Although clowns are originally comic performers and characterized to humor and entertain people, the image of the evil clown is a development in popular culture in which the playful trope of the clown is rendered as disturbing through the use of horror elements and dark humor.
The modern archetype of the evil clown has unclear origins; the stock character appeared infrequently during the 19th century, in such works as Edgar Allan Poe's Hop-Frog, which is believed by Jack Morgan, of the University of Missouri-Rolla, to draw upon an earlier incident "at a masquerade ball", in the 14th century, during which "the king and his frivolous party, costumed—in highly flammable materials—as simian creatures, were ignited by a flambeau and incinerated, the King narrowly escaping in the actual case." Evil clowns also occupied a small niche in drama, appearing in the 1874 work La femme de Tabarin by Catulle Mendès and in Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (accused of being a plagiarism of Mendès' piece), both works featuring murderous clowns as central characters.
The modern stock character of the evil clown was popularized by Stephen King's novel It, published in 1986, which became the first to introduce the fear of an evil clown to a modern audience. Another one of the first appearances of the concept is that of John Wayne Gacy, an American serial killer and rapist arrested in 1978, who became known as the Killer Clown after it was discovered he had performed as Pogo the Clown at children's parties and other events; however, Gacy did not actually commit his crimes while wearing his clown costume.
The evil clown archetype plays strongly off the sense of dislike caused by inherent elements of coulrophobia; however, it has been suggested by Joseph Durwin that the concept of evil clowns has an independent position in popular culture, arguing that "the concept of evil clowns and the widespread hostility it induces is a cultural phenomenon which transcends just the phobia alone". A study by the University of Sheffield concluded "that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable." This may be because of the nature of clowns' makeup hiding their faces, making them potential threats in disguise; as a psychology professor at California State University, Northridge stated, young children are "very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face". This natural dislike of clowns makes them effective in a literary or fictional context, as the antagonistic threat perceived in clowns is desirable in a villainous character.
The concept of the evil clown is related to the irrational fear of clowns, known as coulrophobia. The cultural critic Mark Dery has theorized the postmodern archetype of the evil clown in "Cotton Candy Autopsy: Deconstructing Psycho-Killer Clowns" (a chapter in his cultural critique The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink).
Tracking the image of the demented or deviant clown across popular culture, Dery analyzes the "Pogo the Clown" persona of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy; the obscene clowns of the neo-situationist Cacophony Society; the Joker (of "Batman" Fame); the grotesque art of R.K. Sloane; the sick-funny Bobcat Goldthwaite comedy Shakes the Clown; and Pennywise the Dancing Clown from Stephen King's It.
Using Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque, Jungian and historical writings on the images of the fool in myth and history, and ruminations on the mingling of ecstasy and dread in the Information Age, Dery asserts the evil clown is an icon of our times. Clowns are often depicted as murderous psychopaths at many American haunted houses.
Wolfgang M. Zucker points out the similarities between a clown's appearance and the cultural depictions of demons and other infernal creatures, noting "[the clown's] chalk-white face in which the eyes almost disappear, while the mouth is enlarged to a ghoulish bigness looks like the mask of death".
Notable depictions of evil clowns
- Pagliaccio and Crazy Joe Da Vola's depiction of him in the Seinfeld episode "The Opera"
- The Joker, the nemesis of Batman whose key features are chalk-white skin, green hair, red lips and a permanent smile, purportedly caused by a chemical bath, and in various appearances is depicted as a psychopath.
- Harley Quinn, whose name is a play on the name "Harlequin", a character which originated in the commedia dell'arte. The character is a frequent accomplice and girlfriend of Batman's nemesis the Joker, and is also a close friend of the supervillain Poison Ivy, from whom she gained her immunity to poisons and toxins.
- Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the main antagonist in Stephen King's novel It and its film adaptation in which he's portrayed by Tim Curry.
- Shakes the Clown, a depressed, alcoholic clown framed for murder and coming into conflict with other clowns, in the eponymous film by Bobcat Goldthwait.
- Red Bastard, a bouffon clown created and portrayed by Eric Davis.
- Shawn Crahan, also known as Clown from the metal band Slipknot.
- The Bicycle Doctor, in the film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, a malevolent clown disguised as a doctor who destroys Pee-Wee Herman's beloved bicycle after feigning attempts to repair it.
- Captain Spaulding, a gas-station owner, museum operator, and patriarch of the murderous Firefly family, featured in the Rob Zombie films House of 1000 Corpses and its sequel, The Devil's Rejects. Captain Spaulding is portrayed by actor Sid Haig.
- Violator, a demon from hell who takes the appearance of a balding, middle-aged man with face paint, and an enemy of Spawn in the comic franchise by Todd McFarlane.
- Doink the Clown, a professional wrestling character portrayed by a number of wrestlers. He is frequently depicted as malevolent, playing malicious pranks and cheating in unusual ways.
- Kefka Palazzo, the main antagonist of Final Fantasy VI, a psychopath with the outfit and mannerisms of an insane jester.
- Sweet Tooth, a homicidal, clown-themed ice cream truck in the Twisted Metal franchise.
- Killer Klowns from Outer Space, the 1988 horror comedy monster movie about carnivorous aliens from outer space that resemble clowns.
- Poltergeist, the 1982 supernatural movie directed by Tobe Hooper features a clown doll in several scenes. During the finale, this doll becomes possessed by a demonic presence and attempts to strangle the character Robby Freeling.
- Killjoy, a demonic clown who is summoned to assist revenge plots.
- Clownhouse, a slasher film in which three mental patients escape and stalk a young boy home from the circus dressed in clown costumes.
- The Robot Clowns from the 1988–1989 Doctor Who serial "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy".
- Sideshow Bob, a clown on The Simpsons who constantly tries to kill Bart Simpson. Unlike traditional clowns, he does not wear any sort of make-up.
- Adam MacIntyre, a psychopathic clown from the Capcom video game Dead Rising. Also has a psychopathic brother with similar job role in Dead Rising 2: Off the Record called Evan MacIntyre.
- Shang Tsung, the one of the player characters in Mortal Kombat, who takes a shape of an evil clown during his usage of his fatality move on opponent, which parodies The Joker's first fatality move from Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.
- With his distinctive appearance, surreal feats of magic, and behavior that is simultaneously comedic and menacing, the Tim Burton character Beetlejuice can be considered a manifestation of this theme.
- Twisty a serial killer clown played by John Carroll Lynch on the fourth season of the anthology series American Horror Story, titled Freak Show, Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock), Twisty's self-appointed apprentice and later successor in American Horror Story: Freak Show, dresses up as a clown to emulate Twisty, whom he sees as his hero. After Twisty is killed, Dandy drops the clown motif.
- Frenchy the Clown, the title character in National Lampoon Magazine's "Evil Clown Comics", which ran in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
- Art the Clown, a psychopathic clown ghost from the film All Hallows' Eve.
- In the 1978 film Halloween and its 2007 remake, Michael Myers murders his older sister Judith Myers while dressed as a clown. In Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Michael's niece Jamie Lloyd wears a clown costume when she stabs her foster mother with a pair of scissors.
- In the 2015 Disney-Pixar film Inside Out, Riley dreams about a menacing clown named Jangles.
Response to evil clowns in media
In 2014, Clowns of America International responded to the depiction of Twisty on American Horror Story, and evil clowns in media generally. President Glenn Kohlberger said, "Hollywood makes money sensationalizing the norm. They can take any situation no matter how good or pure and turn it into a nightmare. ... We do not support in any way, shape or form any medium that sensationalizes or adds to coulrophobia or 'clown fear.'"
The related urban legend of evil clown sightings in real life is known as "phantom clowns". First reported in 1981 in Brookline, Massachusetts, children said that men dressed up as clowns had attempted to lure them into a van. The panic spread throughout the US in the Midwest and Northeast. It resurface in 1985 in Phoenix, Arizona; in 1991 in West Orange, New Jersey; and 1995 in Honduras. Later sightings include Chicago, Illinois, in 2008. Explanations for the phenomenon have ranged from Stephen King's book It and the crimes of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, to a moral panic influenced by contemporaneous fears of Satanic ritual abuse. It also shows similarities to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. No adult or police officer has ever seen the evil clowns, though a prankster called the "Northampton Clown" has been cited as a real-life example of an evil clown. Further complaints of evil clown pranksters have been reported in France and the United States, possibly inspired by American Horror Story: Freak Show.
On May 26, 1990, in Wellington, Florida, Marlene Warren opened her front door to a brown-eyed clown bearing flowers and balloons. It shot her in the face, drove off in a white Chrysler LeBaron and was never seen again. Her murder remains unsolved.
- Poe, Edgar Allan, "Hop-Frog" (1849)
- Morgan, Jack (2002). The biology of horror: gothic literature and film. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 41–42. ISBN 978-0809324712.
- Mendès, Catulle (1904). La femme de Tabarin: Tragi-parade. Librairie Charpentier et Fasquelle. pp. 1–34.
- Dryden, Konrad (2007). Leoncavallo: Life and Works. Plymouth, UK: The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-5880-0.
- Sullivan, Terry; Maiken, Peter T. (2000). Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders. New York City: Pinnacle. ISBN 0-7860-1422-9. OCLC 156783287.
- Durwin, Joseph (15 November 2004). "Coulrophobia and the Trickster". Trickster's Way (San Antonio: Trinity University) 3 (1). ISSN 1538-9030. Retrieved 2 January 2013.
- "Health | Hospital clown images 'too scary'". BBC News. 2008-01-15. Retrieved 2011-07-05.
- Rohrer, Finlo (2008-01-16). "Why are clowns scary?". BBC News.
- "Trinity.edu". Trinity.edu. Retrieved 2011-07-05.
- Dery, Mark (1999). The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink. California: Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3670-2.
- "The Clown as the Lord of Disorder". Theology Today, October 1967. Retrieved 2012-01-02.
- Newsstand on-sale date April 25, 1940 per: "The first ad for Batman #1". DC Comics. Retrieved 2006-10-23.
- King, Stephen (1986). It. New York City: Viking Press. ISBN 0-451-16951-4.
- Abramovitch, Sam (15 October 2014). "Professional Clown Club Attacks 'American Horror Story' Over Murderous Character". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 16 October 2014.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold (2002). Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 313–315. ISBN 9780393323580.
- Bartholomew, Robert E.; Radford, Benjamin (2011). The Martians Have Landed!: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes (Google eBook). McFarland & Company. pp. 105–109. ISBN 9780786486717.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold (9 August 1991). "SOMEONE KEEPS SENDING IN THE PHANTOM CLOWNS". Deseret News. Retrieved 19 April 2015.
- Squires, John (18 September 2013). "Real Life Evil Clown Terrorizing Town in England!". Dread Central. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
- Howard, Michael (27 October 2014). "France Joins The Creepy Clown Hysteria". Esquire. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
- "Clown Case Still Mystery After 2 Years Woman Gunned Down In Doorway Of Home", by Mike Folks, Sun Sentinel