The History of Scary Clowns

When a study in 2008 found that children, on average, do not like clowns, many people were surprised. The rest of us weren't because we never liked clowns, either. Sometime over the past 50 years, clowns in popular culture moved from funny to downright horrific, which is indicative of how an audience sees them. Smithsonian looks at the history of clowns, and finds that depressing, creepy, and/or frightening clowns are really nothing new. The happy children's clowns of the mid-20th century were somewhat of an anomaly, because clowns were never all sunshine and smiles, from court jesters to Grimaldi to Pagliacci to Emmett Kelly to John Wayne Gacy.

Even as Bozo was cavorting on sets across America, a more sinister clown was plying his craft across the Midwest. John Wayne Gacy’s public face was a friendly, hard-working guy; he was also a registered clown who entertained at community events under the name Pogo. But between 1972 and 1978, he sexually assaulted and killed more than 35 young men in the Chicago area. “You know… clowns can get away with murder,” he told investigating officers, before his arrest.

Gacy didn’t get away with it—he was found guilty of 33 counts of murder and was executed in 1994. But he’d become identified as the “Killer Clown,” a handy sobriquet for newspaper reports that hinged on the unexpectedness of his killing. And bizarrely, Gacy seemed to revel in his clown persona: While in prison, he began painting; many of his paintings were of clowns, some self-portraits of him as Pogo. What was particularly terrifying was that Gacy, a man who’d already been convicted of a sexual assault on a teenage boy in 1968, was given access to children in his guise as an innocuous clown. This fueled America’s already growing fears of “stranger danger” and sexual predation on children, and made clowns a real object of suspicion.

After a real life killer clown shocked America, representations of clowns took a decidedly terrifying turn.

Read a fascinating rundown of the history and psychology of scary clowns at Smithsonian. Link


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It's touched on in the article, but I think my dislike bordering on fear of clowns is that their makeup hides or distorts the play of emotions on their faces.
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