As a little girl, I loved going to the circus show “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The clowns were a must-see. Like everybody else watching the show, I would smile and applaud for the endless colorful scarf that came from the inside of their jackets and all the other slapstick humor that played out.
However, that playful image of clowns is almost completely obscured in many people’s minds. As they don’t remember the circus clowns from their childhood, the first notion of clowns that comes to mind is the grotesque killer clown depicted extensively in the media.
The line between the popularized killer clown and the circus clown has been blurred, and many people have not yet recognized how this negative perception of clowns have affected the professional clowning community.
The killer clown image has been recently fueled with the growing number of clown sightings. This gruesome trend started in many suburban communities in the southern United States in late August. Under the pretense of being clowns, people terrorized small towns. These terrorizers, most of the time teenagers, stand alone on a road at night dressed as killer clowns, often after publicly announcing on their Twitter or Instagram page that they will be “invading” a particular area.
Even if they are just pranksters and are disarmed (in most cases, they are), they nevertheless induce fear in the townspeople. These threats have caused massive riots and calls-to-arm and have caused many schools, especially in Florida, to go into lockdown.
However, today’s negative connotations and fear surrounding clowns do not trace far back into clowning history; they arose in the 1980s.
Famous movies such as Stephen King’s “It” (1990) played a large part in spreading the image of the psychotic, knife wielding monster clown. In the movie, Pennywise is a duplicitous clown who lures children into death traps. Many speculate that Pennywise inspired this trend of people terrorizing towns as clowns, since the first of these reports was a clown luring children into the woods in South Carolina.
More killer clown images have been perpetuated by recent blockbusters such as “The Dark Knight” (2008). The crazed clown, The Joker, is chased down by the hero, Batman. The Joker is known for his Glasgow smile, black rimmed eyes, wild green hair, and his creation of chaos.
Successful television franchises like “American Horror Story” do the same. In their 2014 Freakshow season, mentally-handicapped Twisty the Clown plays a serial killer, while wearing a terrifying mask only on the bottom-half of his face.
With the increasing usage of this horrifying depiction of clowns in the media and in the news, it is easy to say that it has not been a good year for clowns. The killer clown craze has not only taken its toll on these teenagers and towns in the south, but also on their polarized opposites too: professional circus clowns.
The recent terrorization has forced McDonald’s mascot Ronald McDonald to keep a low profile, and most of his booked appearances have been canceled. The backlash in the media also has caused many professional clowns to quit their jobs. Membership of the World Clown Association (WCA), an organization that serves as a union for professional clowns, has decreased by almost one-third from 2004 to 2014.
Before the American clown craze, clowns were not this alienated from society or seen as monsters. Family friendly clowns, such as Bozo the Clown in the interactive “The Bozo Show” (1960) and Clarabell in “Howdy Doody” (1960), were the popular image of clowns in the sixties. The image of friendly circus clowns does not show up in abundance today. Their hire for circus shows and birthday parties has gone down dramatically.
The decline in opportunities for clowns has instigated anger. President Glenn Kohlberger of Clowns of America International, a clown club similar to the WCA, asserts that they “do not support in any way, shape or form any medium that sensationalizes or adds to coulrophobia or ‘clown fear.’” And Shimko, a local clown from Canal Fulton, Ohio, pointed out, “Just because someone wears a rubber Halloween mask, that does not make one a clown.”
Circus clowns such as Shimko struggle to separate themselves from the people using clown masks as a scaring tool. The clowning industry is declining not only due to audience members feeling frightened and not wanting to see them anymore, but also to clowns themselves leaving due to media-driven disrespect.
Though it is hard for some to see the professional clowning community’s predicament as serious, it has to be recognized that future generations of young children will be surrounded by the false stigma of clowns being mass murderers or unstable. Professional clowns have long been an integral part of the entertainment industry and provided laughter during performances and social situations. The stigma should not deprive children of that experience.
It is not a requisite for all people to like clowns. But by respecting them, we can help preserve their jobs of entertaining kids at birthday parties and making children smile at least a little at the “Greatest Show on Earth,” like they did for me and many others in their childhood.