Just where is Ronald McDonald? Think about it. That clown with his jovial, good guy act that lured us into buying those billions of burgers served, has vanished. Nowhere to be seen. Where’s he hiding? What dark plan is he hatching?
You see, that's what someone like Stephen King has done to us with Pennywise the clown. He's made us distrustful of our modern day court jesters; those poor animal-from-balloon makers who were put here to do nothing more than to make us laugh. Except, maybe, for real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who used to dress up like a clown to entertain children while he was taking the lives of over 30 people. Or the psychosis of the Joker and Harley Quinn. Or, again, Pennywise, the source of nightmares created by King in his novel It, which has been adapted into the film being released on September 9th.
(Photo: John Wayne Gacy, via YouTube)
“What Stephen King did was he sort of brought back the evil, sinister side of clowns,” observes Benjamin Radford, author of Bad Clowns. “It’s been there for centuries, but King recognized that the default clown was the happy, good one. Of course the question is, because of the dual nature of the clown figure, you wonder, ‘Well, what’s actually gong on under that grease-painted face? What’s the clown thinking?’ That gets into why clowns are scary, and there’s a couple of reasons. One is, of course, that clowns are typically masked. Not all of them are. In fact, in Europe some clowns aren’t masked, but oftentimes they are. The mask serves a couple of purposes. One of them is, it allows the actor, the performer, to put on whatever face and whatever expression they want to. But it also provides a barrier. It provides anonymity.”
Frank T. McAndrew, Cornelia H. Dudley Professor Of Psychology at Knox College, who has achieved some fame for his writings on the nature of creepiness (including clowns), adds, “There are certain things we do on our social interactions with others to reassure them that we’re normal people who are going to play by the rules and do predictable things. Clowns are intentionally designed not to be that way. You can’t really read their facial expressions, because they’ve got the makeup on and they look like they’re happy, but are they really? By definition, clowns are mischievous. They play pranks, they play jokes, and so you never know what they’re going to do next, but you know that it might not be pleasant. If you’re at a circus, even if you’re not intimately involved with the clown yourself, you’re watching them pull somebody else out of the audience and you’re waiting to see what horrible thing is going to happen to them, right?”
Aaron Mirtes, writer/director of the new film Clowntergeist, comments, “Clowns fall into something called ‘the uncanny valley.’ Basically if something doesn’t look entirely human, then our brain freaks out. Like when we see creepy ultra-realistic robot wonky animated movies like The Polar Express, or weirdly realistic yet unrealistic paintings, some people’s brains have issues registering clowns as fully human. And for my own personal issues? Two words: Birthday Clown. Phew. I shudder thinking about it. I was a kid and don’t know why he freaked me out so much, but it left an impression on me.”
Bello Nock may have part of the answer for him. One of the clowns without makeup, the Florida-born Nock joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as their headliner in 2001 and toured for a total of 500 performances, bringing in a new era of stuntwork, which is something he excels at (and recently performed on America’s Got Talent).
“I didn’t like the stereotypes and restrictions that come with traditional makeup,” Bello explains. “My character is so much a reflection of my true personality that theatrical makeup always felt more appropriate. It makes me more relatable to an audience. But I find that immature clowns hurt the image of clowns at large by being overly animated and invasive. They assume that just because they are in makeup and in costume, they can come right up to a child or audience member. With children, I always kneel down to their eye level and let them come to me. Imagine being a little person and having this adult in full makeup and a bright costume come up to you and start acting too familiar. What sets any great performer apart from the rest is knowing how to develop a relationship and rapport with the audience.”
“In the circus,” notes McAndrew, “they have an excuse for existing. But even there, you know that they’re going to be mischievous, but there are rules. You know they’re not going to murder anybody in the circus. It’s part of their act. When you see somebody who’s really violating social norms by standing under a streetlight on a country road late at night, or walking around in a cemetery, that really spooks you, because it’s totally inappropriate.”
“We like clowns in very specific contexts,” Radford agrees. “As long as a clown stays where he’s supposed to be — in the backyard making balloon animals, in the circus and having 15 of your buddies coming out of a tiny car — we’re fine with them. It’s when we see clowns out of the socially-accepted context that they’re a problem. They’re knocking on your door at 10:00 at night? Not okay.”
(Photo: Warner Bros)
But what is, he points out, are the dark fictional clowns (along with Gacy) who have captured the public’s imagination. “The Joker and Harley Quinn are probably the world’s best known fictional clowns, with Pennywise coming in right behind them,” he says. “That’s a perfect example of the appeal of the clown character. There is the yin and the yang, the good and the bad. On one hand we have this figure that’s supposed to be happy and cute and funny and playing tricks, but then the sinister side to it, of course, is the Joker killing people. Or Gacy killing people in real life. That psychological tension makes for a fascinating character.”
As to the frenzy that has been building for Pennywise and It, he believes much of it comes from the 1991 TV miniseries based on the novel and Tim Curry’s portrayal of the evil force that is personified as a clown to lure children to their deaths. “It was something that was accessible in living rooms across the country,” Radford says, “and because of that, it scared the shit out of everybody. People in their ‘40s remember being scared shitless by Pennywise all those years ago, and the marketing company knows that. They’re doing a great job of teasing it, which is why as soon as they’ve had scary images of the new Pennywise, they issued a press release.”
But to be fair, clowns can probably use some good PR themselves. It’s not always easy wearing floppy shoes, wacky hair and big red noses, you know.
Nock comments, “For the purpose of storytelling, many movies, plays and video games hide their villain behind a clown character. That has led to negative connotations and stereotypes. And also, there are far too many people with too little talent who think that if you just put on makeup and a costume, you’re a clown. A clown isn’t made by a costume and makeup. Clowning is an art form. And when it’s done well, it’s powerful and universal. Unfortunately, there’s more quantity than quality out there.”
Would that explain what’s happened to the previously-mentioned Ronald McDonald? “I don’t think the character has been formerly discontinued,” muses Radford. “I just think that McDonald’s has had him laying low the last year or two, because before Halloween last year there was a huge clown panic all over the place. And McDonald’s was probably, like, ‘You know what? Maybe this isn’t the best time for Ronald to be opening a new restaurant in Topeka.”
Of course, if there is anyone who should be in fear of clowns, it’s McAndrew, who has been taken to task by them for his widespread writings on their creepiness. “I get angry voicemails from clowns,” he emphasizes. “I’m held responsible for ruining their careers. They’ve even gone so far as to call the president of my college to try and get me fired. I’ve been harassed on all kinds of social media where they just rant and rave and denigrate me — all in an attempt to show me that they’re not creepy.
“I live in terror,” he closes, “of this little car pulling up in front of my house and 15 guys getting out of it with pies in their hands.”
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