Once upon a time, clowns were benevolent figures of laughter and joy.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, American children followed the animated antics of Bozo the Clown on television every week. The cartoons were presented by local presenters dressed as the carrot-headed Bozo. One was Willard Scott, later to become a meteorologist for the NBC Today show. Willard Scott was also the first Ronald McDonald in history, making his debut in a 1963 television advertisement for the hamburger franchise.
Flash forward ten years, to Cook County, Illinois (oddly enough, the location of one of the first McDonald’s restaurants). A character who calls himself Pogo the Clown is a popular attraction at community events. Meanwhile, young people keep disappearing…
Beneath the clown makeup and clothes is a psychopath named John Wayne Gacy. Between appearances as Pogo, he strangles 34 victims to death. He doesn’t wear the clown suit when he kills, but his alter ego of Pogo forever changes the image of the clown in the popular consciousness. Almost overnight, clowns became terrifying, with Gacy paving the way for numerous depictions of bad clowns in literature and film, most notably in Stephen King’s It.
King’s novel came out in 1986 and was a bestseller. In 1990, his nightmarish creation, Pennywise the Clown, was brought to the small screen in a miniseries. Also in 1990, a Florida woman, Marlene Warren, opened her front door to a brown-eyed clown carrying flowers and balloons. The clown shot her in the face and left in a white Chrysler. The clown’s victim died two days later. The killer, a woman, eluded capture for more than a quarter of a century, but is now serving time for murder.
The ’90s and 2000s saw chilling portrayals of The Joker, the green-haired prankster in the Batman franchise, from the likes of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. We also put Krusty, the degenerate clown from The Simpsons.
But it wasn’t until 2016 that caulrophobia, the fear of clowns, reached a real high point. In the latter part of that year, the world was hit by a wave of ‘scary clown’ sightings. In the run-up to Halloween, social media sites received numerous posts about sinister-looking clowns reportedly lurking first in the woods and then in a host of urban locations in the US, UK , Australia and other countries. It got so bad that World Clown Association President Randy Christensen took to YouTube to condemn people who dress up as clowns to scare people. “Whoever is doing these crazy things is not a clown,” said Christensen, a Minnesota-based party clown. “This is someone who is taking a good, clean, healthy art form and distorting it.” Christensen added that members of his association suffered job cancellations and felt threatened after coverage of scary clown sightings.
It was all too much for McDonald’s. On October 11, 2016, the burger giant announced that his mascot would be keeping a lower profile as a result of the incidents. A spokesperson said the burger clown was reducing appearances at community events as a result of the “current climate around clown sightings in communities.”
There was a knee-jerk reaction from other corporate entities like Target, which removed the clown masks from its website and stores. Schools as far afield as Ohio, USA, and Otago, New Zealand, have banned clown costumes and masks.
Fast-forward to Halloween night, Monday, October 31, 2016. Caulrophobia had gripped America in such a terrifying way that scores of stay-at-home husbands and trick-or-treating parents had guns at the ready that night.
Fearing retaliation from vigilantes, most clowns kept a low profile on Halloween. Not so in Orange County, Florida, where two men needed medical attention after being attacked by a group of 20 people wearing clown masks. But other than that, Halloween 2016 seems to have been a bit fizzy in the scary clown department, given all the previous hype.
Fast-forward now to May 2017. A bald, bespectacled man stands in front of a court in Nova Scotia, Canada. This is Dale Raincourt, also known as Klutzy the Clown. He pleads guilty to sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl over a period of six weeks. The judge jails him for two years and forbids him to work as a children’s entertainer again. Another nail in the coffin for bona fide clowns trying to make an honest living.
Then in the fall of 2017 came the big-budget movie production of It. Pennywise was back, scarier than ever! The film proceeded to do very brisk business at the box office, with the highest attendance ever seen for a September–October release.
So where does that leave the benevolent, kid-friendly clown of yesteryear? Well, many of them have hung up their clown suits and wigs forever. Others have strategically realigned themselves in the market, promoting themselves as “balloon artists” and eschewing all use of the “c” word.
And poor old Ronald McDonald has been put out to graze in most of the world. On a recent trip to Thailand, I came across a life-size effigy of him outside a McDonald’s in Bangkok. He had his palms together in a “wei” greeting. Alternatively, he could have been praying, appealing for divine intervention as the clown joins the ranks of vampires, zombies, and other denizens of our worst nightmares.