The Sublime Tragedy of Being A Clown In October

Halloween, 2017.

This was the first year at our new house that we were receiving trick or treaters. The neighborhood itself was built just a year before, and we were among the first to move in. The streets were crowded with kids. Back at our old house we were lucky to get any doorbell rings. This year, I counted perhaps fifty kids.

The night was winding down, and I settled on my couch to watch TV. I had my phone connected to my SkyBell, though, as you do in today’s Big Brother world. I periodically checked my app to see if anyone was coming up to the door.

My last trick or treater was a very tall kid. Or maybe he was an adult? He was over six feet tall. He wore a clown mask with a white face and red shocks of hair above the ears, and the bodysuit was an alternating red and yellow. He was dressed as Pennywise the Clown: old school version as played by Tim Curry.

I got pretty excited when he rang the door, which I opened and went, “Hey, Pennywise!”

After I handed him my candy, I noticed a small group of high schoolers standing several feet away on the sidewalk. They were just watching. It occurred me a few seconds later that, perhaps, I was supposed to freak out coming face to face with this tall scary clown. Maybe they had their Snapchats all ready to film my reaction?  I could’ve been in the pictures, ma!

Maybe it would’ve worked if I wasn’t monitoring my SkyBell all night… and if I didn’t dress up as a clown several times throughout the year myself.

So yeah, I’m a clown, and I love scary clowns.

Scary clowns combine the whimsical and the grotesque to form a pleasing Tim Burton aesthetic. I gave my highest compliments to the several kids who dressed up as harlequins and jesters accentuated with dripping gore and knives for hands. I think the reason we were so glued about the scary clown stories from two years ago wasn’t because we thought someone got killed. It’s because we were a little titillated by the absurdity of it all. Scary clowns succeed in achieving a clowning core principle: to be entertaining.

Alas, I can never dress as a scary clown. After all, I am a card carrying member of the COAI (Clowns of America International), and I have the sublime tragedy of being a representative of an entire organization. Four years ago, then COAI president Glenn “Clyde D. Scope” Kohlberger went on the offensive.  He declared the following statement to the Hollywood Reporter: “We do not support in any way, shape or form any medium that sensationalizes or adds to coulrophobia or ‘clown fear.'” This was in response to Ryan Murphy and American Horror Story introducing a character called Twisty the Clown, a ghoulish character with a blown-out mouth. I don’t know, I’ve never seen the show.

Little did he know of the Clown Panic that would terrify the country just two years later. A 9-year-old boy from South Carolina reported to his mother that a clown had tried to lure him into the woods. By mid-October clown sightings had been reported in all 50 states and 19 other countries. Most sightings were unsubstantiated… but some were real and did lead to arrests. Clowns were in the news, and not for good reasons.

Suffice to say, many clowns are so over October.

As a result, clown organizations all over the country instituted an informal zero-tolerance policy on scary clowns. Don’t be seen associating with scary clowns. Do not endorse scary clowns. And worst of all… do NOT dress up as a scary clown. I once jokingly floated around the idea of perhaps volunteering as a scary clown to my clown alley (which is an old-timey name for a clown club), and man did I ever get death stares. To endorse the whole scary clown phenomena is tantamount to treason.

Priscilla Mooseburger is a former Ringling Brothers clown. That’s not her real name. Full disclosure: I buy my costumes from her, and they are highly recommended. Two months ago, she suggested combating scary clown images by clicking on positive images of clowns.

Step #1 May be a surprise to most of you: STOP CLICKING ON THEM.

I’m oversimplifying it, but that is the gist of the solution. The less you click on and share links that use negative creepy clown images, the lower the chances are that search engines will make them appear in results.  A news article may be well-written and help explain something GOOD about clowns fighting back against the evil stereotype, but if they use a scary clown as the thumbnail image, then resist sharing it!

Trick the Google SEO en masse by approving of pictures that aren’t scary, but are, rather, of fun clowns!  As of this writing, as I click through the #clown hashtag on my Instagram feed, I think it’s safe to say that this strategy has not worked at all.

However, the scary ones I think aren’t the ones that typically roll off of everyone’s tongues. If you notice, I followed Ms. Mooseburger’s recommendation to a T. This article contains no images of typical “scary clowns.” I will guarantee that many people on this site will not click on this post because they were spooked by the header image that shows a “non-scary” Russian clown troupe in whiteface.

I consider Pennywise, Twisty, and Captain Spaulding to all be tryhards.  The scariest clowns are oftentimes the ones who are trying to look friendly.  Like… why does this guy have a permanent grin on his face?  He doesn’t even know me.  Oh, no… he’s coming right at me.  What adult wears an outfit that makes him look like a baby, anyway?  Seriously, take a look at a picture of Lou Jacobs, a clown that is trying to be a friend to all children, and tell me honestly that you would be less afraid greeted by that mug than by, say, Bill Skarsgard made up to look like he’s going to perform at Cirque du Soleil.

Lou was, incidentally, the guy who invented the tiny clown car gag which he built from an old washing machine, so he’s sort of a big deal. Incidentally, here’s the reason his make-up is like that: even when your face is resting, your mouth is curled up in a smile, and the white around the eyes convey a look of surprise. It also exaggerates every movement. So when you furrow your brows, the lines follow and create a cartoony reaction. This look is called the “auguste.”

As the Decoder Ring podcast pointed out earlier this year, the current state of clown panic is a recent one that can be traced to around the mid-20th century. Clowns were making a transition from all audiences to being purely children’s entertainment. We have Bozo and his national franchise to thank for this. Since then, clowns have to always be dopey and smiling.  No indication of any other inner life.  Sure, there’s Emmett Kelly and his iconic sad hobo clown, but that more and more became an exception to the rule.

Of course, when the guy is always smiling, most people above the age of five come to the same conclusion: you figure this guy is hiding something.

Here’s where I have a problem with the official defenses clowns have been putting up in response to scary clowns: rather than questioning whether there’s anything wrong with their approach, it is, in fact, the WORLD that is wrong. Around the time of the clown panic was going on two years ago, I suggested to my fellow clowns that we needed to tone down our make-up, maybe just for this year. Some agreed. The most interesting response, though, came from a fellow who implied that if you give in to the fear then the terrorists have won! He wasn’t going to let some panic change his ways!

A part of me sympathized with him. There’s a style called “lite auguste” that has apparently caught on in Europe that goes light on the makeup. It was partly developed to downplay a clown’s grotesqueness. A few smudges above the eyes, some freckles, and a general drive to emphasize the human underneath. Think Robbie Rotten from LazyTown.

I hate it. I think it looks awful … on me anyway. Not on you, Stefan Karl Stefansson, may you rest in peace.  You had a team of expert make-up artists to make sure the look was just right for television.  Lite auguste feels incomplete and exposed. For a character that’s supposed to be always jolly, the lack of make-up does tend to reveal more frustration than layers of grease paint covers. And trust me… as someone who has done a six-hour straight stint of twisting balloon animals and dealing with upset parents, it’s very easy to get frazzled.

But this resistance to change is more detrimental than any clown fear. The artform has always been changing and never frozen in amber with rubber chickens and balloon animals. In many ways, change is the right thing to do! Only a few years ago, the official COAI calendar featured a performer whose character was a very racist Oriental stereotype.  He wore a fu-manchu mustache, oversized glasses, and big bucked teeth.  I think his act was intentionally mispronouncing “l”‘s with “r”‘s. Should he be told that this sort of thing is no longer inappropriate… or is this, too, letting the terrorists win?

I love looking at the evolution of Disney mascots. Early Mickey Mouse costumes look completely alien to us. Dare I say, terrifying. But Disney is savvy enough to know that times change. Those early Mickey costumes would, in fact, make wonderfully scary Halloween outfits. Modern versions are softer and gentler. I won’t say it won’t terrify kids. There will always be kids who are afraid of costumed mascots. But it’s undoubtedly an improvement.

Times change, and Disney changed with it. They didn’t rail how society was wrong to not embrace its early Mickey costume.

Maybe, rather than fight back like the COAI would like me to do, the right course of action is to acknowledge the fear and embrace it. Make it part of your repertoire. Become a sort of clown Batman… which honestly is rather perverse now that I type it out.

Think of this: the ones who are typically scared of clowns are usually older kids. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know why this is. Some clowns like to blame it on media for making it cool to be scared, but I think there’s something deeper. Such as starting to grow into adulthood and coming to the realization that not all grown-ups have your best interest at heart. ESPECIALLY the ones who are smiling and grinning all the time.

Younger kids, though… they’re generally not as scared. And there’s nothing as cool for the young kids that being more brave and mature than the older kids. So I build on that. And eventually, the older kids kinda feel silly for cringing at what is basically a dude with too much make-up. It doesn’t always work, but it does work more often than you think.

There’s going to be a Joker movie.  There’s going to be a sequel to It.  No amount of clicking onto positive clown images is going to change a thing.  And in the end, they’re all just scapegoats to be grumpy and bitter over. I could be wrong, though. Maybe that Decoder Ring podcast, which ultimately sympathizes with clown performers, is the first sign that the era of scary clowns is at an end.

I wouldn’t count on it.

As for you guys dressing up as scary clowns this year, take it from this regular, nominally non-scary variety: this clown finds you hilarious.