Shock of the old: nine disturbing, disruptive and demonic clowns | Clowns

Perhaps more than other Shocks of the Old, today’s needs a content warning because much of humanity is scared of clowns. In 2022, of 987 respondents to the Fear of Clowns Questionnaire, or FCQ (yes, a real thing) 272 (27.6%) reported “a fear of clowns, while 50 (5.1%) rated this fear as extreme”.

In a controversial (with clowns) 2008 survey of more than 250 children, every single one said they disliked clown decor in hospitals. “We found that clowns are universally disliked by children,” said the study lead, Dr Penny Curtis. “Some found them quite frightening and unknowable.”

So why invent something “frightening and unknowable” and why keep them around? Clowns must fulfil some essential role: subversive speakers of truth to power, social safety valve, idiots in big shoes who fall over and make us laugh. We are getting something from the big red noses and frizzy wigs.

Ancient Egypt, China, Rome and Greece all had clowns or clown-adjacent characters, as do many indigenous cultures. Court fools appeared in the 12th century and hung around until the English civil war (you can’t imagine Cromwell being a big clown fan), persisting until the 18th century in Russia, Spain and Germany. After that, commedia dell’arte characters – many of whom were clown-adjacent – filled the gap to a degree; clowning became more theatrical, then eventually threw its lot in with the circus.

Ancient Roman clowns by Francesco De Ficoroni (1664-1747). Italy, 17th century. Venice, Casa Di Carlo Goldoni. Photograph: Dea Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

But why do clowns creep so many of us out? Is it the dissonance between public laughter and – imagined or real – private unpleasantness? Citing Regency wig-and-falling-over pioneer, Joseph Grimaldi, the 19th century Italian criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, suggested that clowns were “prone to private melancholy”. Grimaldi fully embodied the “tears of a clown” trope, with a life story marked by family tragedy (he outlived two wives and his alcoholic son), poverty, melancholy and constant pain from the physical demands of clowning. Charles Dickens, who later edited Grimaldi’s life story, didn’t help by making it even more lurid than the source material; he also popularised the clown as grotesque in The Pickwick Papers.

That fools said what others couldn’t probably allowed them a frisson of danger, but the killer clown – first aired in Leoncavallo’s opera, Pagliacci, in 1892 – is more recent. As circus declined in the 20th century, fear of clowns – coulrophobia – was more widely reported, and the killer clown captured the collective imagination, especially in horror movies. It has also, occasionally, been accurate: 19th-century celebrity Pierrot mime artist Jean-Gaspard Deburau was charged with murdering a boy who insulted him.

With apologies to coulrophobes, it’s time to look at some clowns – I shall be using official FCQ ratings.

A 19th-century reproduction of a 15th-century illustration from a medieval manuscript. Photograph: Design Pics Inc/Shutterstock

Fool, 15th century

Ever fancied a career in jesting? Hiring was refreshingly diverse – “Could emerge from a wide range of backgrounds: an erudite but nonconformist university dropout, a monk thrown out of a priory for nun frolics, a jongleur with exceptional verbal or physical dexterity or the apprentice of a village blacksmith whose fooling amused a passing nobleman.” I don’t like the come-hither expression and the muscular thighs on this one; he looks like an unhinged Peloton instructor.

FCQ rating: “If I came across an image of a clown, I would turn my head away”

Joseph Grimaldi in Mother Goose, 1846. Photograph: Chronicle/Alamy

Joseph Grimaldi

Poor Grimaldi made a joke of his own melancholy with some classic clown punning: “I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you laugh at night.” His sadness was horribly compounded by premature physical collapse. He had “a series of incapacitating muscular and digestive illnesses that frequently left him unable to walk and which ultimately denied him the use of his legs”. His cause of death in 1837, while in dire health and depressed, several years after a suicide pact with his second wife Mary had failed, was reported as “Died by the visitation of God”. This picture is only moderately upsetting – the blue Mohican and shorts feel a bit post-punk.

FCQ rating: “I am sometimes on the lookout for clowns”

A poster advertising Cointreau. Photograph: swim ink 2 llc/Corbis/Getty Images

Cointreau ad, 1900

This wildly unpleasant image is more Pierrot than clown. But Pierrot – originally Molière’s creation in Don Juan, borrowed by the commedia dell’arte and enthusiastically adopted by emo artistic types since – is definitely part of the “sad clown” archetype. Why is this one’s bright red tongue poking out in that awful way? Why is it so small compared with the bottle? Unsettling.

FCQ rating: “I would do anything to try and avoid a clown”

James Ensor (1860-1949), the sad clown of Belgium. Photograph: Peter Horree/Alamy

Pierrot’s Despair, 1910

Another gratuitously creepy Pierrot, though I would expect no less of Ensor, Belgium’s most unnerving artist (in a crowded field). Haunted by death – “the eternal black night, death under the colourless earth” – his vision of life in its shadow is a carnivalesque nightmare, a danse macabre where clowns fit right in. His self-portrait sketch as a clown is similarly haunting.

FCQ rating: “I sometimes think about a clown trying to hurt me”

Lon Chaney in the silent thriller He Who Gets Slapped, 1924. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

He Who Gets Slapped, 1924

To give you a flavour of the 1924 silent film He Who Gets Slapped (based on an absurdist novel by Leonid Andreyev), here is a summary – brace yourself: “A cuckolded and plagiarised writer … becomes a circus clown to indulge his feelings of humiliation, before falling in love with, and ultimately murdering, a beautiful bareback rider.” Apparently not put off by the experience, the actor Lon Chaney went on to star as another clown, Tito, in the “heartbreaking tragedy” Laugh Clown Laugh (1928).

FCQ rating: “If I saw a clown, I would feel very panicky”

A clown in France, c1935.
Photograph: Gaston Paris/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

French clown c 1935

France had its share of celebrity clowns: Jean-Baptiste Dubois was as famous as Grimaldi (who worked as his assistant) and apparently the first person to call himself a clown on stage. Deburau was frequently recognised on the street, even out of costume. From the late 19th to the mid-20th century, the French press was “full of clown gossip”. The photographer responsible for this shot, Gaston Paris, took numerous clown pictures, thankfully not all so unnerving.

FCQ rating: “If I saw a clown, I would think it would try and chase me”

Clowns from the Bertram Mills Circus in Plymouth, 1936. Photograph: Brandstaetter Images/Getty Images

Bertram Mills Clowns, 1936

I’m no coulrophobe, but if I encountered the clown in the prison suit, I would absolutely not be OK. What is going on with that shapeless, terrifying mask? I watched a short film of Bertram Mills Circus in 1935 to see if I could find out more, but all the clowns were of the standard variety without papier-mâché sleep paralysis demon masks.

FCQ rating: “Clowns are one of my worst fears”

Lou Jacobs and his dog at Madison Square Garden, New York, 1940. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Lou Jacobs and his dog, 1940

This picture has an anarchic quality that I quite like and Jacobs is a relatively wholesome figure in the grisly history of clowning: he lived to a ripe old age, was commemorated on a US postage stamp, was one of the first six clowns inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame, married an aerialist and had two daughters (a trapeze artist and an elephant trainer). In addition to this dog, Jacobs worked with a stoic-looking chihuahua called Knucklehead.

FCQ rating: “I think a lot about clowns”

Liza Minnelli and Bozo the Clown (voice actor Pinto Colvig) at a children’s Easter party in Hollywood, 1949. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bozo and Liza, 1949

I tell you who isn’t scared of clowns: Liza Minnelli, that’s who. Admire her imperious toddler stare as she sits, unbothered, in the arms of Pinto Colvig, the original voice of Bozo the Clown (and also Pluto and Goofy, fact fans). Although this picture is taken from a terrifying angle, I think we should treat it as inspiration in tackling the scourge of coulrophobia. Make clowns work for you! Be more Liza!

FCQ rating: “I would feel nervous if I saw a clown” (but Liza wouldn’t)

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