Clowns hold a confusing place in the human psyche. They make some people laugh, they make some people cry and they make some people scream in horror. Even their depiction in movies and on television protrays them as some sort of jovial yet creepy character. Most recently, American Horror Story: Freakshow jumped on the scary clown train, portraying a clown in such a negative way that the series is being heavily criticized by Clowns America International. So we asked ourselves: What is it about these painted people that terrify us so?
It turns out that history may have an answer.
Clowns date back to ancient Egypt, but they eventually evolved into the court jesters we associate with the Middle Ages. These jokesters were paid to be funny and did whatever it took to make people laugh.
However, the painted faces of modern clowns didn't arrive until the 1800s when Joseph Grimaldi, a London clown, painted his face white and his cheeks red and wore strange and colorful costumes.
At this time, though, clowns were still adult entertainment, and their acts were often crude and not child-friendly. Although Grimaldi's clown life was hilarious, his life behind the makeup was anything but funny.
"Grimaldi had a terrible life outside of the theater," says writer Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. "His father was an alcoholic and a tyrant, and his wife died in childbirth; his son died an alcoholic at 31; he himself died penniless and alcoholic."
Meanwhile, in France, Jean-Gaspard Deburau became famous for creating a clown called Pierrot, also white-faced, with black eyebrows and red lips. However, Deburau's mime act wasn't what made him famous: after a boy taunted him, he killed the child with a cane. Although he was eventually acquitted of the crime, that image stayed in people's minds: that of the killer clown.
Perhaps Deburau's life inspired a popular Italian opera called Pagliacci (the word for clown in Italian) in the late 1800s. In that story, a clown murders his wife. This is perhaps the first example of the killer clown in entertainment.
In the 1800s, clowns became popular in circuses, but even then, they inspired terror in the hearts of spectators. French literary critic Edmond de Congourt once described their act as "reminding one of the courtyard of a lunatic asylum."
Eventually, though, clowns became known for entertaining children. Seemingly harmless versions of clowns popped up everywhere, from Bozo to Ronald McDonald. Kids embraced these characters and loved them, and the remembrance of killer clowns almost faded away.
However, as with many things, one bad apple spoiled the whole crop. In the 1970s, a clown called Pogo, otherwise known as John Wayne Gacy, was found guilty for the sexual assault and murder of more than 35 men. When asked about his crimes, Gacy reportedly said, "You know...clowns can get away with murder."
It's those images of the depressed, alcoholic and murderous clowns, that stayed in the public consciousness. So it's no surprise that so many horror movies and television series have been dedicated to clowns terrorizing the general public. Books, such as Stephen King's It, also jumped on the bandwagon, and the resulting television miniseries with Tim Curry's portrayal of Pennywise still gives many of us nightmares.
So it seems like a few bad seeds influenced the public's collective memory on clowns and it's these horrifying clowns that stay with us much longer than those that make us laugh.