Where Does Our Fear Of Clowns Come From?

Raise your hand if you were completely traumatized by Pennywise from the movie It. I bet many did, and now that the remake is so close to being released, a lot of people will relive their childhood fears. But what do clowns have that make them so eerie and creepy? In my case, I totally relate it to a bad association. Let me explain.

My pediatrician was one of those clown lovers who had his entire office filled with them (I really don’t understand why clown lovers always have to be so obsessed). Naturally, when you’re a kid you don’t really like going to the doctor, so I associated clowns to that horrific experience and the movie didn’t help a lot, to be honest. I kept that fear for ages until one day, in my teens, I gathered some courage and decided to face that fear by re-watching the film. It was as scary as the first time until I saw the ending (yeah, I’m not really falling for that gigantic spider ending) and suddenly all the fear was gone. Probably it also helped that I found out that Pennywise was interpreted by Tim Curry, and I love his Rocky Horror Picture Show, but I digress. The thing is that when it comes to these characters there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. You either like them or loathe them. But how did a figure that was supposed to be the representation of innocence and fun came to be so creepy and evil?

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We’ve seen them everywhere. They’ve become a trope in horror movies and series such as American Horror Story. Even in real life, not so long ago newspapers and news shows were full of stories about people being chased by evil clowns. But where does this image come from? Believe it or not, this representation came before this so-beloved-by-children character. Let’s go back to the mere existence of the clown. Known as jester, joker, harlequin, among others, they’ve existed for millennia. There’s evidence of these characters working at royal courts from the time of the ancient Egyptians and Chinese. In Ancient Rome this character went by the name of stupidus, and the character evolved into the iconic jesters of the Middle Ages. However, it was not until the eighteenth century that the modern image of the clown emerged, embodied by Joseph Grimaldi.

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Before Grimaldi, clowns were already known for their acid and twisted behavior. They even wore some red makeup to give the impression of being inebriated and, in a way, justify their manic behavior. But it was Grimaldi who gave us the looks and essence that continues in our collective imagination. Extremely popular, by the late seventeenth century Grimaldi would innovate the craft by performing at important theaters and cultural venues throughout England. Soon he became the main entertainer during the Regency period. Moreover, he personified himself with bright colorful outfits, the classic white face we all love/hate, and bright blue mohawk hair. 

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The importance of Grimaldi in establishing the classic figure of the modern clown lies not only in the fact that he pioneered in the looks, but also in the relationship he had with his persona and his real life. On the one hand, he was a performer who entertained through laughter and joy, but behind his clown makeup, there was a grim and sad character with a tormented life. He started performing from the age of two, forced by his authoritarian father. He was prone to suffer from severe depression, and after his wife died in childbirth, his life became a living hell. He continued performing and instructed his son into the craft, but he proved to be uninterested and turned into an alcoholic clown who died at the age of 31. If that wasn’t enough, the physical effort he put into his performance led him to a life of constant pain and ailments that left him partially disabled. He died out of severe problems with alcohol and in the absolute misery.

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Charles Dickens, well-known for his realistic depictions of everyday characters, especially those in social disadvantage, wrote The Pickwick Papers in 1836, allegedly inspired by Grimaldi’s son. Besides that, he put a lot of effort in editing and publishing Joseph’s memoirs and imprinted him with an essence that was meant to be culturally embedded in our imagination. As Andrew McConnell Stott (University of Buffalo) states, Dickens invented the trope of the sad clown with a tragic past behind his mask. Now, almost at the same time, another famous clown was conquering the hearts of the Parisian citizens: Jean-Gaspard Deburau. Better known as Pierrot, we basically have to thank him for expanding the perception of the sad clown to the sinister one. He was the equivalent of Grimaldi in terms of popularity, but he was also known to be extremely temperamental. One good day, he showed what he was capable of when a kid insulted him on the street. Completely enraged by the comments of the kid, he grabbed a stick and gave him a fatal blow that killed him.

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Although Pierrot was later exonerated for the crime, the legend prevails. But it was not until the 1970s that the real stereotype of the macabre, sinister, and evil clowned was culturally engraved. During the nineteenth century, the circus was introduced in America, becoming the last entertaining sensation. This culture of the circus became so important that during the fifties and sixties clowns became the beloved character of children, but this wouldn’t last forever. Let me introduce you to Pogo, who came to be known as the Killer Clown. This lovely character was found guilty of sexually assaulting and murdering about 35 five young men in the Chicago suburban area. Moreover, they found out that in the previous decade he had been convicted of raping a teenage boy. Naturally, this story was known all over the US, forging the fear of clowns that many people have nowadays. Pogo’s story inspired many writers and filmmakers to create terrifying stories dealing with the double life of these characters.

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The images you’ve been seeing belong to Chilean photographer Pepo Fernández, whose series explores the essence underlying in the clown. What hides behind the makeup, or more importantly, does makeup really conceal our true being? You can look at more of his work on his Instagram account: @pepostudio

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