We all know clowns are terrifying, so it was only inevitable that someone would find a way to capitalize on this fear. Magnolia Pictures latest documentary, Wrinkles the Clown, tells the real story of the titular clown, a 65-year-old man who offers his services to families seeking to terrify their children when they're being naughty.
It then goes on to explore the Internet phenomenon surrounding Wrinkles, from the children genuinely terrified of him to the children who actually love the experience.
Wrinkles is introduced to us by a truly haunting video. The clown, "captured" by CCTV footage, emerges from under a child's bed, leaves a toy by her head, before coming for the camera. This video went viral, sparking speculation about this scary, old clown. Wrinkles the Clown first establishes the myth surrounding Wrinkles before we meet the man himself, the parents who hired him and the children who fear him. We also hear multiple recordings of phone calls to Wrinkles, featuring tons of children sobbing in terror and tons of children eager to be scared.
The documentary mainly focuses on how children react to Wrinkles. While many children are terrified of him, just as many children love being scared of him. As one child puts it, "I think some people need to be scared sometimes." It's at its best when it interviews the children, their parents, or Wrinkles. However, it drags a little when asking experts in the field (child psychologists, folklore professors, professional clowns) their viewpoint on Wrinkles, but only because it does such an effective job at showing us the ideas these professionals discuss rather. An expert explaining why clowns are scary is not as effective as us seeing the fear in a child's eyes when asked "Why are you scared of clowns?" Thankfully, these instances are minimal, never lingering on one topic or one interview for longer than necessary.
Scenes are also staged involving Wrinkles bathing himself in blood and stealing children away, bringing the fears children have of him to life. During these moments, Wrinkles is scary. But what makes these scenes even more interesting is how the documentary later shows how these fears are manufactured and how they affect children.
We later contrast Wrinkles the character and Wrinkles the person. Seeing Wrinkles out of the mask, fishing and going to strip clubs is surreal. We get a real sense of who this person is, how he creates his identity, and the sheer level of craft behind his brand. When Wrinkles the Clown pulls a twist halfway through, viewers are forced to re-evaluate everything up until this point. It forces audiences to appreciate the level of craft that goes into becoming a beloved icon of internet fear.
One of the questions the film poses is this: when parents hire Wrinkles to scare their children, is this a form of child abuse? This spins off into a bigger question as the documentary goes on: is Wrinkles a bully hurting children or a necessary part of their development?
If parents are deliberately punishing their children by forcing them to interact with a scary clown, is that abuse? Some parents -- and Wrinkles himself -- argue that the scary presence of a clown is way less damaging than the other extreme: physical beatings. How is calling Wrinkles on a kid any different than threatening naughty children with other horrors like the Krampus or the idea of them going to Hell? Is it less psychologically harmful to call in the clown?
But the documentary shows that Wrinkles has an effect even on children he never meets, thanks in part to his reputation and online presence. In this sense, Wrinkles takes on a different role, not as a form of discipline but rather a necessary boogieman.
Fear can be a cathartic experience that bonds people and feeds cultural practices. The documentary doesn't hesitate to reference other boogieman, such as Slenderman, and how the folklore surrounding terrifying characters affects children. Children have turned calling Wrinkles into a ritual, documented in thousands of YouTube videos and schoolyard conversations. It's no different to summoning Bloody Mary or, more recently, reading and sharing Creepypastas. However, unlike all of the other games and legends, Wrinkles the Clown is a real person. His phone number is out there. Because of this, people have developed a unique relationship with Wrinkles.
What starts as a documentary about a clown with a particular set of skills becomes an investigation of our relationship with fear.
Children mystify Wrinkles, creating a mythology purely through word of mouth. This isn't always a good thing, as the documentary points out, since Wrinkles regularly receives threatening messages from children hoping to overcome their fears through violence. But on the flip side, Wrinkles has fostered creativity in a great deal of children, allowing them to find their calling in life. The documentary seems to argue that the good Wrinkles does for society far outweighs any potential bad.
Ultimately, what Wrinkles the Clown does best is explore how it feels to be a child, wading into the world of horror for the first time. When confronted with fear, some fight, some flight and some embrace that which terrifies us. Wrinkles the Clown is at once unsettling, insightful and surprisingly heartwarming.
Directed by Michael Beach Nichols, Wrinkles the Clown releases Friday in select theaters and On Demand.
KEEP READING: From Pennywise to the Joker, Why Clowns Still Terrify