Once upon a time, clowns were benevolent figures of laughter and joy.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, American children followed the animated antics of the Bozo the Clown on television each week. The cartoons were introduced by local presenters made up as the carrot-topped Bozo. One was Willard Scott, later to become weatherman with the NBC Today show. Willard Scott was also the first-ever Ronald McDonald, making his debut appearance in a 1963 TV ad for the burger franchise.
Flash forward ten years, to Cook County, Illinois (interestingly enough, the location of one of the first McDonald’s restaurants). A character calling himself Pogo the Clown is a popular attraction at community events. Meanwhile, young men keep going missing…
Underneath the clown makeup and clothes is a psychopath named John Wayne Gacy. In between appearances as Pogo he strangles to death 34 victims. He doesn’t wear the clown outfit when he kills, but his alter-ego of Pogo forever shifts the image of the clown in popular consciousness. Almost overnight, clowns become scary, with Gacy paving the way for numerous portrayals of bad clowns in literature and film, most notably Stephen King’s It.
King’s novel came out in 1986 and was a huge seller. In 1990, his nightmare creation, Pennywise the Clown, was brought to the small screen in a miniseries. Also in 1990, a Florida woman, Marlene Warren opened her front door to a brown-eyed clown bearing flowers and balloons. The clown shot her in the face and drove off in a white Chrysler. The clown’s victim died two days later. The killer, a woman, eluded capture for over a quarter century, but now she’s serving time for murder.
The nineties and noughties saw chilling portrayals of The Joker, the green-haired prankster in the Batman franchise, by the likes of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. Plus we met Krusty, the degenerate clown in The Simpsons.
But it wasn’t until 2016 that Caulrophobia – the fear of clowns – reached truly fever pitch. In the latter part of that year, the world was gripped by a wave of ‘scary clown’ sightings. In the lead-up to Halloween, social media sites received numerous postings about sinister-looking clowns who were reported lurking first in forests, then in a host of urban locations in the US, UK, Australia and a number of other countries. It got so bad that the president of the World Clown Association, Randy Christensen took to YouTube to condemn people dressing up as clowns to frighten people. “Whoever is doing this crazy stuff is not a clown,” stated Christensen, a Minnesota-based party clown. “This is someone who is using a good, clean, wholesome art form and distorting it.’ Christensen added that members of his association had suffered job cancellations and felt under threat following coverage of scary clown sightings.
It all got too much for McDonald’s. On October 11, 2016 the burger giant announced that its mascot would be keeping a lower profile as a result of the incidents. A spokesman said the hamburger clown was cutting back on appearances at community events as a result of the “current climate around clown sightings in communities.”
There was a kneejerk reaction from other corporate entities like Target, which took clown masks from its website and stores. Schools as far apart as Ohio, USA, and Otago, New Zealand, banned clown outfits and masks.
Cut forward to Halloween night, Monday October 31, 2016. Caulrophobia had taken such a terrifying hold in the United States that large numbers of both householders and the parents of trick or treaters had firearms at the ready that night.
Fearing vigilante retribution, most clowns kept a low profile that witches’ eve. Not so in Orange County, Florida, where two men needed medical treatment after being attacked by a group of 20 people in clown masks. But other than that, Halloween night 2016 seems to have been a bit of a fizzer in the scary clown department, given all the hype leading up to it.
Flashing forward now to May 2017. A bald, bespectacled man fronts a court in Nova Scotia, Canada. He is Dale Raincourt, aka Klutzy the Clown. He pleads guilty to the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl over a six week period. The judge jails him for two years and bans him from ever working as a children’s entertainer again. Another nail in the coffin for bona fide clowns trying to earn an honest living.
Then in the fall of 2017 came the big budget cinema production of It. Pennywise was back, scarier than ever! The film proceeded to do very brisk business indeed at the box office, with the biggest attendances ever for a September-October release.
So where does that leave the benevolent, child-friendly clown of yesteryear? Well, a lot of them have hung up their clown outfits and wigs for good. Others have strategically re-aligned themselves in the marketplace, promoting themselves as “balloon artists” and avoiding all use of the “c” word.
And poor old Ronald McDonald has been put out to pasture in most parts of the world. On a recent trip to Thailand, I did encounter his life sized effigy outside a McDonald’s in Bangkok. He had his palms pressed together in a “wei” greeting. Alternatively, he might have been praying, appealing for divine intervention as the clown joins the ranks of vampires, zombies and other denizens of our worst nightmares.