Monster; a never-ending fear of one’s own imagination, a shape shifter that comes in many forms to scare you when you are feeling your weakest. Now when thinking of clowns is the first that comes to your mind face paint and animal balloons or is that never-ending smile and fear of the unknown behind that mask of makeup. Although the word clown did not come up until around the 16th century there were some accounts of men dressing up in leather skins, making funny faces and dancing trying to imitate the Egyptian Gods around 5,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt. Fast forward a couple hundred years and we start to see the formation of the first modern circus in Europe around 1768, here jugglers, clowns and tumblers performed establishing the “first modern circus.” The invention of the cinema in the late 1800’s gave clowns a greater scope and with that clowns gained popularity in America. But when did this all turn sour? When did one of the best surprises a kid could get at their birthday party turn into today’s reality of coulrophobia? In the past couple decades clowns have been defined as a face of horror and earned unwanted infamy as their culture transforms through historical, psychological and media based influences.

It is hard to pinpoint and say that this fear of clowns just started because of one specific occasion, yet throughout history we see us going from loving clowns to being completely terrified that it now even has its own phobia name. As film became popular in the US, which glamorized clowns, many still known circus’ like The Ringling Bro’s Circus started popping up, many at which clowns performed at. The Ringling Bro’s Circus first started in 1919 and not too many years later a man named John Wayne Gacy was born. Gacy born in 1942 would soon grow to become notorious as one of the first “killer clowns.” Gacy was a well-liked man in his community yet many did not know he struggled with his sexuality. His alter ego known as Pogo the Clown would perform at children’s parties until one day when many parents were putting many complaints against him. When cops went to investigate they found the bodies of many children hidden under and around his house. He would soon confess to killing 33 people, he would rape them first, then even sometimes dress up as Pogo the Clown before murdering these children. Could this small-town man from Ellenton, Florida really be behind this world-wide fear of clowns? Historically yes, he is one of the first known “killer clowns” and with that being, has influenced the media and today’s culture of how we see clowns.

Because of the time that Gacy lived in he always struggled with his sexuality unable to talk to anyone about it because it was frowned upon at that time. Maybe hiding himself behind Pogo the Clown made him feel safe, daring, and invincible meanwhile the monster inside of him was growing. All of this can relate to monster theory IV: the monster dwells at the gates of difference. What this theory suggests is that the monstrous body tends to be around cultural, political, racial, economical, or sexual differences. Being openly gay was something that was not accepted during the time that Gacy lived; the man was supposed to be the sole provider and manly perhaps making him uneasy and unable to maintain his role of what society told him a man should be. The theory states, “The difficult project of constructing and maintaining gender identities elicits an array of anxious responses throughout culture…” thus creating this monster that has unconsciously been building up inside of you.

Psychologically some say “Stephen King’s movie IT did for clowns what Psycho did for showers and what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean.” Stephen King’s IT may possibly the root of coulrophobia, a persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of clowns, yet it is still unknown exactly what it is that is so scary about them. Could someone who’s phobia of clowns really be of the clown itself or is the fear of the unknown hidden under all that disguise? Are clowns so terrifying because they appear to constantly be smiling with that fixed painted mask on or is it their over exaggerated features like their shoes, hair and makeup. Behind that makeup a clown’s actions are unpredictable and unknown, psychologically affecting someone’s fear of clowns more. Some other psychological theories conclude that the fear all trickles down to just the color of the clown, the colors predominately worn by them being white and red. The whole face painted completely white, the giant fixed red smile, the giant red shoes and fake nose. Many, correlate a white motionless face with death and the color red is often associated with blood and evil; under all this hiding a monster waiting to be born: a killer clown.

In the movie IT, Pennywise is a shape-shifter, constantly ever changing to try to scare children of their biggest fear; that for the most part being a clown. It’s giant red smile and funky large hair is seen various times throughout the movie as he is responsible for the death of a child. In thesis 3: The Monster is The Harbinger of Category Crisis it describes the monster as something that does not fit into one specific category. “They are disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration. And so, the monster is dangerous, a form suspended between forms that threatens to smash distinctions.” Thus, saying that the monster is not categorized like a human in society is. The monster is always changing and are not classified into one distinct category.

Starting with the glamorization of clowns in the early 1900’s compared to the phobia that now exist with clowns, the media has played a giant role in that sudden change of heart. With creations like Stephen King’s IT and a more modern twist on killer clowns, American Horror Story: Cult our childhood fears have grown into our adulthood phobias. In AHS: Cult the cult leader has his followers dress up as different forms of clowns and go around the town murdering people all whilst instilling fear in the protagonist who already has caulrophobia. Adaptations in the media like these have just further installed fear to people who actually live with this phobia. With different adaptations of the original killer clown Pennywise, the media has grown to in a way idolize these monsters to the point where people want to recreate them themselves. In the past couple years there have been many reports of people dressed up as clowns just walking in a forest, or completely standing still at an end of a road trying to scare people in their community. In addition to that not only where they publicly doing things they were also posting on facebook and twitter of specific locations of where they would be with one tweet even reading, “I will spot you and I will kill you.” Needless to say this could also relate to a bandwagon fallacy where people see one person dressing up as a clown to scare people and they try to do the same thing and imitate them. What is the root behind this evil on why people desire to dress up as scary clowns? Could it be because of the importance the media shows to these killer clowns or is it because they love the idea of the hidden and unknown message behind that mask of face paint they wear.

The media’s portrayal of clowns supports the idea of monster thesis 1: The Monster’s body is a Cultural Body. What this theory expresses, is that each culture will produce their own monster and their own version of a monster, “The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment.” Us as a society and a culture has created this killer clown, and it is for the most part one of the newer kinds of monsters that has only been around for a couple decades. When it comes to people who are dressing up as clowns to try to scare people in their community, that is something we only really hear about in the U.S because this fascination behind a clown has grown to be in our culture. Our culture is ever-changing and with that the idea of a killer clown has just grown and become more frightful and chilling.

It is easy to say that one is scared or even just put off by clowns but a whole phobia is a completely different story. There are many different theories that may give rise to this monstrous fear whether it being that white and red grim face resembling death, blood and evil, the geometry they use in order to try to bring a fake smile to life or the outlandish and mysterious demeanor the clown carries with them. Throughout history with the help of the media we have seen this fear of clowns that is in reality psychologically harming to many people around the world.


Annotated Bibliography

Cohen, Jeffrey J. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” In the Monster Culture the author proposes seven theses of what each type of monster is. I was able to use the thesis to support how killer clowns have advanced historically, through media and how it has psychologically affected people. In specific I used Thesis numbers IV, three, and one.

“John Wayne Gacy.”, A&E Networks Television, 2 Aug. 2017, This article was helpful with describing John Wayne’s entire life. Gacy and his siblings were beaten daily by a drunk father and on top of the while growing up Gacy was struggling with his sexuality. Eventually he got married and was well like among his community as he would plan community parties and perform at children’s parties as pogo the clown. The first time Gacy was ever convicted of something was in 1968 for the sexual assault of two boys, he was arrested in 1970 but came out on parole the next year. Between then and 1972, was is to be believed his first know killing, many boys came to police accusing Gacy of rape. After many kids went missing and complaints by many parents the poliice searched Gacy’s house and found 33 bodies of young men. It is said that he would rape them and then strangle them to death, sometimes he would also dress as his alter ego pogo the clown before killing them. I used this information because Gacy was one of the first known killer clowns. In addition to that, information about Gacy related to thesis IV.

Mackley, J. S. (2016) The fears of a clown. Paper presented to: The Dark Fantastic: Sixth Annual Joint Fantasy Symposium, The University of Northampton, 02 December 2016. In this article, the author talks about the unknown of clowns, which is what makes them so frightful. The author describes the clown as something that, “Hovers on the peripheries of our fears. They are uncanny. Like dolls, the masks they wear hide their true emotions, their true intent.” They also describe how since they always have a permanent smile that that also hides their true intentions making our fear of them grow more. The clown is described as having multiple personalities behind its over exaggerated makeup. I used this article to talk about to talk about the psychology behind the fear of clowns. With this article, I was able to link it to thesis 3, which pretty much states that the monster as a disturbing hybrid.  

 Murphy, Ryan. “American Horror Story: Cult.” Season 7, FX. In this season of American Horror Story, the writer played on Sarah Paulson’s, known as Ally in the show, fear of clowns. Her coulrophobia made everyone around her believe she was crazy when in reality a local cults leader was targeting her in order to instill fear on her and the community so that he could get votes in a local election that he was running for. These killer clowns were going around killing many people and even made were able to get Ally’s wife Ivy into the cult, resulting in her leaving her. I am using this season of AHS: Cult because it supports many of the monster theses. Some of them that can be seen in the show are thesis 1, in the show there were many different versions of the killer clowns and not just the typical clown we usually see. It also supports thesis IV, in this thesis it talks about how the monster is negative for some reason whether it be cultural views, political views, sexuality etc. The leader of the cult who is responsible for these clown killings is a far right conservative is clearly politically drawn in his motives.

Muchietti, Andy, director. It. New Line Cinema, 2017. In the movie IT there is entity that dresses up as people’s biggest fears in order to try to lure them in and kill then. For the most part the children in this movie their biggest fear was clowns so this entity would appear as Pennywise, a clown that showed up to this town every certain number of years and would kill children. Throughout the movie a group of kids are trying to find this killer and they all end up seeing forms of Pennywise. Until the end the kids come out triumphant and are able to kill Pennywise. I used this also to talk about the psychology of the fear of clowns as Pennywise was ever-changing.