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IT (1990)

Why do clowns scare the shit out of us? An investigation

We use science and history to explain what makes Stephen King’s IT so, so terrifying

A fortnight ago, the trailer for the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s IT broke global traffic records, notching 197 million online views in the 24 hours that followed its debut. The nightmarish clip spends most of its two-and-a-half minutes introducing the film’s titular antagonist: a sadistic, shape-shifting predator, which usually takes the form of ‘Pennywise’, a malevolent clown (played by Bill Skårsgard in the film).  

To break the preview down: it’s creepy. Really creepy. Creepy because it stars a big, bad, child-eating clown. Even if Pennywise didn’t have an appetite for kids, the trailer would still suffice to shit us all right up, because – with or without their involvement in jump scares, or the whole eating children thing, for that matter – clowns are scary. It’s just a fact. If there’s one thing that’ll unite our broken, divided planet, it’ll be the universally shared acknowledgement that clowns terrify us.

But why? Just what is it about clowns that gets to us so much – and at what point did they evolve from birthday party fixtures into murderous, horror movie tropes? Before the film’s September release (and the inevitable return of killer clown crazes across the world), we’ve compiled all of the reasons that they creep us out – just so you’re prepared.


Apparently, clowns have always been wrong’uns. According to Benjamin Radford, author of Bad Clowns, we can trace our distrust all the way back to the Shakespearean fool, one of the earlier incarnations of the modern clown. The character – perhaps most famously in King Lear – would float deceptively between different parties, revealing dark truths and plots, blurring the lines between comical and crooked. “Historically clowns, fools, and jesters are generally devoid of allegiance; he has no masters and is a man at his own command. Clowns and fools – like satirists and comics – are given wide license to speak the truth (or voice unpopular opinions) when done in character,” argues Radford. “Thus, you can never really trust a clown because you don’t know what they’re going to do; surprises are part of the act. It’s also unclear what’s a performance and what’s not.” Don’t trust a fool.


The man in the mask will forever be creepy. Michael Meyers, Jason, Leatherface, Yer Da on a stag; usually, if someone has a reason to hide their expression, it’s rarely ever with good intentions. With clowns, their makeup contributes to this idea of hostile ambiguity; it obscures their true intention, while amplifying their unconventional appearance. “They're often genuinely grotesque, with a wide-open mouth which evokes images of cannibalism and being devoured,” explains Dr Bernice Murphy, Director of the M.Phil in Popular Literature at Trinity College Dublin. “There's also a sense that the greasepaint is concealing something even more sinister – as was the case with well-known 1980s serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who famously dressed up as 'Pogo the Clown' and entertained local sick kids, but at the same time was murdering dozens of young boys in Suburban Chicago. Newspaper coverage of his arrest tended to always feature two famous pictures of him: one where he met the then First Lady, Rosalind Carter, and one of him in greasepaint. The respectable local businessman and the sinister degenerate together at once.” Yep, that’ll do it.


Clowns occupy a strange sort of middle ground, in which they’re both recognisably human and a little bit alien, too. It results in a vague, disconcerting acknowledgement, where something – be it the makeup, the opaque grin – just isn’t quite right. Freud (because if anyone was going to weigh in on this, it’d be him) coined this phenomenon the ‘uncanny’, arguing that it’s this kind of pseudo-familiarity is what really messes with our brains. “Clowns make people uncomfortable for several reasons, among them that they straddle categories and boundaries,” says Radford. “We know there’s a real human under all that loud clothing, greasepaint and mask – yet they look and act distinctly inhuman.” As a visual contradiction, our brains’ default reaction is to treat them with suspicion – a suspicion, which often evolves into outright fear.


Even at their most harmless, clowns are chaotic. The crux of their act is that they defy standard, recognisable behaviour – think back to all of those weird, childhood birthday parties when a bloke your mate’s parents found in the Yellow Pages turned up in their back garden, told some jokes, filled his trousers with custard and then charged them £18 an hour for the entire, weird mess. While it’s usually what’s hiding behind the strange act that unnerves us the most, the performance itself contributes to our feelings of uneasiness; clowns are agents of chaos, whose refusal to conform to social norms makes them difficult to predict. As human beings – and massive control freaks – such an incalculability freaks us right out. 


All of the scariest horror films contain kids. The Orphanage, The Exorcist, The Children; young people, having their innocence ripped from them by nefarious forces, form the basis for some of cinema’s most chilling plotlines. So, when you make this nefarious force a clown – a figure itself associated with childhood and youth – it results in a double-barrelled attack on the purity of childhood. For the children, it’s a real lose-lose. “Clowns are supposed to be colourful, capering figures who are particularly appealing to youngsters. For this reason, they often feature as predators who lure children into dangerous scenarios in American Pop Culture – again, this owes much to Gacy in particular – from Stepen King's IT to Season 5 of American Horror Story,” explains Murphy. “There's also a more longstanding relationship between the clown and the Carnivalesque as a theoretical concept associated with liberated and licentious behaviour, and the breaking down of social, sexual and cultural barriers – which may come in to play in an obviously much more horrific way here.” In King’s 1986 novel, the scariest thing about Pennywise isn’t necessarily that he wants to eat the children – rather, it’s what he makes them do and go through in the process.


In a self-fulfilling prophecy, historic creepy turns from clowns in fiction are ultimately responsible for the way in which we view them. One of the very first examples came courtesy of Charles Dickens in his 1836-7 The Pickwick Papers. In an excerpt, the author described a drunken clown having “a bloated body and shrunken legs” and “glassy eyes, contrasting fearfully with the thick white paint with which the face was besmeared”. Spooky. When Stephen King wrote It over 100 years later, the clown’s unnerving role in literature was already solidified – by this point, The Joker had already been terrorising DC comic books for over 30 years. When King’s novel was adapted for the first time for television – starring Tim Curry in the Pennywise role – it joined a host of other on-screen examples conditioning viewers to associate the face-painted performers with mad and murderous intention. “We love evil clowns because they embody fascinating contradictions of humor and horror,” acknowledges Radord. “Mr. Punch is a good example: we love him and laugh at him because even though he’s horrible, he’s funny and an everyman figure. Evil clowns are not going away any time soon.”