A History Of Creepy Clowns: Why Are They So Creepy?

Buttontree Lane, Flickr Creative Commons

There’s been this bizarre trend lately of people walking around dressed as creepy clowns trying to freak people out. It’s not clear how widespread the trend is, but for some people it’s really unsettling.

What is the history of creepy clowns? Where did this all come from?

A culture reporter from the BBC decided to look into the history of the creepy, and sometimes murderous, clown.

Fiona MacDonald begins in her article, “A Surprising History of the Creepy Clown“:

Day after day he sat before the mirror, brush in hand, marking his features, wiping them clean, and starting again, until finally a face emerged from the candlelight that bore a grin so incendiary it refused to be erased,” writes Andrew McConnell Stott in his acclaimed biography The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi.

It began with a thick foundation of greasepaint, applied to every exposed inch of face, neck and chest… He fixed it with a cloud of powder, then painted a blood-red wound, a mile-wide smear of jam, to form the gaping, gluttonous cavern of a mouth. The eyes, wide and rolling, were arched by thick brows… each cheek received a red chevron that conveyed insolently rude health while being simultaneously suggestive of some exotic beast of Hindu demonology.”

As a description of a mask, it is disturbing. As a description of the modern clown, it is insightful: when these purveyors of mayhem moved from the stage to the circus ring, they continued to be as unsettling as they were amusing.

It turns out that the idea goes way back to Ancient Rome,” MacDonald tells Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson.

MacDonald says clowns have popped up in various ways throughout history, including in theater and for other entertainment. And often, she says, that entertainment was mean-spirited, morbid, and cruel.

When I looked into it, I found that clowns have always been ambiguous figures. They’re not just these harmless jokesters we see them as today,” she says.

What do you think of this new resurgence of creepy clowns in our popular culture? Do clowns freak you out?

To hear more about the history of creep clowns with MacDonald on Detroit Today, click on the audio player above.

Image credit: Buttontree Lane, Flickr Creative Commons

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Detroit Today

Dynamic and diverse voices. News, politics, community and the issues that define our region. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson, Detroit Today brings you fresh and perceptive views weekdays at 9 am and 7 pm.


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