Clowns are scary. Allegedly. Personally I don’t get it. I don’t like them particularly. They're the least-funny source of comedy since the last time Miranda Hart fell over. But I don’t find them scary. Many do though, it seems. I’m not sure when or where the idea of clowns as a horror device started, but it’s fairly well ingrained into popular culture now. From Bart Simpson refusing to sleep because “clowns will eat me”, to full-length books and movies, clowns have now joined vampires and werewolves as an actual monster breed. How they feel about that is anyone’s guess, but if nothing else it’s certainly given them a longevity that their tomfoolery alone wouldn’t have allowed.
I don’t actually know anyone who likes clowns as a comedy device, so their original pre-horror appeal is lost on me. My girlfriend loves them in horror, my young niece is scared of them, and so is my friend Rebecca. Which is why it was hilarious when I had a fancy-dress party recently where my friend Steve dressed as Pennywise and decided to give Rebecca (dressed as Poison Ivy) a big hug. There’s a photo of this tender moment attached. Doesn’t she look happy?
I mentioned Pennywise there, and he’s probably the most famous example of a scary horror clown. A shape shifting demon who takes the form of what kids are afraid of. But technically I think he’s a bad example. Because he isn’t actually a clown. He takes that form because that’s what one of the children in the story is afraid of. He also takes other forms as it’s relevant for him to do so. So the fact that he’s a clown is because we find clowns scary, not the other way around. Pennywise can’t be blamed for our multi-coloured big-shoed nightmares, as much as he might like to be.
Personally I love Krusty the Clown, easily the best character on the Simpsons. He’s not scary in the traditional sense, but he is an eerily accurate representation of the truth behind the squeaky-clean image that kids’ TV presenters have to maintain. Thankfully he doesn’t go down the route of British kids TV presenters that have come to light lately, but more the drink and drugs and prostitution more connected with 90s kids’ TV rather than its more insidious 70s counterpart. It’s also implied that Krusty has killed at least one person and got away with it, which is also a bit of dark humour for you. I love Krusty, and a compilation of his best bits would get more laughs than any normal episode of the Simpsons. From me, at least.
Killer Clowns from Outer Space is another ‘classic’ example, and I used the quotation marks because that film obviously falls into the category of ‘so bad it’s good’. It’s not a serious film and it knows that it isn’t, but therein lies its brilliance. Evil, malicious clowns from space who kill people and eat them. If you are a clown-phobic type, then it’s basically your worst nightmare come to life. The clowns look brilliant, too. Low budget 80s effects they may be, but that takes nothing away from how sinister they look. The fact that their weapons are all based on clownish idioms like Candy Floss and Popcorn is also sinister when you actually think about it.
Next we come to the Joker. My personal favourite evil clown, as a major Batman fan. Now I love the Joker, but my preferred version if the one many won’t be familiar with. The comic book, unfiltered version. This guy isn’t the Joker you’ll see on movies or videogames. He certainly doesn’t belong on snazzy T-shirts. This is the guy who breaks into your house and Christmas Eve, kills your children, then hangs them from the fireplace like stockings. Or gives you a loaded gun and forces you to choose between your wife or your mother. Not for any reason either, but purely because that’s what he wants to do. The reason behind the Joker’s malice is never given, nor should it be. We have no idea who he was before he became what he is now, and anytime he’s hinted at an origin it seems to contradict something he’s said before (as beautifully demonstrated by Heath Ledger in the Dark Knight movie).
The Joker wears clothes and speaks a language, but that’s about as far as he goes with accepting the trappings of civilisation. In his head there’s no reason you can’t just stab someone walking past you in the street and then time how long it takes them to bleed out. Not for money or revenge; just for the sheer fun of it. And yet he dresses like a children’s entertainer. There’s something deeply chilling about that. Obviously the reason the Joker is toned down in movies and cartoons is because they’re part of the whole Batman ‘franchise’. Showing the real unfiltered version of him (or of Batman himself, to be fair. The brutal sociopath we often see when Frank Miller or Brian Azarello writes him, especially) would kill the franchise. Kids wouldn’t be able to watch it and then their parents wouldn’t be watching it either, and then BOOM you’ve lost half your audience. Fanboys may hate the fact that things get changed to be put up on the big screen, but the reality is if they made Batman movies purely for the hardcore fans, they wouldn’t make enough money to cover the cost of their production and ergo there wouldn’t BE anymore Batman movies. When you’re watching the Joker on screen and he’s not quite as scary as he should be, remind yourself that this is the reason. And then maybe treat yourself to a copy of The Killing Joke to see what he’s really capable of.
And now we come to Maggoty Joe. Now I doubt many will have heard of this. It’s an obscure folk legend that I read in a book of such things, and it’s one of those stories that’s been passed about so much that it’s practically Impossible to trace the origin of it. Even the tinterweb has little on it (the book I owned that featured him predates the net too). So who is old Joe? Well basically the story goes like this;
Circus comes to town, the clown gives a very poor performance and gets booed. He then goes and gets blind drunk and staggers off into the fields. Where he trips, smashes his face into the floor and knocks himself unconscious where he subsequently drowns face-first in a puddle. When they find his body a few days later, still in his clown costume, his face is half-eaten by maggots. Years go by, houses get built, and every now and then people will wake to find maggot-filled footprints outside their house, or see a rotting, hideous clown standing at the bottom of their bed.
Now obviously this story is a typical urban legend. You can pull it apart by asking simple questions. When was it? Which town? How could a drunken clown have wandered so far that it took them days to find his corpse? It’s pretty obviously a load of bollocks, but it makes for a good chilling story. Please pass it on, I would be very happy if Maggoty Joe could see a return to folklore and overtake Slenderman, the pale-faced twat. Yeah he’s got tentacles and a suit but does his nose beep when you press it?
So there we go, a nice little collection of scary clowns for you to think about as you go to sleep tonight.
PS; I’m aware that I’ve missed others like the Clown from Spawn as an obvious one, but I think he’s basically a poor man’s Pennywise anyway (even turns into a big monster that kind of resembles It’s true form!)
If this hasn't scared you enough why don't you check out this review of Everyone Loves Clowns an excellent book by Thomas Cranham