Twenty-seven years after the original mini-series and just over three decades since the release of the novel, Andrés Muschietti’s highly-anticipated remake of the Stephen King epic It (due for release this September) still has grown adults nervously rubbing their palms at the prospect of coming face to face with the petrifying Pennywise all over again.
With it being so long since our original introduction to the infamous clown, and after countless attempts by preceding writers and movie makers to exploit the notion of evil clowns even further, how are audiences not yet immune to the topic as they are with vampires or zombies?
Coulrophobia - The Fear of Clowns
First off, while Pennywise may be a supernatural entity himself, clowns, unlike many horror baddies, are very real.
Clown-type characters have been around for centuries, stretching as far back as Ancient Greek and Roman times when ‘rustic fool’ figures were frequently used in theatrical productions, though the demonization of clowns is a relatively new phenomenon.
Any potential fears involving typical horror monsters are most likely to stem directly from the movies themselves, since exposure to them is either extremely improbable or outright impossible. However, the fear of clowns (or coulrophobia) is often more deep-seated and can develop from early childhood interactions with clowns. Joseph Durwin, professor of psychology at California State University Northridge, stated that children are ‘very reactive to a familiar body with an unfamiliar face’. The distorted features of clowns can often slip into what is known as the’ uncanny valley’ – a theory that suggests that altered or exaggerated replicas of familiar human qualities induce feelings of fear or dread within the observer. This means that a clown’s intent can easily be misinterpreted by children as being something sinister. That, coupled with a clown’s obscurely quirky persona, can create feelings of unease within children that might subsequently be carried into adulthood.
This pre-existent fear of clowns leaves us vulnerable at the hands of horror writers, who are able to exploit it, making for terrifying viewing.
Crimes Involving Clowns
Many credit Stephen King with the popularization of the ‘evil clown’ – although the theme had been touched on in previous centuries by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe (see Hop-Frog) – but the crimes committed by John Wayne Gacy under the guise of ‘Pogo the Clown’ less than a decade before the book’s release gave it a terrifying element of reality.
Gacy’s trusted and lovable persona gave him access to dozens of young children, granting him room to torture, rape and murder at least thirty-three boys between 1972 and 1978. What parents had not known was that Gacy had already been arrested once before in 1968 after sexually assaulting a fifteen-year-old boy that he had hired to carry out jobs around his home. It just goes to show that you never really know who’s lurking behind the makeup.
Incidents that occurred in following years helped further cement the feelings of trepidation and distrust that often come coupled with a clown’s presence – the most recent and widespread being the notorious ‘Clownpocalypse’ of 2016 which saw people all across the world don clown costumes and take to the streets in attempt to terrorize their local communities. There's no wonder people are overly-cautious when it comes to clowns.
With fiction and reality entwining so frequently on this topic, it is not surprising that many of us still feel threatened by clowns, despite their frequent exploitation within the film industry. It undoubtedly does wonders for the horror genre to have a such stream of unfiltered fear to tap into, though it can't possibly be doing the child performance industry much good.
Do clowns still creep you out, or have you been desensitized?