Q&A: Creepy clowns not a new phenomenon

Reports of pranksters dressing up as creepy clowns are sweeping the US, Canada and now Europe. While scary clowns may seem like a new phenomenon, UBC theatre and film head Stephen Heatley and Ernest Mathijs, head of the Centre for Cinema Studies at UBC, explain that clowns have a long, violent and vulgar history on stage and in films.

Is this the first time we’ve seen reports of creepy clowns?

EM: There was a “creepy clown” phenomenon in the United Kingdom in 2013 when a scary clown was spotted throughout the town of Northampton. It got a little media attention and copycat sightings have been around ever since. They are mostly modeled on Stephen King’s It clown, Pennywise. Now that the hypersensitive and fear-happy American media got a hold of it, it’s become a big deal.

I think this creepy clown phenomenon is a version of what is generally known as a moral panic, similar to the fear of witches in the 17th and 18th Century, mods and bikers in the 1960s, and heavy metal fans or hooligans in the 1980s. The difference, however, is that clowns do not have a mob mentality – this phenomenon is propelled by media attention.

Where did clowns originate? And how did they get so scary?

SH: Clowns in contemporary culture, like birthday party clowns, may be happy and funny, but much earlier versions of clownish characters were anything but.

Some trace the origins of modern clowns to the Italian commedia dell’arte characters. These stock characters were driven by obsessions and some were downright violent, but in a ridiculous way. Pulcinella, the most vulgar of them all, had a foul mouth and was known to say and do outrageous things that were never socially acceptable. He could get away with this and was thought to be funny because he was so absolutely outrageous and wore a big baggy suit, a ridiculous hat, and a mask with a large hooked nose.

The image of the happy clown did not evolve until the 20th century with the advent of commercial clowns like Bozo or Ronald McDonald. Many people argue that it was Stephen King who popularized the “bad clown” in the 1980s.

Why do you think people are so fascinated with clowns?

SH: Clowns do what many people wish they could do. They are outliers; they have their own private logic with which they make sense of their world in their own unique way, and they are often allowed to say and do things that “nice” people will censor themselves from doing. This makes them disruptors, and the world has always been fascinated by those who don’t toe the conventional line.

Recent clown-related incidents have led to people being arrested, with some even facing felony charges. Has the creepy clown craze gone too far?

EM: Like Gremlins – maybe the most outrageous of clowns – every craze will eventually spin out of control if it’s fed. I would love to think that this is a subversive movement, but I fear it is not.

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