-movie hit from 1988, featured alien clowns with pointed teeth and murderous intent.

Clownhouse, a cult horror film about mentally ill people who escape and disguise themselves as circus clowns before attacking a rural town, was released the following year. Between the late 1980s and now, when the Saw franchise's logo is a scary doll with a clown face, scores of films starring unpleasant clowns have flooded theaters (or, more often, have gone straight to video), making the clown as reliable a boogeyman as Freddy Kreuger.

Ringling's talent scout and former clown himself, Kiser, acknowledged the harm done to clowning by images of terrifying clowns, but he tended to minimize the impact. “It's like, ‘Oh my, we're going to have to work hard to get through this,'” he continues.

Anecdotal data suggests, however, that clowns' unfavorable image is affecting the clowning profession.

Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep detailed statistics on professional clowns (they are lumped in with comedians, magicians, and other performers), articles lamenting the decline in attendance at clown conventions or clown workshops began to appear in newspapers across the country in the mid-2000s.

Stott believes that the clown as a fun character has vanished (he finds clowns “weird”) and that negative clown images have replaced positive clown images.

“Clowns are infrequently encountered these days in these safe, delightful situations. When you see them in movies, they are disturbing “Martin Antony, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of the anti-anxiety workbook, agrees. “Children are not exposed to as many safe, fun circumstances as they formerly were, and negative media portrayals endure.

Fear of the Clown

This creates a vicious cycle of clown fear: more terrifying images mean fewer opportunities to build good associations with clowns, leading to even more anxiety. Greater fear legitimizes clown imagery, thus more clown images proliferate.

Of course, it's impossible to determine how many people have become scared of clowns as a result of Gacy and It. A phobia is dread or worry that limits a person's life, yet clown fears are rarely identified as phobias, according to psychologists, because people don't see clowns very often.

Fear of clowns, however, is exacerbated, according to Antony, by how clowns are depicted in the media. “We develop phobias as a result of what we read and see in the media… There are undoubtedly numerous examples of nasty clowns in movies that could heighten that kind of fear “he asserts

According to psychologists, fear of clowns commonly begins in childhood; there is even an item in the psychologist's bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), for fear of clowns, albeit it fits under the umbrella category of a pediatric phobia of costumed characters (sports mascots, Mickey Mouse).

According to experts, fear of strangers can emerge as early as the age of two. At that age, children's minds are still developing, and they aren't always able to distinguish between fiction and reality.” Dr. Brenda Wiederhold, an experienced psychologist who runs a phobia and anxiety treatment center in San Diego that uses virtual reality to treat its patients, says.

Most people, she argues, grow out of their fear of clowns, but some — approximately 2% of the adult population – are scared of them. Adult clown phobics are concerned by clowns' face paint and inability to distinguish actual emotion in a clown's face, as well as the idea that clowns can engage in manic activity without consequences.

However, the fear of clowns has always been about the person beneath the mask. Ringling CEO Kiser agreed.

“I think we've all seen fantastic clowns, but we've also all seen clowns that go on the attack without realizing it because they're young or because they lack training,” Kiser continued. When clowns try to make someone laugh, they can become extremely aggressive.

“We highlight the need of being able to judge other people and respect their space. He said that clowning is about communicating rather than hiding. According to him, proper clown makeup reflects the person's emotions rather than serving as a mask to hide behind.

But have terrible, unhappy, and disturbed clowns did too much damage? The clown's future is divided into two camps.

Stott feels clowning will continue downhill. “I think the dark carnival and scary clown will be the predominant form, and in many ways, that character will continue,” he says, referring to characters such as The Simpsons' bitter but funny Krusty the Clown or Heath Ledger's version of the Joker in the Batman reboot, who is a fearsome force of unpredictable anarchy.

“It's not a reversal of what we're used to seeing in many ways; it's just extending and intensifying features that we've experienced for a long time. Other scholars contend that the creepy clown is “nostalgically fearful” as a reliable monster under the bed that has already been bankrupted by overuse.

Contrary to the University of Sheffield study's conclusions, there is evidence that children enjoy clowns: multiple studies have shown that genuine clowns have a significant impact on the health of sick children.

An Italian study published in the Journal of Health Psychology in January 2013 found that the presence of a therapeutic clown in a randomized controlled trial reduced preoperative anxiety in children undergoing minor surgery.

Another 2008 Italian study, published in the December 2011 issue of Natural Medicine Journal, revealed that children hospitalized with respiratory infections who played with therapy clowns recovered faster.

And, of course, Kiser sees no end to clowning. Good clowns, on the other hand, are always in short supply, and it is good clowns who keep the art alive. “I think those problems [with clown phobias] are so easy to overcome if the clown is a kind, caring, hilarious heart in a person who is working hard to let that clown out,” he says. “It is not about attacking, but about love.

It's about coming from a place of love and joy, and if you look closely, you'll notice that it's genuine, not a ruse.”

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