LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Friday, 7 October 2016

Creepy Clowns - Scaring people since 1892








The creepy clowns are back, with reports coming in from all over America of dubious pranksters dressed as big-footed funny men lurking in woods and terrorising neighbourhoods. Now the sightings are starting again in Britain - where the creepy clown craze was started by the Northampton Clown back in 2013.

These aren't 'real' clowns, of course - as in professional entertainers - just pranksters donning Halloween garb to scare people for a laugh. But the scare tactics are working, because there is a long history of people being scared by clowns that dates back to Victorian times, when fiction's first killer clown appeared in an opera.

Joker's wild
ClownhouseMr JinglesIn Fear Of Clowns and Killer Clowns From Outer Space are just some of the horror films to feed or exploit the fear of white-faced funny-men. The Joker in Batman and the toy clown that comes to life in Poltergeist are further examples, while Bart Simpson voiced childhood fears with the mantra, “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me.”

In 2008, a University of Sheffield study of 250 children between the ages of four and 16 was commissioned to determine the best choice of hospital decor. The results found clowns to be “universally disliked” and regarded as “frightening and unknowable.”

Coulrophobia - the fear of clowns - is estimated to afflict 2% of the adult population, but anecdotal evidence including the existence of websites such as I Hate Clowns.com suggests the figure is much higher (you can even sign up for your own ihateclowns.com email address).

Bart Simpson
"Can't Sleep, clown will eat me!"
Clowns, in one form or another, have always been with us. The court jester of medieval times is just one historical example of an anarchic fool licensed to poke fun at society’s mores.

The father of modern clowning was Victorian pantomime star Joseph Grimaldi, after whom clowns are still nicknamed Joeys. Grimaldi popularised white face paint with red markings on his cheeks as a way of making his expressions more visible in smoky, candlelit theatres.

Grimaldi was a massive celebrity but a memoir posthumously edited by Charles Dickens revealed him to be a tragic, depressed figure in private who punned, “I’m grim all day, but I make you laugh at night.”

The first Joey
Joseph Grimaldi
- an illustration from
Circus Mania
Andrew McConnell Stott, author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi (Canongate), traces the enduring cliche of the sad man behind the clown face directly to Grimaldi. And it’s perhaps the fact that a clown’s make-up disguises the wearer’s true emotions that makes us suspicious of them.

According to author Ramsey Campbell, who employed sinister clown themes in The Grin Of The Dark, “It’s the fear of the mask, the fact it doesn’t change and is relentlessly comical.”
Grimaldi’s French contemporary Jean-Gaspard Deburau, who created the pantomime character Pierrot, became the first real life killer clown when he struck a boy and killed him after being taunted in the street.

Fictional killer clowns quickly followed with the 1892 Italian opera Pagliacci (Clowns) depicting a Grimaldi-type character who murders his wife.

The mid-20th century was a golden age for loveable clowns as television spread the fame of Bozo the Clown in America and Charlie Cairoli in Britain. The popularity of clowns was reflected by the decision of McDonalds to adopt Ronald McDonald as its mascot in 1963 - although opponents of the fast food chain may regard the Happy Hamburger Clown as a prime example of a smiling clown with a sinister agenda.

Ronald McDonald
making another fan for life
Cairoli’s generation had become established as children’s entertainers whereas earlier clowns like Grimaldi provided satire for adults. But it was the association with childhood innocence that allowed horror writers to make clowns scary - for what could be more frightening than a homicidal maniac loose among kids?

Real life added to the image of clown as predator when John Wayne Gacy - a registered clown called Pogo - was convicted of killing 35 men in Chicago between 1972 and 1978.

“Clowns can get away with murder,” quipped the man newspapers dubbed the Killer Clown.

Today’s clowns are well aware that many people find them more scary than funny. Circuses in America run clown therapy workshops in which children watch clowns applying their make-up to demystify the transformation.

Danny Adams
Just clowning
Many British clowns, such as Danny Adams of Cirque du Hilarious, have reduced their make-up to a minimum.

“Too much make-up scares the kids,” says Adams. “I’ve never worn a lot and over the years it’s got less and less.”

Jasper King of musical clown troupe the Chipolatas wears no clown make-up at all, saying, “When I started out I had a white face and I soon realised that wasn’t the way to go. It alienates people - you’re someone different. I want the kids to think, ‘He’s the same as me.’”

But if you take away a clown’s make-up, is he still a clown?

Slapstick movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were direct descendants of the American circus’ hobo clown or character clown, and were clowns in every respect except face-paint, which on the big screen they didn’t need. The most successful clown of recent times is Mr Bean, although few fans of Rowan Atkinson’s mostly silent creation ever recognise him as a clown.

The world will probably always need clowns to hold up a distorted mirror to the absurdities of life.

But perhaps because they no longer appear in smoky Victorian theatres they no longer need exaggerated faces to be seen.

Then again, maybe the current fad for public pranksters dressed as clowns is proof that a scary sense of otherness has always been part of the appeal of clowns.

As the Northampton Clown put it, “I just want to amuse people. Most people enjoy being a bit freaked out and then they can laugh about it afterwards. It’s like watching a horror movie. When people get scared, they start laughing.”

For the full story of clowning and interviews with some of today's funniest clowns, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus by Douglas McPherson

"Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
- Mail on Sunday

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.


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