From Pennywise to the Joker, Why Clowns Still Terrify

Joker, the Man Who Laughs

However, that darkness surfaced in the early 19th century with English actor Joseph Grimaldi. The first fully recognizable ancestor of the modern clown, the animated Grimaldi wore full makeup and colorful costumes on stage, where he was famed for his physical, and often violent, slapstick comedy. Off stage, he led an unbelievably tragic life, marked by childhood abuse, depression, the death of his wife in childbirth, and the loss of an adult son (a clown who drank himself to death); Grimaldi died penniless. With the posthumous release of Grimaldi's memoirs, edited by Charles Dickens, the image of humor being used to mask something dark took hold. That was certainly only cemented in 1892 with the premiere of the Italian opera Pagliacci (literally, "Clowns"), in which the main character murders his unfaithful wife onstage.

The Joker

Those shadows remained as the clown immigrated with the circus to the United States, which gave rise to characters as diverse as Emmett Kelly's Weary Willie, Bozo the Clown, Howdy Doody's unspeaking partner Clarabell, Ronald McDonald and, yes, The Joker.

Inspired in part by the 1928 silent horror film The Man Who Laughs, the Clown Prince of Crime was introduced in 1940 in Batman #1. The Dark Knight's arch-nemesis, The Joker embodies all of the best (or worst) elements of the clown, stretching back to the Harlequin and beyond. He's the trickster, the serial killer, the agent of chaos. With his green hair, white skin and red permanent smile, he presents an almost comic, yet undeniably unsettling, facade; in recent years he even had his face removed and then reattached as a mask, adding another layer to his inscrutability, and his creepiness. Despite repeated attempts to tell The Joker's backstory, in comics and on film, he's resisted a definitive origin. "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another," he says in 1988's Batman: The Killing Joke. "If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"

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“Where there is mystery, it’s supposed there must be evil," Andrew McConnell Stott, author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, told Smithsonian Magazine, "so we think, ‘What are you hiding?’”

Of course, that doesn't apply to fictional killer clowns, like The Joker and Mr. Punch, but to those in real life. The most famous is John Wayne Gacy, who in the late 1970s appeared at children's parties as Pogo the Clown, even as he was secretly raping and killing teenage boys and young men, and burying most of the bodies in the crawl space of his home. It was with Gacy, according to psychology professor Frank T. McAndrew, that "the connection between clowns and dangerous psychopathic behavior became forever fixed in the collective unconscious of Americans."

Tim Curry as Pennywise
Tim Curry as Pennywise on the 1990 It miniseries

It was with Gacy's 1980 conviction for 12 of the at least 33 murders fresh in a nation's mind that Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg released 1982's Poltergeist, with its attacking clown doll, and Stephen King published his 1986 horror novel It, in which a supernatural entity terrorized the children of a small town in the form of the clown Pennywise. Despite decades worth of fictional killer clowns in film and television, from Killer Clowns from Outer Space and Carnival of Souls to American Horror Story: Freak Show and Killjoy, it's Pennywise who looms largest in our nightmares.

That's in no small part due to the 1990 television adaptation that starred Tim Curry as the malevolent clown, which was viewed by nearly 18 million households and an untold number of children and teenagers (unlike the R-rated It film, now in theaters, the TV miniseries bore no restrictions that might limit its exposure to a younger audience). If Gacy and the inherent disconcerting nature of clowns hadn't already scarred generations, then It certainly did, leaving us with unforgettable images of Curry's Pennywise holding balloons, peering out from a sewer grate or from between sheets hanging from a clothesline. And while "phantom clown" sightings predate the release of either King's novel or its 1990 adaptation -- the first such wave in the United States dates back to at least 1981 -- the resurgence last fall was bound to evoke haunted memories of It.

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“The clown furor will pass, as these things do," King told the Bangalor (Maine) Daily News last fall, at the height of the clown sightings, "but it will come back, because under the right circumstances, clowns really can be terrifying.”

It's not necessarily an irrational fear, either (coulrophobia isn't recognized as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association).

"Being afraid of a clown making balloon dogs at a circus is a clown phobia; being afraid of that same clown sadistically twisting a live dachshund into a grotesque, furry tube of spine and dripping gore is not," Radford writes in Bad Clowns. "There is nothing at all odd, pathological, or unreasonable about fearing a clown chasing you with a gun or a meat cleaver."

Or, as King himself noted, "If I saw a clown lurking under a lonely bridge (or peering up at me from a sewer grate, with or without balloons), I’d be scared, too.”

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