IT All Started With A Clown
Updated: Oct 25, 2021
When I was five years old I walked into my older brother's room to watch a movie. Alone, I know tragic. I couldn't see what VHS I grabbed and pushed into the VCR but it was a two-piece VHS set and this poster was all that was on it. Look at that smile. How could any kid think this could be a horror movie?
I was traumatized. I was mesmerized. I was petrified. This movie, gave me nightmares and a phobia of clowns so bad, that I fainted when I saw one walk into my cousin's birthday party four years later. Ah, memories.
Realistically I credit this film for my love of filmmaking because, in order to conquer my fears, I had to break down just how they made the film, opening my eyes to a whole new world of horror. There are oddly a lot more balloons than one would expect.
What is it about clowns that just seems wrong?
Maybe it's the red nose? Or perhaps it's the way they seem to always be smiling, even if the person under the makeup is not? Either way, clowns have always been synonymous with horror.
The modern archetype of the evil clown has unclear origins; People like John Wayne Gacy, who was an American serial killer and sex offender known as the Killer Clown. Gacy regularly performed at children's hospitals and charitable events as "Pogo the Clown" or "Patches the Clown", personas he had devised.
The first reported sighting of people dressed as evil clowns in Greenville, South Carolina was by a small boy who spoke to his mother of a pair of clowns that had attempted to lure him away. Obvious similarities to Gacy aside, it is easy to understand the fear that is associated with clowns, as more individuals take it upon themselves to continue the mythos and legacy of evil clowns.
 Additional creepy clown sightings were reported in other parts of South Carolina. All this to say, if ya see a clown coming your way, might be smart to walk the opposite way.
A poll as recent as 2016 actually found that Americans were more afraid of clowns than a terrorist attack or even death.
But what exactly is it about clowns that creates this energy of unease?
Coulrophobia is an extreme or irrational fear of clowns which is said to be based on their tendency to set off negative reactions that occur deep within our brains. Let's face it, clowns set off alarms, especially when found in unusual areas.
Studies suggest that this is a form of rejection due to the uncanny valley effect in which a thing that looks human but “isn’t quite there” is incredibly unsettling. And clowns do live exclusively in that area.
"To begin with, a clown’s makeup can be unsettling. It hides not only the person’s identity but also that person’s feelings. Worse, the makeup can result in mixed signals if, for example, the clown has a painted-on smile but is frowning. Then, there’s the uncanny nature of the makeup itself. The oversized lips and eyebrows distort the face so that the brain perceives it as human but slightly off. That oddness is heightened by a clown’s bizarre costume."
Our fascination with horror and the uncanny does however create this sense of curiosity. It's the embodiment of all the horrors we aren't aware of as children and stay away from as adults. Clowns aren't evil but they inherently personify the images we fear.
Cue Stephen King.
A King With Words
Stephen King, master of the horror genre, created the novel IT in the late-'70s but didn't start writing it until 1981, to only have it finally released in 1986. As a novel, it received high praise and won the British Fantasy Award. Soon after ABC acquired the right to a TV miniseries of the novel. They proposed an 8-hour television special but quickly started to lose their edge and decided to make it a 4-hour two-night event after scheduling conflicts with their directors.
"Speaking candidly, ABC was always nervous about IT, primarily the fact that it was in the horror genre, but also the 8 to 10 hour commitment. They loved the piece, but lost their nerve in terms of how many hours they were willing to commit. Eventually, they agreed to a 2 night, 4 hour commitment."
This mini-series, as it is lovingly described in the present, is what originally drove my fascination with the horror genre. As a young child, it scared and scarred me. But it also intrigued me. It drove my curiosity in the spooky genre. As it did for a number of young children during the era.
Many cite the performance of Tim Curry being the sole reason for their newfound obsession with the titular character of IT. But overall the power and grip of Stephen King's words ultimately led to truly frightening scares.
"... The clown furor will pass, as these things do, but it will come back, because under the right circumstances, clowns really can be terrifying."
— Writer Stephen King's reaction to the recurring clown scare phenomenon.
And he was right.
Over the years clown sightings were a phenomenon that occurred more than once throughout social media. The character was suggested as a possible inspiration for two incidents of people dressing up as clowns in Northampton, England, and Staten Island, New York, both during 2014.
In 2016, appearances of "evil clowns" were reported by the media, including nine people in Alabama charged with "clown-related activity".
Several newspaper articles suggested that the character of Pennywise was an influence, which led to King commenting that people should react less hysterically to the sightings and not take his work seriously.
And now with Halloween right around the corner, I implore all of you to think a little longer about that clown you see down the road... Because it could be anyone... even the last thing you see.