Is all this clowning around far more serious than we think? Suzanne Harrington investigates.
“The Nightmare Realm — terrorising Cork and Dublin this October,” promises its Facebook page. True to their word, three actors from the Cork-based ‘Halloween scare house’, dressed as terrifying clowns and armed with pretend chainsaws, took a wrong turn into the grounds of a Dublin school.
Followed by embarrassed apologies; the scary clowns were lost. They meant no harm. Ooops. Naturally, it made the papers. Who doesn’t love the tingly fear-buzz of a horrid clown?
Coulrophobia is undergoing a vigorous reboot, as we all hide under the bed during this latest bout of bad clowning.
It last happened in 1981 in Massachusetts, where men in clown masks were said to be luring children from schools (although no arrests were ever made), but this did not develop into a major bout of cultural hysteria because social media didn’t yet exist then, and we were unable to spread the ersatz terror digitally.
The bad clown virus is spreading from town to town, place to place, waiting to leap out at you from behind a darkened corner, frightening kids and adults alike.
Nobody has been killed, or seriously injured, but fear levels are peaking. Halloween is still weeks away.
What started in South Carolina last August — when some dastardly individuals, dressed in clown wigs and make up, leapt out at members of the public, scaring them rigid - has become a full-blown phenomenon that spread from the US to Ireland and the UK via Australia, New Zealand and Brazil faster than a fire in a nylon wig factory.
Such has been the fear caused by these fancy-dressed scarers that people have been dressing up as Batman to patrol their neighbourhoods. In real towns, not just Gotham City.
There have been numerous reports and sightings – although as yet no Irish arrests, despite several Northern Irish schools recently put in temporary lockdown – of scary clowns providing therapists with a whole new generation of terrified children they have attempted to lure into the woods.
While such antics may sound like nothing more sinister than extreme Halloweening, there have been instances in the US and UK of armed robberies, clowns wielding actual knives and machetes, and people being accosted.
Which, even if you’re wearing a red nose and giant shoes, is not remotely funny.
Yet the situation lapses back towards absurdity when you hear how police have been visiting fancy dress shops and issuing stern warnings about hiring out clown costumes.
Ronald McDonald, the unpleasant red and yellow junk food mascot, has been keeping a very low profile. He has been temporarily retired, according to his employers.
Even the White House has been involved, although President Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest appeared to have difficulty keeping a straight face while fielding a press query about the FBI being notified about scary clowns, and what they were going to do about the phenomenon.
The press secretary suggested it was a local law enforcement thing.
While creepy clowns provide far more opportunities for the media to have fun than, say, Isis or the Russian military, the fact that these fancy-dress meanies are scaring children (as well as adults) rather negates the joke.
Giving kids nightmares and making them afraid to go outside seems closer to straightforward bullying than anything as innocuous as pranking. So what started it? Is it Donald Trump’s fault?
Such has been the implied influence of the forthcoming film of Stephen King’s novel It, starring a very nasty clown called Pennywise, that the author tweeted, “Hey guys, time to cool the clown hysteria – most of ’em are good, cheer up the kiddies, make people laugh.”
Professional clowns – those performers who make their living custard pieing each other – are up in arms. Metaphorically, at least.
While many of us have always found clowns incredibly creepy, they are still a recognised profession who are now suffering an image meltdown as evilly costumed impersonators wreck their trade.
Real clown Bibbledy Bob – real name Rob Bowker from the British Midlands - in a statement on his website calls the fake clowns “idiots” who are “putting on some cheap freak show caricature of a clown mask” (although how one caricatures a clown mask is unclear).
“If I put a doctor’s coat on does that make me a doctor? Clearly not.” Bowker, remaining true to clown form, concludes his statement, “If you’re like an orange, I’ll see you around.”
Bibbledy Bob’s fellow professional, New Jersey based Fudgie the Clown, has been clowning for 34 years, but told the BBC that since the scary clown craze took off, her bookings have dried up.
Silly Tilly, a UK based Christian clown, believes that scary clowns are anathema – that the true spirit of clowning is vulnerability – while Croydon based clown Rico says he hasn’t worn full clown make-up in years, because it scares people.
Reacting to the unfortunate creepy craze in the US, professional clowns shot themselves in the joke-sized foot when they organised a ‘peace march’ in mid October, hashtagged ‘Clown Lives Matter’.
Which, as you can imagine, was perceived as disrespectful and trivialising of the Black Lives Matter movement. Apologies were hastily issued. The last thing the professional clowns wanted was to offend even more people.
Benjamin Radford, author of a cultural history titled Bad Clowns, says that we have always feared clowns, that coulrophobia is as old as clowns themselves.
And clowns are very old indeed, existing four thousand years ago in ancient Egypt, and throughout the Dark and Middle Ages, particularly flourishing during the Renaissance in the Italian commedia dell’arte, where the best known zanni, or domestic clown, was Harlequin. (This is where we get ‘zany’).
The Fool, another version of the clown or jester, appears everywhere from Shakespeare to the Tarot.
The modern clown originated in the 1800s when a tragic British character called Joseph Grimaldi – whose memoirs were edited by a chap called Charles Dickens – first applied white make up with an oversized red mouth.
Behind the make up, you were unable to see whether the clown was laughing, crying or screaming.
And there lies its terror.
FIVE OF THE SCARIEST CLOWNS
¦ John Wayne Gacy – the Killer Clown, who raped and murdered 33 boys in 1970s Illinois, before his execution in 1994. Gacy’s alter ego was Pogo the Clown, which he dressed up as for children’s parties. Gacy, an amateur artist, liked to paint portraits of clowns.
¦ Mr Punch – the psychotic clown doll from English seaside puppet shows who batters his wife Judy while screaming ‘That’s the way to do it!’
¦ The Joker – Batman’s greatest adversary, his pan stick blotched and red clown smile a knife’s slash. Played brilliantly by Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson. Famous for his maniacal laughter.
¦ Krusty – the Simpson’s resident chain smoking alcoholic clown, who hates everyone, especially children.
¦ Donald Trump – a terrifying orange clown with delusions of world domination.
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