There’s a USPS ad on the teevee that features one of the great bogeymen of Popular Culture: the Evil Clown. The ad’s humor is based on the idea that people don’t find clowns funny; rather, they’re creepy. Turns out that this is a fairly popular sentiment.
Back in my Snot-Nose Days, I was never a particular fan of clowns… but neither was I terrified of them, as so many children apparently are. My dislike of circuses has more to do with my inability to enjoy the pong of elephant dung than it does my attitude toward clowns, but there are plenty of people out there, owing to Clown-Fear, who couldn’t be dragged to the Big Top by wild horses. (Which would make a fine circus act, come to think of it.)
Stephen King mined the Scary Clown lode pretty thoroughly in his 1986 novel It, a book that bears one of the more creative titles he has used over the years. I wasn’t all that impressed with It, which, to my taste, is not one of the stronger books in the King canon. But the image of Pennywise, the evil clown that lived in the storm drains, must have resonated with many readers.
“And we’ll have Tim Curry play him in the TV miniseries!”
Pennywise embodied generation upon generation of childish coulrophobia. Stephen King didn’t create that fear; he merely exploited it. Trotting out the Evil Clown in the service of popular entertainment was a way of acknowledging the essential truth of the stereotype.
When you see an army of clowns exiting a Volkswagen, do you laugh? Or do you think to yourself, “Damn, I wish I had thought to lock that car… and set it on fire. Now it’s too late.”
Another example. I like Robin Williams. He’s a brilliant comedian and a talented, multifaceted actor. But whenever I see a picture of the character he plays in Patch Adams (a doctor who wears a rubber clown nose in order to amuse the terminally ill patients under his care), I don’t think “Ewwww, excessively mawkish and sentimental.” I think, “Aggghhhh! A clown nose!” and I want to kick him until he bleeds from the eyeballs.
I first tasted of the Evil Power of the Clown back in the fall of 1981, when Elder Daughter (at the time, Only Daughter) was a mere seventeen months old. It was Hallowe’en, and we dressed her up in a set of Chinese silk pajamas that I had brought back from one of my trips to Hong Kong. She loved it.
Then I decided to becostume myself. This, alas, was a mistake.
I put on a white shirt and black pants. No problem. But then I put on whiteface, Marcel Marceau style, and committed the egregious error of letting Elder Daughter see me. She almost burst a blood vessel from shrieking in terror.
A few months later, the Missus was in the midst of vacuuming the house when she could hear Elder Daughter wailing. The child had been looking at magazines and had come upon an ad for a cosmetic mask, an ad that showed several women wearing goop on their faces… making them look an awful lot like Daddy did that horrible Hallowe’en night. Gaaaahhh!
To this day, mimes give Elder Daughter the willies…and I blame myself. [Of course, mimes give pretty much all rational people the willies, even educated mimes with degrees from the Colorado School of Mimes.]
Let’s face it: Most normal, rational people do not care much for clowns. Their attitudes toward these greasepainted buffoons range from a vague, mild sense of unease or discomfort to active, vitriolic loathing… but nary a one will see a clown and think, “I like that!” Or even, “I find this fellow with the greasepaint makeup, rubber proboscis, and flamboyantly colored Dynel wig amusing!”
Nevertheless, clowns do serve a purpose. Not to entertain, for almost nobody finds them entertaining. Imagine, though, that you are an employer, and you wish to screen prospective and/or current employees in order to avoid unfortunate situations such as the massacres at Fort Hood, Texas or at the Penske rental location in Kennesaw, Georgia. In short, you want to know whether your candidate is a head case.
All you have to do is administer a short psychological test, a test consisting of a single question:
“Do you like clowns?”
If the answer is yes, then you know that that person is a head case. Q.E.D.