Don’t send in the clowns
The fear of clowns a relatively new phenomenon We don’t know if there’s something to be afraid of, but we have a paralysis about not knowing whether we should be scared.
While Jaclyn Andrews can’t rationally explain her fear of clowns, she’s been avoiding them for years.
Walking the midway at local fairs is totally out of the question, and lately she’s considered double checking with fellow parents before attending kids’ birthday parties. She realizes that might sound a little silly to some, but the clowns that haunted her nightmares as a young girl still evoke bad feelings.
“I’m panicked, can’t breathe, sweaty,” says Andrews, 35, describing how she feels when she sees a clown. “I get the overwhelming need to get out — and now.”
The fear of clowns, known as coulrophobia, is a relatively new phenomenon with very little research behind it. And while it’s not considered an official phobia by the World Health Organization, its sufferers say the experience is very real.
Andrews, a resident of Hamilton, feels anxious thinking about the days ahead when evil clowns will be a focal point of popular culture and practically impossible to avoid.
A remake of Stephen King’s It arrives in theatres next week and is expected to draw huge audiences intrigued by the titu- lar shapeshifter, also known as Pennywise, who often takes the form of a clown.
And the upcoming sixth season of American Horror Story, which begins airing Tuesday on FX Canada, is generating buzz for the return of Twisty, a demented clown with a taste for trickery and murder.
Clowns have existed since ancient Egypt, although their trademark white faces and colourful costumes weren’t established until the early 1800s when British entertainer Joseph Grimaldi began playing Joey the Clown. A similar look was adopted by Scottish businessman John Bill Ricketts when he brought the modern circus to the United States a few years later.
For many decades the happygo-lucky personas of modern clowns like Bozo and Ronald McDonald seemed in style, but a notorious American serial killer is considered to be the inspiration for the advent of the more sinister brand of clowns.
Before he was convicted for the murders of 33 young men in 1980, John Wayne Gacy seemed like a relatively average guy, who sometimes dressed as Pogo the Clown, a character he created while volunteering at children’s hospitals. After he was jailed, Gacy painted portraits of himself in clown costume and the artwork became the focus of exhibitions — and protests.
“People learn to be afraid from the movies they see, and from the news they read — watching other people be afraid,” said Martin Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University.
“Gacy may have triggered certain directors and writers to portray clowns in that way, and that may have exacerbated fear of clowns.”
Two years after Gacy’s conviction, the film Poltergeist featured a scene in which a young boy is dragged under his bed by a toy clown brought to life in the middle of the night. And King’s novel It was released in 1986 and adapted for TV in 1990, with Tim Curry playing the creepy Pennywise.
Andrews swears watching the It miniseries in middle school scarred her for life, especially moments like its opening scene in which a young boy is lured by the killer clown to a sewer.
“(It) just did it in for me,” she says.
The fascination with vicious clowns only grew as It became a favourite at video stores during the 1990s and other forgotten films like 1988’s Killer Klowns from Outer Space found another life on DVD alongside the clownlike doll used by serial killer Jigsaw in the Saw horror movies.
Much to the dismay of professional clown performers, those portrayals helped take the wholesomeness out of a character once considered a fixture of family entertainment.
A spate of creepy-clown sightings reported across North America last year didn’t help their negative perception. Perhaps inspired by popular prank videos on YouTube, reports of individuals wandering through neighbourhoods while wearing menacing clown masks began to spread. In the U.S., Target stopped selling scary clown masks as a result.
Prof. Frank McAndrew
The upcoming sixth season of American Horror Story, which begins airing Tuesday on FX Canada, features clowns with a taste for trickery and murder.
A remake of Stephen King’s it, featuring a shapeshifter called pennywise, arrives in theatres next week.