Shadow of clowns have been haunting the pop culture landscape of late, with pranksters using social media to render real-time urban myths in Wasco, California, and American Horror Story: Freak Show featuring a dingy, murderous clown locked in a masked sardonic grin of terror. Clowns, whose main function is to amuse and entertain, didn’t always have such horrific baggage, but they have always had a bit of a dark side. When Stephen King wrote IT, he characterized the essence of fear and evil as a clown because he thought clowns were something children were most afraid of.
There is something both exciting and unnerving about the jester, the manic prankster, the self-effacing fool. The art of clowning is about exaggerating foibles and exposing some of the absurdities about being human. The cartoonish white makeup with large, red features that Joseph Grimaldi introduced to the world in the 1800s makes every expression a performance. This serves two purposes: to make expressions easy to see in a large crowd, and to make the expressions themselves an absurd subject to play with and manipulate. The artifice of a show smile is amplified with clown makeup, making even positive expressions seem untrustworthy, while the sad expressions droop more and seem more pathetic.
There is even a theory that children can become wary of clowns because of their “uncanniness,” i.e. they resemble familiar, “safe,” people, but the makeup and exaggerated expressions make them seem alien enough to be unsettling. There’s a reason some of the most terrifying imaginings of aliens are humanlike with huge, black almond eyes, extremely small mouths, and emaciated bodies. The slight familiarity of these humanoid “aliens,” is more terrifying than things that look unlike anything we’ve ever seen. We become dizzy with the dueling emotions of attraction and revulsion to the uncanny.
Comedy, at its essence, is an amazing and temporary, anecdote to the tragedy of life. Laughing wouldn’t feel so good if life wasn’t so horrific and sad, if we didn’t need that ecstatic tonic of absurdity. People need comedy when we’re going through our worst times, and, as it turns out, the sad-clown cliche is shot through with truth. Joseph Grimaldi was no exception.
Grimaldi, the inventor of the red-and-white makeup we have such mixed feelings about, was a hugely popular harlequin clown who performed out of a theatrical tradition. He took clowning beyond slapstick into a finely attuned satire mocking British politics and fashion that involved sophisticated levels of characterization. He also achieved a level of fame in England that was staggering considering the hindrances of transportation and media. Droves traveled to see Grimaldi make them laugh, while his own life seemed was an mass of shambles. “I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you laugh at night,” he’s said to have joked.
His mother was only 14 when she became the mistress of 60-year-old Giuseppe Grimaldi, a dancer and public speaker who, in total, had 10 children with three different women. Giuseppe was a mercurial father who fiercely disciplined his children (when he was around them,) and subjected them to an intense obsession with death. He would sometimes pretend to be dead in front of his kids to test how they would react, and even left his daughter Mary an extra £5 in her inheritance to decapitate him to ensure that he wouldn’t be buried alive.
Childhood wasn’t the only stressor in the famous clown’s life, after an adult Grimaldi established himself as a popular harlequin, his wife Maria and their baby died in childbirth. To assuage his grief, he turned to work and booked himself for two shows a night in different theaters. His work required a huge physical strain that eventually took such a toll on his joints that by the end of his life he was practically crippled.
He had a son with his second wife, Mary, who also became a clown, but was tortured by comparisons to his father and drank himself to death by the age of 30. When their son JS (Joseph Samuel) died, Grimaldi and his wife Mary decided to kill themselves. However, in some sort of horrible macabre joke, the poison they drank together did nothing more than give them stomach aches. When Grimaldi did pass away from alcoholism a few years later, the coroner tried his hand at poetics, officially stating that the legendary performer “died by the visitation of God.”
The Simpson‘s Krusty the Clown is currently one of the most famous clowns in popular culture. He’s a fame obsessed, cynical, mess with a bad heart and no self-awareness beyond his appetites for money and recognition. He mesmerizing his audience of children who are more attracted than repelled by his clownness, (he’s partly based on the highly successful Bozo the Clown,) into loving him enough to risk their lives owning his dangerous merchandize. In one episode Bart has to be sent to the E.R. after finding a razor blade in him Krusty cereal.
Along with Bozo, Krusty was partly inspired by a Portland, Oregon comic Rusty Nails who Matt Groening watched at a kid. He said Rusty Nails was a sweet clown, but the name, understandably, scared him a bit. Krusty is able to take on symbolism for the whole world of comedy, and showbiz in general. He has Percocet addiction, and often finds himself broke despite the millions he garners from putting his name on a vast array of subpar. He’s got daddy issues, and has supplied his fair share of daddy issues to his estranged daughter. An early concept was that Bart was so enamored with Krusty because of how closely he resembled his father, who he has a difficult relationship with. Overt story lines based on this concept were scrapped and Krusty was given permanent under-eye bags to make him look a little less like Homer, but its still a poignant idea, perhaps even more so because it wasn’t directly explored by the writers. Kind of like Santa or other costumed adults, Clowns, in a way, are cartoonish stand-ins for our parents, who are mercurial, unpredictable, and complicated human beings. To see adult-sized humans looking and acting so strange but with a spirit of play and whimsy, may explain why children can sometimes be more fascinated than repelled by clowns.
Beyond the anxiety and pathos that the sad-clown trope elicits, or the perhaps innate fear some people have to particular instances of the uncanny, the idea of the murderous clown has been around just as long as Grimaldi. His French contemporary Pierrot, another white-face clown who helped the art miming, murdered a boy in 1836 after the kid taunted him. Ever since then the threat of a clown, the bumbling comedian, turning deadly has floated around the public consciousness.
The Joker character from Batman is also a terrifying clown with an hideous grin. Poison has left his face and skin colored in the white and red clown paint, and he has a mane of green hair. His face has nerve and muscle damage that makes him unable to stop smiling. His special poison, Joker Venom, can leave victims with a “rictus grin,” similar to what can happen to the corpses of people who die from poisons like strychnine.
Our feelings towards clowns are complicated and confusing, but John Wayne Gacy helped make us feel less complicated about clowns and just generally avoid and revile them. From 1972 to 1978 in Chicago, Illinois he murdered at least 33 young men and hid the remains in the crawl space under his house.
During this period he also hired himself out as a clown, called “Pogo,” for children’s parties. At some point he chillingly told detectives who were surveilling him “You know, clowns can get away with murder.” Thanks to Gacy, we’re more likely to suspect clowns of murder, at least in our nightmares.