Friday, February 17, 2012

Some Thoughts on Clowns . . .

I was watching a movie recently that included a clown character.  I confess, the movie was The Greatest Show on Earth.  James Stewart played the clwon, the doctor on the run who never takes off his clown makeup:

It reminded me of a comment supposedly made by horror writer Stephen King, (although I have not been able to source any such quote) that the thing he found scariest was a clown.  King’s book “It” features its own evil clown, Pennywise, the form adopted by an inter-dimensional force to lure and kill children. 

It appears therefore that I am not the only one who finds clowns mega creepy.

The fear of clowns is a recognised phobia, even having its own name, coulrophobia, the prefix “coulro” coming from a Greek word meaning “stilt-walker”.

Imagine being given the task of decorating the new children’s wards of a hospital.  Imagine also that if those wards are decorated with clown images, how the littlies will feel at night, separated from their parents and having clowns looking at them in the dark. 

Real Stephen King stuff, right? 

In 2008 when that redecorating scenario was the subject of a study with children by the University of Sheffield, there were some surprising results, or not surprising if you have coulrophobia. 

According to a news report:

 Decorating children's wards with paintings of clowns to create a nurturing atmosphere could backfire, researchg suggests.

A University of Sheffield study of more than 250 children, aged four to 16, found the images were widely disliked. Even some of the oldest children found the images scary.

The researchers said the findings, reported in Nursing Standard magazine, highlighted the importance of consulting children in hospital design.  Researcher Dr Penny Curtis said: "As adults we make assumptions about what works for children.  We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable."

Dr Curtis stressed the importance of consulting with children - who like colourful spaces and references to contemporary culture - when designing or changing the hospital environment.

She added that wards tended to be designed to meet only the needs of the youngest children. As a result older children often felt hospital space was not for them, raising the risk that they would be passive and inactive.

Marjorie Gillies, a senior nurse for patient services at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow, said: "We found that having clowns and decorations everywhere is too much.  We have gone back to plain walls with areas decorated appropriately."

In episode 10 of Season 4 of The Simpsons, inspired by an event in Simpsons writer Mike Reiss' childhood, young Bart does not want to give up sleeping in the crib to make way for his newborn sister. Noticing Bart's affection for Krusty the Clown but unable to afford a professionally built Krusty-themed bed, Homer decides to build a bed with Krusty's likeness to please his son. However, because of Homer's poor handicraft skills, the bed takes on a sinister appearance and frightens Bart, especially in the darkened room. In his first night in the new bed, far from "laughing himself to sleep", Bart imagines that the face on the headboard of the bed comes to life, intoning with sinister glee, “if you should die before you wake...” ", before collapsing into evil cackling.  The next morning, Bart is curled up into the foetal postion on the floor next to the sofa downstairs, repeatedly uttering the phrase "Can't sleep, clown will eat me...". The catchphrase inspired the Alice Cooper song "Can't Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me" from the 2001 album Dragontown. The phrase has since found its way into popular use.

Why do children (and a lot of adults) find clowns scary?

There is a detailed analysis of coulrophobia at:

Sometimes it comes from a traumatic incident involving a clown, such as being frightened by a clown at the circus.  Sometimes it is due to the representations of evil clowns in mass media and movies. 
Joseph Durwin, the author of the above article, also makes a case that historically from the days of the Court Fool, the ancient tendency of clowns to fail to recognise established boundaries has led to the marginalisation of clowning in our society.  He suggests that is the reason why the fear of clowns- especially clowns with associations to the supernatural- persists for many

The University of Sheffield study referred to above concluded "that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable."  It has been suggested that this may be because of the nature of clowns' makeup hiding their faces, making them potential threats in disguise; as a psychology professor at California State University stated, young children are "very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face"  This natural disliking of clowns is also what makes them effective to use in a literary or fictional context, as the antagonistic threat perceived in clowns is makes them a perfect villain.

 Speaking of clowns as villains also raises the matter of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

Gacy (1942-1994) sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. Gacy buried 26 of his victims in the crawl space of his home, buried three others elsewhere on his property and discarded the remains of his last four known victims in a nearby river. He was convicted of 33 murders and sentenced to death for 12 of these killings in March 1980. He was executed in May 1994.

Gacy was dubbed the "Killer Clown" due to his charitable services at fundraising events, parades and children's parties where he would dress as "Pogo the Clown" (above), a character he devised himself. 

By late 1975, Gacy had joined the Jolly Joker” Clown Club and had created the performance character of "Pogo The Clown"   He designed his own costumes and taught himself how to apply clown makeup.  The sharp corners Gacy painted at the edges of his mouth are contrary to the rounded borders that professional clowns normally employ, so as not to scare children.  Gacy performed as Pogo at local parties and events, and though he often spoke of entertaining at children’s hospitals, there is no evidence of his doing so. 

Since Gacy’s execution there has been a brisk trade in the sale of his artworks, most quite creepy, although some works have been sold so that they could be destroyed by the buyers.  25 paintings were burned in a communal bonfire in 1994 with some of the 300 attendees comprising relatives of victims.

Gacy dismissed criticism that he was permitted to keep money from the sale of his paintings, claiming his artwork was intended "to bring joy into people's lives".

Some of Gacy’s works:

"Pogo and Clown Skull"

"Handprint and Clowns"

"Hi Ho with Clown"

Many of the works are even more bizarre and not going to be posted here.

" To me, clowns aren't funny.  In fact, they're kind of scary.  I've wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time that I went to thye circus, and a clown killed my dad."

-          Jack Handey

And finally, the scariest of all:

1 comment:

  1. Coulrophobia is one of the top 10 most common phobias. It has celebrity sufferers including Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, Johnny Depp, and rap star P Diddy who is reported to have once demanded a "no clowns" clause in a contract.


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