Although clowns are originally comic performers and characterized to humor and entertain people, the image of the evil clown is a development in popular culture, in which the playful trope of the clown is rendered as disturbing through the use of horror elements and dark humor.
The modern archetype of the evil clown has unclear origins; the stock character appeared infrequently during the 19th Century, in such works as Edgar Allan Poe's Hop-Frog, which is believed by Jack Morgan, of the University of Missouri-Rolla, to draw upon an earlier incident "at a masquerade ball," in the 14th Century, during which "the king and his frivolous party, costumed—in highly flammable materials—as simian creatures, were ignited by a flambeau and incinerated, the King narrowly escaping in the actual case." Evil clowns also occupied a small niche in drama, appearing in the 1874 work La femme de Tabarin by Catulle Mendès and in Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (accused of being a plagiarism of Mendès' piece), both works featuring murderous clowns as central characters.
The modern stock character of the evil clown was popularized by Stephen King's novel It, which was the first to introduce the fear of an evil clown to a modern audience. Another one of the first appearances of the concept is that of John Wayne Gacy, an American serial killer and rapist who became known as the Killer Clown after it was discovered that he performed as Pogo the Clown at children's parties and other events.
The evil clown archetype plays strongly off the sense of dislike caused by inherent elements of coulrophobia; however, it has been suggested by Joseph Durwin that the concept of evil clowns have an independent position in popular culture, arguing that "the concept of evil clowns and the widespread hostility it induces is a cultural phenomenon which transcends just the phobia alone". A study by the University of Sheffield concluded "that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable." This may be because of the nature of clowns' makeup hiding their faces, making them potential threats in disguise; as a psychology professor at California State University, Northridge stated, young children are "very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face". This natural disliking of clowns makes them effective to use in a literary or fictional context, as the antagonistic threat perceived in clowns is desirable in a villainous character.
The concept of the evil clown is related to the irrational fear of clowns, known as coulrophobia. The cultural critic Mark Dery has theorized the postmodern archetype of the evil clown in "Cotton Candy Autopsy: Deconstructing Psycho-Killer Clowns" (a chapter in his cultural critique The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink).
Tracking the image of the demented or deviant clown across popular culture, Dery analyzes the "Pogo the Clown" persona of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy; the obscene clowns of the neo-situationist Cacophony Society; the Joker (of "Batman" Fame); the grotesque art of R.K. Sloane; the sick-funny Bobcat Goldthwaite comedy Shakes the Clown; and Pennywise the Dancing Clown from Stephen King's It.
Using Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque, Jungian and historical writings on the images of the fool in myth and history, and ruminations on the mingling of ecstasy and dread in the Information Age, Dery asserts the evil clown is an icon of our times. Clowns are often depicted as murderous psychopaths at many American haunted houses.
Wolfgang M. Zucker points out the similarities between a clown's appearance and the cultural depictions of demons and other infernal creatures, noting "[the clown's] chalk-white face in which the eyes almost disappear, while the mouth is enlarged to a ghoulish bigness looks like the mask of death.".
Notable depictions of evil clowns
- The Joker, the archnemesis of Batman whose key features are chalk-white skin, green hair, red lips and a permanent smile, purportedly caused by a chemical bath.
- Maxie Martin and Jennings, assassin clowns in The Avengers (TV series) - episode "Look — (Stop Me If You've Heard This One) — But There Were These Two Fellers..." (Season 6, 1968).
- Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the main antagonist in Stephen King's novel It and its film adaptation. He often uses corny humor as he taunts his victims.
- Shakes the Clown, a depressed, alcoholic clown framed for murder and coming into conflict with other clowns, in the eponymous film by Bobcat Goldthwait.
- The Bicycle Doctor, in the film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, a malevolent clown disguised as a doctor who destroys Pee-Wee Herman's beloved bicycle after feigning attempts to repair it.
- Captain Spaulding, a gas-station owner, museum operator, and patriarch of the murderous Firefly family, featured in the Rob Zombie films House of 1000 Corpses and its sequel, The Devil's Rejects. Captain Spaulding is portrayed by actor Sid Haig.
- Violator, a demon from hell who takes the appearance of a balding, middle-aged man with face paint, and an enemy of Spawn in the comic franchise by Todd McFarlane.
- The Crimson Clown, a clown puppet that comes to life and terrorizes a little boy in the Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode "Tale of the Crimson Clown".
- Doink the Clown, a professional wrestling character portrayed by a number of wrestlers. He is frequently depicted as malevolent, playing malicious pranks and cheating in unusual ways.
- Kefka Palazzo, the main antagonist of Final Fantasy VI, a psychopath with the outfit and mannerisms of an insane jester.
- Zeebo The Clown, the spirit of a thief that stole the circus' whole payroll of $20,000 in the 1920s who terrorizes the main protagonist, because of the theft of his nose by said protagonist in the Are You Afraid Of The Dark? episode "The Tale of Laughing in the Dark".
- Killer Klowns from Outer Space, the 1988 horror comedy monster movie about carnivorous aliens, that resemble clowns from outer space.
- Poltergeist, the 1982 supernatural movie from Tobe Hooper features a clown doll in several scenes. During the finale, this doll becomes possessed by a demonic presence and attempts to strangle a young boy.
- The Ghost Clown, a faux evil supernatural circus clown in "Bedlam in the Bigtop", a 1970 episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!. He is a criminal who used to work in the circus. He hypnotizes people with a magic pendulum.
- Killjoy, a demonic clown who is summoned to assist revenge plots.
- Clownhouse, a slasher film in which three mental patients escape and stalk a young boy home from the circus dressed in clown costumes.
- Odd Bob the Clown, an antagonist in the Sarah Jane Adventures episode "The Day of the Clown", an evil alien clown based on the legendary Pied Piper of Hamelin who feeds on children's fears.
- Craig Russell's novel The Carnival Master, about the hunt for a clown who comes out every Cologne carnival to kill women.
- Shaco, The Demon Jester, a champion and playable character in League of Legends, an assassin of possible supernatural origin who has taken on the guise of a court jester.
- Sticky the Clown, a knife-wielding birthday entertainer seen in the beginning of the Married... with Children episode "Rites of Passage". His knife is seen stuck in the door of the now empty house in the closing scene.
- Piedmon, a mega-level Digimon from the Digimon franchise and one of the Dark Masters designed based on evil clowns.
- Donbalon, one of the bosses featured in NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams.
- Sideshow Bob, a clown on The Simpsons who constantly tries to kill Bart Simpson. Unlike traditional clowns, he does not wear any sort of make-up.
- The clowns from The Cabin in the Woods.
- Zombozo, a clown from Ben 10.
- Adam MacIntyre, a psychopathic clown from the Capcom video game Dead Rising. Also has a psychopathic brother with similar job role in Dead Rising 2: Off the Record called Evan MacIntyre.
- Edgar Ektor, a devil-looking clown character, the main antagonist in the Aero the Acro-Bat series of video games.
- Javier Granados as el payaso triste ("the sad clown") who metamorphoses into el payaso vengador ("the avenging clown") in The Last Circus.
- Dr. Giggles, a homicidal surgeon who dresses as a clown in the eponymous film.
- 4th Grade Class Clown Calvin, the one of 4th grade student in his true human form in Jumpstart 4th Grade: Haunted Island, who his 4th grade substitute teacher Mrs. Grunkle has transformed into an evil clown as his monstrous form.
- Shang Tsung, the one of the player characters in Mortal Kombat, who takes a shape of an evil clown during his usage of his fatality move on opponent, which parodies The Joker's first fatality move from Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.
- An Evil Firefighter Clown in The Brave Little Toaster, who briefly appears in the Toaster's nightmarish vision where he hoses him as his victim into the water.
- Dimentio, the true main antagonist of Super Paper Mario. Like Kefka above, he is a psychopath with the outfit and mannerisms of an insane jester.
- With his distinctive appearance, surreal feats of magic, and behavior that is simultaneously comedic and menacing, the Tim Burton character Beetlejuice can be considered a manifestation of this theme.
- One of the minor characters from The Nightmare Before Christmas is a clown, seemingly bound to his tiny unicycle, with razor-sharp teeth and the signature ability to tear off his face, revealing a black void within. Like most residents of Halloweentown, he is frightening, but not evil.
- Malcolm the Jester is arguably the main character of the Legend of Kyrandia computer game trilogy - he is the antagonist of the first game, wielding vast magical power to cause wanton destruction for his own amusement, or to toy with and torment the protagonist and his allies in ways that are often elegant in their subtle terror (such as turning someone to stone with the exception of their eyes). Though the first game ends with his defeat, he is mentioned in the second game, and in the third game he returns as the protagonist - gone are his magical powers, so he relies on more mundane talents of mischief, manipulation, and skills befitting a royal jester to make his way in the world, and it is revealed that while he is an imbalanced and misanthropic trickster, he is not actually the fiendish villain he seemed in the first game.
- Poe, Edgar Allan, "Hop-Frog" (1849)
- Morgan, Jack (2002). The biology of horror: gothic literature and film. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 41–42. ISBN 978-0809324712.
- Mendès, Catulle (1904). La femme de Tabarin: Tragi-parade. Librairie Charpentier et Fasquelle. pp. 1–34.
- Dryden, Konrad (2007). Leoncavallo: Life and Works. Plymouth, UK: The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-5880-0.
- Sullivan, Terry; Maiken, Peter T. (2000). Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders. New York City: Pinnacle. ISBN 0-7860-1422-9. OCLC 156783287.
- Durwin, Joseph (15 November 2004). 3. "Coulrophobia and the Trickster". Trickster's Way (San Antonio: Trinity University) 3 (1). ISSN 1538-9030. Retrieved 2 January 2013.
- "Health | Hospital clown images 'too scary'". BBC News. 2008-01-15. Retrieved 2011-07-05.
- Rohrer, Finlo (2008-01-16). "Why are clowns scary?". BBC News.
- "Trinity.edu". Trinity.edu. Retrieved 2011-07-05.
- Dery, Mark (1999). The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink. California: Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3670-2.
- "The Clown as the Lord of Disorder". Theology Today, October 1967. Retrieved 2012-01-02.
- Newsstand on-sale date April 25, 1940 per: "The first ad for Batman #1". DC Comics. Retrieved 2006-10-23.
- King, Stephen (1986). It. New York City: Viking Press. ISBN 0-451-16951-4.