You may be claustrophobic, arachnophobic, or even bananaphobic (it exists, look it up!), but are you coulrophobic? Coulrophobia is the scientific name for the fear of clowns – and with the ‘killer clown’ craze sweeping first the USA and now the UK, a lot of people aren’t finding clowns funny at all. I’m going to explore clowns in film and television to discover why they’ve become the stuff of nightmares.
Clowns, jesters and fools have been recorded from as early as Ancient Egypt, China and Greece in royal households and later on in Medieval courts throughout Europe. A lot of people find them innately scary because they fear what Freud called ‘the uncanny’. If there’s something slightly off but still recognisable about an image or object, humans are hard-wired to find it unsettling, hence why coulrophobia is one of the most common phobias in the world.
Films about clowns that kill took off in the ’60s after the capture and execution of real-life killer clown John Wayne Gacy, adding a new scare factor into a genre that had previously suffered from catchy titles such as The Deadly Bees and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. 1978’s Halloween is perhaps one of the first films to prominently use a clown to unnerve the audience in the form of six-year-old Michael Myers, who stabs his sister to death with a kitchen knife while dressed as a clown. The Clown Murders (1979) is based on a similar premise, set in a remote farmhouse where a group of teenagers stage a prank and realise that there is a real axe-wielding clown among them.
1982’s Poltergeist is also a forerunner of the creepy clown trope, principally about a possessed house but featuring a terrifying clown doll that comes alive and tries to choke character Robbie Freeling. At this point, parodies began to appear, like horror comedy film Killer Klowns From Outer Space that came out in cinemas in 1988, starring buffoonish aliens in the guise of clowns that attack and harvest citizens of Crescent Cove, California, trapping them in candyfloss cocoons and consuming them with silly straws. The writers convinced Diamant Productions to make the film using a one page story and a poster of a clown holding a cocoon gun, showing that films about clowns had a definite appeal at that time. In the next year, Clownhouse was released with the taglines “You never know who they really are” and “a circus of the mind”, based on the premise that three brothers are being hunted by three escaped asylum patients who killed some clowns and dressed in their costumes.
Clowns have featured heavily on TV as well, with 1992’s hit childrens’ horror series Are You Afraid of the Dark providing nightmare fuel in the form of ‘Zeebo the Clown’, who died in a circus fire and is out for revenge after a group of kids steal the red nose off his replica dummy years later. With creepy quotes like “Pick the right door and free you’ll be. Pick the wrong door and there he’ll be,” ‘The Tale of Laughing in the Dark’ ticked all the killer clown boxes – and the smell of cigar smoke that heralded his arrival has been scaring kids ever since. Twisty the Killer Clown from the show American Horror Story: Freak Show is a relative newcomer, who was apparently so terrifying that the rest of the cast couldn’t be on set with John Carroll Lynch when he was in costume.
We also have the notorious Joker from DC Comics’ Batman universe as a contender: although Heath Ledger and Jared Leto’s most recent portrayals on film aren’t overtly clown-like, what makes them scary is their unpredictability and their nonchalance towards acts of extreme violence, all while wearing their iconic clown-inspired makeup. Recent horror films have also adopted the humble clown as their star, including All Hallows’ Eve (2013), Clown (2014), and The Legend of Wasco (2015). Perhaps the most iconic killer clown, however, is the demonic Pennywise, played by Tim Curry, from Stephen King’s novel and miniseries IT. Pennywise is one of the many forms of a terrifying demon that takes the appearance of your worst fear. King even admitted in the Bangor Daily News that “if I saw a clown lurking under a lonely bridge (or peering up at me from a sewer grate, with or without balloons), I’d be scared, too.” He has also taken to Twitter to denounce the recent clown sightings, reminding us that most clowns are not actually homicidal. Even so, I’d advise you not to take a balloon from a friendly-looking clown anytime soon – you never know what they could be up to.