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.
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).
"Can't Sleep, clown will eat me!"
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|
- an illustration from
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.
making another fan for life
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.
“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.