All over the world, people are dressing up as clowns to scare unsuspecting members of the public. Sightings began in South Carolina but quickly spread to Canada, Australia and the UK. Not everyone is happy about this craze: the Met Police are the latest to pour cold water on the so-called ‘killer clowns’, warning people ‘to act in a responsible manner’. But even though dressing up as clowns is an unusual way for people to spend their time, I can’t help but admire them for their commitment to the performance.
After all, they are not the progenitors of this craze. The clash between ‘killer clowns’ and ‘classic clowns’ is an inversion of an idea that tells us more than we might think about the world. Clowns were the ones we used to laugh out. But now the tables have turned.
Going back to their comedia dell’arte origins, clowns were the example fool. They tumbled, fell, and were caked in food, all for the amusement of an audience that mercilessly enjoyed their suffering. The French blanc clown, with its familiar crimson frown, was a particularly depressing option, but contemporary audiences revelled in its misery. Strange as it may be to modern non-circus goers, these clowns were intended to be side-splittingly funny.
At the same time, there was always an acidic undercurrent in the clowning movement. Arguably the greatest clown of all was Shakespeare’s Fool from King Lear. The bitter, mocking fool is his master’s clown in name alone, serving better as a doomsaying cynic. Lear, in his misery, refers to human existence as ‘this great stage of fools’, an irony drawn from the supposed tragedy of the clown. And when the Fool appears to have died, the horror of his demise is mingled ambiguously with the death of Cordelia. Lear exclaims:
‘And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all?’
We never learn the true fate of Lear’s Fool, but he has become a proxy for miseries of the play. As with his Italian counterparts, the Fool suffers for art and enjoyment. The clown is a victim who can be oppressed without exciting the audience’s sympathies. That was the artistic structure of the clown for hundreds of years.
But in the eighties, all that changed with the emergence of the killer clown popularised by Stephen King’s novel ‘It’. Clowns had always been creepy in an uncanny, not-quite-human way, but ‘It’ made them murderous and sparked a wave of coulrophobia: the fear of clowns. Pop culture made real the threat of clowns, even more so than the murders, in the seventies, of 33 young men by John Wayne Gacy, aka Pogo the Clown.
The current killer clown wave sweeping the globe then turns on its head the original purpose of clowning. In a year that has seen disturbances to political order, it’s no surprise that crazes emerge that reclaim control on a micro scale. Pokemon Go allowed users to turn the world from worrying political turmoil into a cornucopia of exotic Pokemon; and now the killer clowns are taking over the streets, reclaiming the agency of evil clowns everywhere.
The incentive, as ever, is virality. These killer clowns in America, Australia and the UK are chasing popularity in the same way as the great Bozo did in the 1950s. But where we once saw clowns as something to be victimised, we now seem them as victimisers. They bring no happiness, only violence and terror.
And yet, at the same time, almost no-one actually sees these killer clowns. A few people must suffer so that we can watch videos of their misery on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, from clown-free comfort. The manner of their performance has changed, but the purpose of the clown remains, as ever, entertainment.