From Pennywise to the Joker, Why Clowns Still Terrify

No sooner did last year's epidemic of clown sightings subside than the menacing figure has returned with a vengeance, with a new adaptation of Stephen King's It setting box-office records, a band of rubber mask-wearing killers stalking FX's American Horror Story: Cult, and Warner Bros. reportedly considering no fewer than four films featuring The Joker. The balloon-blowing, confetti-throwing entertainer of circuses and children's parties has once more tightened its white-gloved grip on our collective consciousness, and on our nightmares.

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But what is it about clowns that simultaneously amuses and terrifies us, and why do characters like Pennywise and The Joker both attract and repel us, time and again, on the page and on the screen?

A study of more than 250 children conducted in 2008 by the University of Sheffield famously found that hospitals that decorate wards with paintings of clowns with the intent of soothing young patients may actually do the opposite. "We found that clowns are universally disliked by children," researcher Penny Curtis told BBC News. "Some found them quite frightening and unknowable." Subsequent studies raised doubts about those findings, suggesting that therapy clowns may actually ease the anxiety and speed the recovery of child patients.

That apparent disagreement highlights society's own contradictory relationship with clowns. It's perfectly encapsulated in the classic Simpsons episode "Lisa's First Word," in which a young Bart, who idolizes Krusty the Clown, is nevertheless traumatized when forced to give up his crib in favor of a custom-made clown bed: "Can't sleep! Clown will eat me!"

Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise in It
Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise in It

"A clown is funny in the circus ring," horror-movie legend Lon Chaney is said to have once observed. "But what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight, and finding the same clown standing there in the moonlight?" That quote is echoed, whether intentionally or not, in the 1989 film Batman by Jack Nicholson's Joker, who asks, "You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight? I always ask that of all my prey."

Chaney, who played a clown on screen more than once (He Who Gets Slapped, Laugh, Clown, Laugh), touched upon an age-old dichotomy: The clown wears a makeup that masks his true identity and emotions, making him inscrutable. He's a liminal figure, not bound by the rules of society, allowing him to exhibit behavior that would get virtually anyone else in trouble. Even at his most subdued, a clown is wildly unpredictable, as likely to throw a cream pie as he is to perform a prat fall.

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That freedom has been enjoyed for thousands of years, dating back to the royal courts of ancient Egypt and China. Although the word "clown," meaning something akin to a boor, didn't enter the language until the mid-16th century, jesters and fools have long enjoyed license to interrupt solemn rituals and publicly mock rulers, acts that might otherwise result in the execution of the offender.

Batman and Harley Quinn
Harley Quinn in Batman and Harley Quinn

A familiar figure begins to emerge in the late 16th and early 17th centuries with the stage character the Harlequin, and with it the earliest indications of a malevolent nature. "The crude, chaotic Harlequin character (typically wearing a mask and a colorful, diamond-patterned costume) is clearly a clown," author Benjamin Radford writes in his 2016 book Bad Clowns, "but his roots run sinister, as there is a link between him and the diabolical world." The name is associated in legend with the French version of the Wild Hunt, a troop of demons led by the black-masked emissary of the devil, the hellequin, which roamed the countryside, chasing the souls of the damned to hell. The theatrical Harlequin was, in Radford's words, a "diabolical, itinerant trickster," who became paired in the British harlequinade with the buffoonish Clown. (The Harlequin's name and garb, to say nothing of his mercurial disposition, were of course key influences in the creation Harley Quinn, The Joker's sidekick turned hit DC Comics franchise.)

Developing virtually parallel to the Harlequin, the Punch and Judy puppet shows have entertained British audiences -- children, no less! -- for centuries, starring a jester-like serial killer and his often-abused wife. It's easy to detect in them a foreshadowing of the relationship between The Joker and Harley Quinn; there's a black heart whose beat is obscured by over-the-top violence and a thick layer of greasepaint.

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