How many people do you know that love clowns? The answer probably ranges from “very few” to “none at all.” No offense to anyone out there who loves clowns — we don’t have anything against them — but it’s hard to deny that as iconic as clowns are in pop culture, they aren’t all that well liked. In fact, clowns are more well known today as horror characters than anything else. There’s something about seeing a person dressed in something so stereotypically joyful and kid-friendly that has always felt off and creepy to us in the right setting, and we know we aren’t alone. Just type “clowns” into Google, and some of the first images that come up are unsettling, right alongside the jovial traditional clowns. Countless authors, animators, and filmmakers have taken full advantage of that feeling to give us nightmares for the rest of our lives, and today we want to shed some light on the most important evil clowns throughout history.
While the origins aren’t totally clear, some of the earliest examples of an evil clown in the zeitgeist can be found in the late 19th century. In Italy, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci (Italian for “Clowns”) featured a clown walking in on his wife having an affair and killing the adulterers. The grieving clown bemoans that it is his job to make the audience laugh, when inside he feels so devastated. The opera's use of irony demonstrates that the subversive nature of an evil clown was something that would be generally understood by audiences at the time. What’s more, a lesser-known French play from a few years earlier, La femme de Tabarin, also contains the same plot (playwright Catulle Mendès has accused Leoncavallo of plagiarism).
There were some small examples of evil clowns to follow, but there is really only one of note in their early cultural history. The Man Who Laughs, a 1928 silent film that is incredibly influential on the subgenre, despite not featuring a single clown. The film is about a cruel king who orders a disrespectful nobleman killed, and his son to have a permanent happy expression carved into his face. As the young boy grows into an embittered nobleman himself, he is filled with an all-consuming rage and bloodlust towards the king. He silently plots his revenge, but no one can tell because on the outside, all they can see is a smile. The look of the character is very clown-like, with scars reminiscent of makeup. In the tradition of creepy clowns, his smile also contradicts his true nature.
Despite being almost 100 years old, the image of the character is disconcerting to this day and is a major influence on the Batman villain the Joker. Whether you’re into superheroes or not, you’re likely familiar with the Joker, simply because he is so celebrated. While who created him, and when, is infamously debated by Batman’s writers to this day, his sarcastically chipper demeanor has perfectly contrasted the seriousness of the caped crusader since the early 1940’s. Believe it or not, the Joker was a completely comedic villain in earlier interpretations, an image that lasted well into the 1970’s. 80s writers like Frank Miller redefined Batman’s image with comics like The Dark Knight Returns, which revitalized the Joker as the sadistically acerbic antagonist that we are familiar with today. As Batman has become darker over time, we’ve seen some truly disturbing portrayals of the clown prince of crime, including Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight and Mark Hamill in countless voice roles. Who would've thought that the guy who played Luke Skywalker would make such a great evil clown?
After the Joker rose to prominence, evil clowns started to become more popular, purely as a piece of pop culture iconography. In the ensuing, decades horror related media centered around clowns became more popular. The two must watches from this era are Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Blood Harvest. The former is worth it just for its incredibly surreal production design and special effects, with some of the most imaginative evil clown antics ever put to screen. Blood Harvest on the other hand, is a grimy, low budget slasher about a series of murders in a small-town centering around a disturbed clown, the Marvelous Mervo. The film plays out like a standard slasher in every way, except for Mervo, played by Tiny Tim of all people. He brings a level of mesmerizing vulnerability to the role that makes it worth watching purely for his performance.
Of course, no discussion of evil clowns would be complete without the most well-known evil clown in all of pop culture, Pennywise. Stephen King’s, It took having a fear of clowns to an entirely new level with Pennywise, the alien who kills and eats children. Using their fears as a way to pray on them, he primarily takes the form of a clown to torment a group of children into their adult lives. While he takes on many different appearances throughout the book, the clown is the most memorable and the most frequent. More than any other evil clown, Pennywise is instantly recognizable, to the point that even people who aren’t normally afraid of clowns shudder at the thought of him. His legacy also lives on in both the performances of Tim Curry in the television miniseries, and Bill Skarsgård in the two-part film adaptation, both terrifying in their own ways.
In recent years, there have been a whole host of evil clown related media, especially in movies. Our personal favorite is Rob Zombie’s Captain Spaulding from the Firefly series, played brilliantly by the late Sid Haig, but there are so many more. The 2014 film Clown features a low budget depiction of a man whose clown suit fuses into his body, and Terrifier is a old school slasher done in the modern day, with an amazing killer clown performance from David Howard Thornton. Fair warning; these can get pretty grisly. Evil clowns have not only endured in the pop culture consciousness, but they are more popular than ever. There are countless more examples that we haven’t been able to mention here, and if you love evil clowns as much as we do, we recommend you check them all out as soon as possible.
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