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Ty Burr | Commentary

When did clowns become creepy?

A man dressed as the clown from “It” at July’s Anime Friends event in Buenos Aires.Agustin Marcarian/AP/file

Trigger warning: This column will discuss clowns. If the notion of human beings in white pancake makeup with red rubber balls on their nose makes you want to hide under the bed, put the newspaper or device down and back slowly away. The rest of you: Proceed with caution.

How have we come to this? When did clowns become one of our national nightmares? To review the concept: These are exaggerated cartoons whose sole purpose for centuries has been to point out our foibles and make us laugh. That they now serve as our urban legends of choice says a lot more about us than about them.


But here we are: with alleged sightings of feral clowns popping up across the country like Whac-a-Mole Bozos. Thirty-three states have reported “incidents,” the majority of which have certainly been cooked up by college students with poor impulse control. But still. That lady in Denver who was followed home by a creepy clown. The clown that was arrested for “lurking” in Middlesboro, Ky. The lockdown that hit Merrimack College after the campus police tweeted “suspicious person dressed as clown may be armed.” (The sighting was later reported to be “unfounded.”)

What’s happening is obvious: A cultural meme that has been floating around for a few decades now — clowns aren’t funny, clowns are scary — has dug in to the point where every few years someone will pose as a demented jester or call in a false sighting, which will lead to an irruption of copycat claims and other idiots dressing for distress.

Halloween is coming. We’re in the final death throes of a national election in which one candidate actually resembles a Scary Clown in hair, makeup, and general demeanor. The free-floating anxiety and all-around weirdness of our particular cultural moment seem to have brought out the freaks. These are perhaps reasons for why we’re getting a rash of horrifying harlequins right now.


But where did the meme start? There have been plenty of sad, even tormented clowns in cultural history: opera’s Pagliacci, the wronged heroes of Lon Chaney’s silent films “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924) and “Laugh, Clown, Laugh” (1928). It’s an easy and oft-used dramatic irony that a comedian’s life is tragic behind the mask.

But the notion that men who dress up funny might be monstrous nightmare figures only really seems to have taken root in the mid-1970s, when pop-culture irony — a humorously cynical upending and inverting of the values of “straight” mom-and-dad culture — became a mass affectation of post-’60s youth (and remains so today). Other things were going on, too: Serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who worked charity gigs as a party clown and made clown paintings that are nightmares all by themselves, was caught and confessed in 1978. That same year John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” in which kids are terrorized by an unspeaking boogeyman with a blank white mask, kicked off the teen-slasher genre and codified a zillion campfire horror stories into one mass eek-a-thon.

It’s probably useful here to talk about the “uncanny valley” effect, defined by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970 and entering the English-speaking world by translation in a 1978 book. The uncanny valley is the point at which a human face or figure is altered to where it’s realistic enough to be disturbing but not lifelike enough to be pleasant. This is why mannequins are creepy, and ventriloquists’ dummies, and all those cyborgs on TV. Clowns generally got a pass for centuries. And then they didn’t.


The 1980s saw the convention burrow further into the popular culture, a jokey/creepy Id to the Reagan Era’s smiley-face Superego. Stephen King’s “It,” with its demonic Pennywise, was published in 1986; the 1990 TV miniseries starred Tim Curry under the white pancake. (A new film version will be coming out a year from now.) The deathless B-movie horror farce “Killer Klowns From Outer Space” was released in 1988. The hip-hop horrorcore duo Insane Clown Posse, with its whiteface fan base of “Juggalos,” formed in 1989.

Social media, the “found footage” horror genre, and such manufactured YouTube-era urban legends as Slender Man have widened the cultural space in which bursts of Scary Clown sightings can flourish like kudzu before collapsing under their own weight or push-back from authorities. (On Wednesday, Endicott College, in Beverly, sent out a warning to students that read, in part, “These threats may or may not be real, but as the phenomenon has spread, people may be using social media to perpetuate a hoax or to cause disruption.”)

The idea is rooted in the zeitgeist now, a way for young people to distance themselves from the dangerously pre-ironic innocence of childhood — to show they’ve wised up — by jokily demonizing the least demonic thing at hand. Because the truth is that while a very small percentage of people actually are clown-fearing coulrophobes (a term not recognized as a genuine diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, so don’t put it on your insurance claim), the vast majority of us just like to pretend we’re scared by clowns. It’s funnier for some people than anything a clown might actually do — a way of taking his power and giving it back to us.


One clown agrees. Barry Lubin, 64, who played the internationally recognized character Grandma for the Big Apple Circus for 25 years and is a member of the International Clown Hall of Fame, drily notes that “it’s cool to be afraid of clowns. Not actually being afraid of clowns but to act As If.”

Lubin, an Emerson College dropout who left the Big Apple Circus in 2006 and now tours circuses and outdoor festivals around the world, tells of an incident several Halloweens ago. “I did a thing on CBS,” he says. “I was told the female anchor of the news was really afraid of clowns. They didn’t let her know in advance. She came out into the studio, live, and she exhibited lots of fear.

“And when we went to commercial, she was perfectly normal and conversational with me. So I chalk that up to, well, this is not real.”

“But creepy is creepy,” Lubin acknowledges, and points out that, on average, there’s one kid per show — sometimes it’s an adult — who visibly gets the willies when Grandma gets too close. “Normally in that situation, I just get out of their space,” he says. “And I am kind to them.” (One child panicked at Lubin’s character and calmed himself by clutching the Grandma doll his parents had just bought. There’s irony for you.)


Lubin says that, for some reason, clown-fear is an American phenomenon: “In Europe, with the same exact makeup, almost never does a child have a response like that.” But he also knows from the uncanny valley effect and that it doesn’t just apply to humans. “There’s a thing we clowns learned when I was with Ringling, which is Don’t make eye contact with the chimpanzees. Because of the makeup, they take it as a challenge and they may attack.

“It makes me wonder if there isn’t something in our imprinting, in our brains,” Lubin muses. “That it’s a survival thing. That this look is something to be afraid of for a very good reason from ancient times. But that’s completely a theory — there’s nothing backing that up.”

Maybe the meme is right, then: That clowns are no laughing matter. But it’s more likely that we’re all bozos on this bus.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.