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The evil clown is a subversion of the traditional comic clown character, in which the playful trope is instead rendered as disturbing through the use of horror elements and dark humor. The modern archetype of the evil clown was popularized by Stephen King's 1986 novel It. The character can be seen as playing off the sense of unease felt by sufferers of coulrophobia.
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, published in 1986, which became the first to introduce the fear of an evil clown to a modern audience. In the novel, the eponymous character is a pan-dimensional monster which feeds mainly on children by luring them in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown and then assuming the shape of whatever the victim fears the most. Another one of the first appearances of the concept is that of John Wayne Gacy, an American serial killer and rapist arrested in 1978, who became known as the Killer Clown after it was discovered he had performed as Pogo the Clown at children's parties and other events; however, Gacy did not actually commit his crimes while wearing his clown costume.
The evil clown archetype plays strongly off the sense of dislike it caused to inherent elements of coulrophobia; however, it has been suggested by Joseph Durwin that the concept of evil clowns has 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 dislike of clowns makes them effective in a literary or fictional context, as the antagonistic threat perceived in clowns is desirable in a villainous character.
Researcher Ben Radford, who published Bad Clowns in 2016 and is regarded as an expert on the phenomenon, writes that looking throughout history clowns are seen as trickers, fools, and more; however, they always are in control, speak their minds, and can get away with doing so. When writing the book Bad Clowns, Radford found that professional clowns are not generally fond of the bad-clown (or evil-clown) persona. They see them as "the rotten apple in the barrel, whose ugly sight and smell casts suspicion on the rest of them," and do not wish to encourage or propagate coulrophobia. Yet, as Radford discovered, bad clowns have existed throughout history: Harlequin, the King's fool, and Mr. Punch. Radford argues that bad clowns have the "ability to change with the times" and that modern bad clowns have evolved into Internet trolls. They may not wear clown costume but, nevertheless, engage with people for their own amusement, abuse, tease and speak what they think of as the "truth" much like the court jester and "dip clowns" do using "human foibles" against their victims. Radford states that, although bad clowns permeate the media in movies, TV, music, comics, and more, the "good clowns" outnumber the bad ones. Research shows that most people do not fear clowns but actually love them and that bad clowns are "the exception, not the rule."
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".
Urban legends and incidents
Researcher Ben Radford, looking at the phenomenon of bad clowns throughout history, writes that clowns are seen as trickers, fools, and more; however, they always are in control, speak their minds, and can get away with doing so. When writing the book Bad Clowns, Radford found that professional clowns are not generally fond of the bad-clown persona. They see them as "the rotten apple in the barrel, whose ugly sight and smell casts suspicion on the rest of them," and do not wish to encourage or propagate coulrophobia. Yet, as Radford discovered, bad clowns have existed throughout history: Harlequin, the King's fool, and Mr. Punch. Radford argues that bad clowns have the "ability to change with the times" and that modern bad clowns have evolved into Internet trolls. They may not wear clown costume but, nevertheless, engage with people for their own amusement, abuse, tease and speak what they think of as the "truth" much like the court jester and "dip clowns" do using "human foibles" against their victims. Radford states that, although bad clowns permeate the media in movies, TV, music, comics, and more, the "good clowns" outnumber the bad ones. Research shows that most people do not fear clowns but actually love them and that bad clowns are "the exception, not the rule."
The related urban legend of evil clown sightings in real life is known as "phantom clowns". First reported in 1981 in Brookline, Massachusetts, children said that men dressed up as clowns had attempted to lure them into a van. The panic spread throughout the US in the Midwest and Northeast. It resurfaced in 1985 in Phoenix, Arizona; in 1991 in West Orange, New Jersey; and 1995 in Honduras. Later sightings included Chicago, Illinois, in 2008. Explanations for the phenomenon have ranged from Stephen King's book It and the crimes of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, to a moral panic influenced by contemporaneous fears of Satanic ritual abuse. It also shows similarities to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. No adult or police officer has ever seen the evil clowns, though a prankster called the "Northampton Clown" has been cited as a real-life example of an evil clown.
Murder of Marlene Warren
On 26 May 1990, in Wellington, Florida, Marlene Warren opened her front door to a brown-eyed clown bearing flowers and balloons. The clown shot her in the face, drove off in a white Chrysler LeBaron and was never seen again; Warren died two days later. Her murder remained unsolved until 2017, when police arrested a woman named Sheila (Keen) Warren for the murder. Sheila Warren had married Marlene Warren's widower, Michael Warren, in 2002.
In recent years, the "evil clown" phenomenon has been trending and growing. While most of these clown sightings have been harmless, there have been suspicious activities and others have been led to attacks and arrest. In 2013 in England, the Northampton Clown appeared on the scene terrorizing the town. The work of three local filmmakers, Alex Powell, Elliot Simpson and Luke Ubanski, the Northampton clown shares similar looks to Pennywise the Dancing Clown from the Stephen King novel It. Although rumors said that the clown may have a knife, the clown himself denied these rumors through social media. In March 2014, Matteo Moroni from Perugia, Italy, owner of YouTube channel DM Pranks, began dressing up as a killer clown and terrifying unsuspecting passers-by, with his videos racking up hundreds of millions of views.
In 2014, the phenomenon moved to the United States, when the Wasco clown showed up in social media in California. Again this clown would shared similar resemblance to Pennywise. During an interview with the Wasco clown, it was revealed that the social media postings are part of a year-long photography project conducted by his wife. While the original Wasco clown was merely a project and for fun, other copycats also started appear and in some cases with weapons.
In 2015, starting in the summer, clown sightings began to appear again. In late July, a "creepy" clown was seen around a local cemetery in Chicago and terrorizing anyone in the graveyard.
In 2016, the first sighting of the "killer clowns" was in 19 August in Greenville, South Carolina by a little boy who told his mother that two clowns tried to lure him into the woods. After this appeared in the news, the sightings of these clowns spread throughout the country.
Response to evil clowns in media
In 2014, Clowns of America International responded to the depiction of Twisty on American Horror Story, and evil clowns in media generally. President Glenn Kohlberger said, "Hollywood makes money sensationalizing the norm. They can take any situation no matter how good or pure and turn it into a nightmare. ... We do not support in any way, shape or form any medium that sensationalizes or adds to coulrophobia or 'clown fear.'"
- The Joker, the nemesis of Batman, whose key features are chalk-white skin, emerald-green hair, ruby-red lips and a permanent smile. He is commonly depicted as a criminal mastermind, as well as a sadistic and murderous psychopath. The character is also known by several nicknames, including "the Clown Prince of Crime".
- The 2014 film Theatre Of Fear, directed by Andrew Jones featured a murderous clown character played by Nathan Head.
- The 1982 film Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Steven Spielberg, along with the 2015 remake of the same name directed by Gil Kenan, feature a possessed clown doll.
- Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the main antagonist in Stephen King's 1986 horror novel It and its 1990 television adaptation, in which he is portrayed by Tim Curry. The character is portrayed by Bill Skarsgård in the 2017 film adaptation.
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- The most famous professional wrestling depiction of an evil clown was Doink the Clown, a persona originated in 1992 by professional wrestler Matt Osborne in the World Wrestling Federation. Originally, the gimmick was that of a sadistic, evil clown, playing cruel tricks on fans and wrestlers to amuse himself and put them off guard; to help gain heat for the character, he was placed in a storyline feud with Crush, wherein Doink, after faking an injury, sneak-attacked Crush with a loaded prosthetic arm. The evil clown gimmick would be dropped later in 1993 as he turned face.
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