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coulrophobia:                  the intense fear of clowns
scary clowns in media
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, 1836: Dickens was possibly the inventor of the 'creepy clown', as evidenced by chapter 3, 'The Stroller's Tale'. Dicken's portrayed a clown with a broken-down body from constant performances and drinking that was in part based on the son of Joseph Grimaldi (known as the father of modern clowning) who attempted to carry on his dad's legacy. this portrayal of clowns was uncomfortably eye-opening, juxtaposing the public's view of clowns as jovial and entertaining with the unsettling reality that most of these clowns were suffering with alcoholism and other mental/physical health issues due to the travelling circus life. it's also important to note that Dickens was tasked with editing Grimaldi's memoir, in which he attempted to shed light on how truly sad his life had been. Grimaldi grew up with an abusive father, lost his first wife to childbirth, lost his son (mentioned earlier) to alcoholism at the age of 31, unsurprisingly suffered from depression, and was disabled from all of the stunts he had to perform.
Hop-Frog by Edgar Allen Poe, 1849: this short story was published the same year that Poe later died. if you would like to read it in full, you can do so here. to sum up, it follows a king and his physically deformed jester whom he names 'Hop Frog' because the way his disabilities cause him to hobble. Hop Frog grows close to another slave, a girl named Trippetta with dwarfism who is made to dance for the king. the king in this story is very unkind to the people he keeps for his amusement and, one day while forcing Hop Frog to drink for him and his court to laugh at, the king pushes Trippetta to the ground and throws wine in her face when she tries to defend her friend. this enrages Hop Frog and he comes up with a plan to seek revenge on the king and his ministers. he tricks them into participating in a jest about orangutans, proceeding to tar them and cover them in flax. he then strings them all up and sets them on fire in plain view of the king's guests, escaping with Trippetta and never being seen again.
Tabarin by Paul Ferrier, 1875: this French play follows a group of street actors including Tabarin, a fool who drinks too much, and his wife, Francisquine, who is getting fed up with him. another member of the troupe gives tells Tabarin that he has made a love potion, which he is skeptical of and takes a small sip. as one of their plays commences, another actor asks Francisquine to run away with him. Tabarin realizes that they're not acting and that she is actually considering it, so he attempts to end the play but is laughed at by the audience and starts to cry. thankfully, his wife returns to him and he assumes the love potion must have worked. nothing horrific happened in this play, but it certainly inspired the following plays that provide a twist on the story.
La Femme de Tabarin by Catulle Mendes, 1887: this is another French play that's premise is very similar to Ferrier's, but minus the love potion and adding a more tragic finale. in this iteration, Tabarin finds his wife in the arms of a soldier and rather than breaking down in tears, he asks a member of the audience for a sword that he uses to kill Francisquine. she stumbles toward him and smears blood on his face. the audience assumes that this is part of the play until someone tries to offer Francisquine flowers and realizes she's actually dead.
Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo, 1892: this Italian opera's title simply translates to 'clowns'. it tells the story of a man named Canio who is the leader of a commedia del'arte troupe. he finds out that his wife, Nedda, is having an affair with another man in the troupe named Silvio. Canio goes on to kill both of them in front of the audience in the middle of a performance. since the story involves a clown, a play-within-a-play, and a love triangle motivated murder, it came under fire by Mendes for plagiarizism as soon as French translations of Pagliacci started production. somewhat hypocritical, considering Mendes' own play was heavily based on Ferrier's earlier work.
He Who Gets Slapped by Leonid Andreyev, 1915: this is a russian play that follows 'He', a clown who has joined a circus and has an act where he gets slapped repeatedly. He does this because he ran away from a failing marriage and feels like he deserves endless punishment. he ends up falling in love with Consuelo, a horserider in the circus and the daughter of a Count. a man arrives to the circus and turns out to be his old friend who was now married to He's wife and has a son with her. this obviously deeply upsets him, and to add even more to his stife, the Count decided to marry Consuelo off to a Baron. He attempts to end their engagement but fails, so in a desparate attempt to have her all to himself, He poisons and kills her. the Count ends up killing himself due to grief and He feels so guilty that he eventually drinks the poison and ends his life as well. the play was later adapted into an American silent film in 1924.
The Man Who Laughs directed by Paul Leni, 1928: this American silent film, although based on a novel of the same name by Victor Hugo in 1869, popularized the story and is what comes to mind for most people when they hear the title. the plot is pretty complicated but to try to sum up, it follows a man named Gwynplaine whose face is disfigured into a permanent smile and was taken in by a showman and is now a travelling performer. he's in love with a blind girl named Dea, but as he has extremely low confidence due to his disfigurement and the fact that audiences call him 'the laughing man', he feels unable to pursue her. after seeing Gwynplaine perform, a Dutchess is disturbed but also oddly aroused and asks to meet him. he comes to see her but she laughs at the thought of actually being with him, so he runs away. a lot more happens but eventually he is reunited with Dea and has a happy ending. the main reason this film is somewhat considered horror is because of the depiction of Gwynplaine's face since nothing too horrific happens.
Laugh, Clown, Laugh directed by Herbert Brenon, 1928: this American silent film is about Tito, a circus clown, who starts to fall in love with his adopted daughter, Simonetta, when she physically matures. he grapples with guilt about this because he knows it's immoral to have such feelings for his own daughter. despite this, he grows horribly jealous when Simonetta accepts a marriage proposal from a man named Luigi. she inevitably finds out about Tito's feelings for her and breaks off her engagement, telling Tito she feels the same for him. instead of feeling relieved, Tito is still tortured with conflicting thoughts and starts to worry that Simonetta only stayed with him out of pity and that his love is still unrequited. despite being warned not to, Tito recklessly decides to walk the highwire without protection and falls to his death, leaving his daughter to marry Lugigi.
The Day the Clown Cried directed by Jerry Lewis, 1972: if you're interested in 'lost media', you've likely heard about this film; i'm including it in early works because it's similar to the previous ones in that it's more tragic than it is scary. it was based on a screenplay by Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton and has never been released. the plot follows Helmut Doork, a washed-up circus clown who was sent to a contentration camp after drunkenly joking about Hitler. he has an awful time in the camp but realizes he can at least help some of the Jewish children smile and laugh, which the guards forbid him from doing. he continues his little performances for the children despite being beaten severely by the guards and is eventually punished by being made to entertain the children right before they enter the gas chambers. this drives Doork mad and he eventually decides to enter the chamber as well, holding the hand of a small girl. Lewis donated an unfinished copy of the film to the Library of Congress with the stipulation that is not be shown until June 2024, when they plan screen it at their Audio Visual Conservation campus in Culpeper, Virginia.
scary clowns in modern film
1970's - 1980's
The Clown Murders directed by Martyn Burke, 1976: this Canadian movie was actually one of the first movies that John Candy can be seen in and i was surprised i had never even heard of it. the plot follows a group of guys who decide to dress up as clowns and kidnap the wife of a business man in order to sabotage a land deal. they intended it to be a prank but that turns sour, and on top of that, they realize they are being stalked by an actual murderous clown. apparently (and probably why i'd never heard of the film) nobody really liked it; the featured review on IMDB says, 'This film is one that was made to be forgotten.' it is interesting to note that it predates Gacy's arrest, so unlike a lot of the other clown-focused horror movies that came after it, the infamous serial murder case didn't have an influence on the writing of the script.
Halloween directed by John Carpenter, 1978: everyone who likes horror already knows the plot of this movie considering it's one of the most iconic slashers and the franchise is still pumping out movies, so i'm not going to go over it. the reason it's notable here is that young Michael Myers was wearing a clown outfit and mask the Halloween night he murdered his sister. he didn't end up sticking with the clown get-up, though, instead preferring to dress up like William Shatner in a mechanic's uniform while he continued the killings.
Poltergeist directed by Tobe Hooper, 1982: if kids at the time weren't already having nightmares about clowns, they certainly were after watching this film. it follows a family whose house is haunted, leading to some inanimate objects 'coming to life'. this includes a clown doll with very long limbs that attacks and tries to kill the young son. this scene was so iconic, in fact, that it was also used in the crappy 2015 remake. if you somehow haven't already seen the original Poltergeist, then i would definitely suggest that you add it to your watch list.
The House on Sorority Row directed by Mark Rosman, 1983: this slasher movie depicts a group of sorority girls who 'accidentally' kill their house mother during a 'prank' as punishment for her being so strict and harsh on them. they throw the house mother's cane in the pool outside and hold her at gunpoint, telling her to go get her cane. after a while the girls think that she has drown one of them and shoots the body, only to realize she wasn't actually dead. the girls try to help her but she dies from the gunshot wound. they leave the body at the bottom of the pool and decide to deal with it later because, of course, they've planned to have a party! someone starts to stab people with the house mother's cane, which leads them to believe she must still be alive. typical slasher shenanigans ensue (i have to mention, though, that one of the girls' severed heads was put in the toilet bowl, which i got a chuckle out of). the protagonist finds out that the house mother had a reclusive son who suffered from birth defects, and he's killing the girls to avenge his mom. what does any of this have to do with clowns, you ask? the killer decides to wear a full jester costume including a mask, but... only in the final scene? thematically it made no sense, but i wish they would have just fully committed and made this his outfit the entire movie.
Slaughter High directed by George Dugdale, Mark Ezra and Peter Litten, 1986: here's another 80's slasher that probably isn't that good! it surrounds a group of shitty high schoolers who 'accidentally' disfigure their nerdy classmate named Marty with acid due to a prank. when they all return for their 10 year high school reunion, they start to get killed off by a masked killer wearing a jester mask, the exact same disguise used by one of them during the prank years earlier. of course, the killer turns out to be Marty in the end.
Funland directed by Michael A. Simpson, 1987: the plot of this film follows a mentally unstable clown with who loses his job at the Funland amusement park after the mob kills the owner and takes over the park. he has vivid hallucinations and has the delusion that he actually is his clown persona, 'Bruce Burger'. considering that he was a founding member of the park and very close to the late owner, being fired causes him to completely snap. he decides to go to the park and kill whoever gets in the way of him reclaiming it. apparently there is a happy ending, as 'Bruce Burger' ends up owning and running the park. nobody seems to think that it's good, but certainly an entertaining 80's 'slasher'. plus, it's kinda cool to note that it was filmed in Six Flags Over Georgia.
Blood Harvest directed by Bill Rebane, 1987: the most notable thing about this movie is that it stars Tiny Tim as the clown-faced killer. apparently the director saw him perform at a beer fest and came up with the idea for the film. it follows the young daughter of a well-hated banker who returns home from college to find her parents missing and the house trashed. to make matters worse, her ex boyfriend is trying to get back with her and all of her friends start going missing as well. it turns out that, shocker, the killer is her ex's brother who wears clown makeup that had been creepily walking around the small town and her family's farm. the movie had a limited theatrical release and most people don't seem to like it aside from Tiny Tim's performance.
The Brave Little Toaster directed by Jerry Rees, 1987: if you didn't watch this movie as a kid, you were spared the terror of the demonic fire-fighter clown. this kid's animated movie already has a pretty sad premise, but this scene in particular was sure to give you nightmares (especially considering it is from a nightmare). nothing much else to say about it, aside from that i have no idea why such a terrifyingly surreal scene was used in a movie for children.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space directed by Stephen Chiodo, 1988: this cult classic horror comedy film is about, you guessed it, a group of killer alien clowns from space. after seeing what appeared to be a comet crash into the woods, a local man goes to investigate and finds a huge circus tent set up and is subsequently captured by the clowns. a young couple also happened to see the comet and go to check it out and, horrified to find the man's dead body in a cotton candy coccoon inside the circus tent. they manage to escape but aren't taken very seriously until other townspeople start to be terrorized and killed by the clowns. the protagonists manage to survive and fight off the clowns, who ultimately retreat back to space. this movie is filled with a lot of great practical effects and is genuinely pretty entertaining, so if you haven't given it a watch, you definitely should.
Clownhouse directed by Victor Salva, 1989: this slasher movie follows a young boy with an intense fear of clowns and his two brothers who convince him to go to the circus with them anyway. casey's fears take physical form, as unknown to everyone, three homicidal psychiatric patients escape their facility and kill a trio of clowns to take their costumes and pretend to be them. these men stalk the three boys back to their home and plot to kill them. the film has a somewhat happy ending, with the boys managing to overcome the killer clowns. i can't mention this movie without also mentioning the controvery around it. before the official screening, the 12 year old actor who portrayed casey, Nathan Forrest Winters, came forward about the sexual abuse he had faced from the director. Salva was convicted of this crime as well as owning and producing CP, but unfortunately only served 15 months in prison out of his 3 year sentence before being released on parole.
Puppet Master directed by David Schmoeller, 1989: this movie follows a group of psychics/fortune tellers who were lured to a former colleage's house where he has plotted for them to be killed by puppets that were brought to life with an Eqyptian spell. the plot is kind of convoluted and i personally haven't watched them in a while, but i do remember that there were some pretty fun practical FX. the film doesn't have much to do with clowns but the reason it is notable is that one of the puppets is a jester with three horizontal rotating face pieces, which gives him the ability to have a wide range of facial expressions. the jester puppet is featured in many of the other Puppet Master movies, as this one sparked 15 other movies and spin-offs.
1990's - 2000's
It directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, 1990:
this movie was originally a two-part TV miniseries and the first film adaptation of Stephen King's popular horror novel about a group of people who are terrorized by an otherworldly killer clown named Pennywise. i'll cover the original material later in a section about books, but for now i'll talk about this as an individual piece of media rather than an adaptation. also, i'll admit that my views on the movie are somewhat skewed due to nostalgia considering i grew up being scared but also intrigued by the iconic VHS cover art on my grandma's copy of it, thinking it must be pretty good if it required two whole VHS tapes. my cousins and i eventually gained the courage to watch it and found that it really didn't contain anything too disturbing for us to handle. the pacing is a little bit slow because throughout the film, it switches between the perspective of each adult and flashbacks from their childhood encounters with Pennywise. on an objective level, despite a genuine attempt, the movie was mediocre - the majority of the acting wasn't great, parts of the script are downright laughable, and the FX were sub-par... but that doesn't take away from how awesome it is! the interactions between the kids scream 'the power of friendship!' and Tim Curry's portrayal of Pennywise is superb. if you haven't seen it and happen to have 3 hours on your hands, i would definitely recommend giving it a watch.
Demonic Toys directed by Peter Manoogian, 1992: this direct-to-video movie is about a bunch of people in a toy warehouse who get killed by some toys that have come to live. it also has a weird plot about a demon who wants to eat the soul of and inhabit the body of a pregnant woman's fetus. uhm.. anyway, one of the 'demonic toys' is a constantly laughing clown jack-in-the-box with sharp teeth aptly named Jack Attack. this movie series crosses over with the Puppet Master franchise several times.
The Nightmare Before Christmas directed by Henry Selick, 1993: i'm sure almost everyone has heard of this Disney movie based on a Tim Burton poem, or are at least somewhat familiar with it. one of the residents of Halloween Town is the Clown, who is always seen riding a unicycle and can remove his face to reveal a black abyss behind it. when he does his, he also switches to a low, much more scary voice. for a small child, he's honestly nightmare fuel. while researching the character, i found out that he was voiced by Danny Elfman (who does a lot of the music for films involving Burton).
Funny Man directed by Simon Sprackling, 1994: i'd never heard of this film until i started doing research for this page and i definitely feel like i need to watch it.. it sounds like a feverdream. a man wins a mansion in a game of poker from another man (portrayed by Christopher Lee, who was Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and when he starts to move his family in, they realized there's an otherworldly presence there with them. a demonic jester called The Funny Man is out to kill them all! according to reviews, it's pretty funny and has some nice gory moments.
The Clown at Midnight directed by Jean Pellerin, 1999: this Canadian mystery slasher follows a girl named Kate who has been experiencing nightmares after finding out she is the daughter of an opera singer who had been killed in her dressing room. Kate reluctantly agrees to help her friends clean up and restore the old opera house where her mother had been murdered. one by one, people around Kate start to get killed off by a man dressed as the clown from Pagliacci, the same opera that was being performed the night her mom died; Kate has to figure out who the killer is before it's too late. i haven't watched this movie but it seems like an interesting 'whodunnit' and i appreciate the callback to Pagliacci, which i wrote about in the 'early works' section.
Killjoy directed by Craig Ross, 2000: this blaxploitation supernatural horror movie is about a clown doll named Killjoy who is brought to life by a black magic ritual and seeks bloody revenge against the gangsters who shot and killed his summoner. i've never tried to watch it because most of the reviews are really negative, but it did end up leading to two other movies. Full Moon Features, who also worked on the Puppetmaster franchise, had a kickstarter for a fourth Killjoy installment in 2014, but ultimately failed to reach their fund goal.
Saw directed by James Wan, 2003: almost anyone who's a fan of horror knows the premise of the wildly popular Saw frachise, so i'm not even going to get into it. the reason i'm mentioning it here is that 'Billy the Puppet', the mascot that Jigsaw uses in his videos, traps, and games, is a doll on a unicycle who resembles a ventriloquist puppet painted and dressed like a sinister mime/clown.
House of 1000 Corpses directed by Rob Zombie, 2003: Rob Zombie's films are a little bit divisive among horror fans, with some loving them and some really hating them. no matter what your opinion on Zombie's films, you have to admit that he came up with a very memorable cast of characters throughout his movies. one of the most memorable, portrayed by the late Sid Haig, is the dirty and vular 'Captain Spaulding', also known as 'Cutter'. he is first shown in House of 1000 Corpses (my personal favorite of Zombie's films) in which he owns a gas station and sells fried chicken and invites customers over to his 'Museum of Monsters and Madmen'. he is the patriarch of the Firefly family, a group of murderous outcasts similar to the Sawyer family from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, but more... zany. he also appears in The Devil's Rejects (2005), as a cartoon in The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (2009), and in 3 from Hell (2019).
1836: Jean-Gaspard Debrau, a French man who greatly helped popularize the pierrot/mime character, was put on trial for murder. allegedly, he hit and killed a child on the street with a cane who was heckling him and calling him a 'pierrot' (even though technically, that's what he was). surprisingly, he was found not guilty (perhaps because he did not intent to murder the child).
1854: William Synder/Bernard (last name was differed between sources), 13, was killed from being violently swung around by his ankles by a circus clown in Cincinnati.
there is little information online about the perpetrator of this killing.
1921: 3 men are shot and killed by a man dressed as a clown on Halloween. oddly enough, this also took place in Cincinnati. it happened when two brothers, Robert and William Cahill, and their friends decided to approach a group of three men dressed as clowns. one of the brothers attempted to pull up one of the men's masks, which led to pushing and shoving. the Cahill brothers decided to jump the clowns and during this beating, one clown drew a pistol and fired several shots.
the man who fired the shots was named William Shewmaker, who was later arrested on charges of murder. in court, he claimed self defense and stated that he had no intention of getting into any type of altercation that night. he said that while being beaten by the Cahill brothers, he feared for his life. the jury could not reach a verdict in the case, leaving Shrewmaker a free man.
1972: John Wayne Gacy, also known as Patches or Pogo the Clown, took the life of his first victim. he had been a public figure and often entertained children in hospitals as his clown persona. Chigaco was shocked to find out that he had molested and killed at least 33 boys and young men. he was caught and sentenced to death in 1980, eventually being killed by lethal injection in 1994. while awaiting execution, Gacy painted several self-portaits of himself as Pogo.
1990: Marlene Warren answered her front door and was surprised to see a clown in an orange wig holding flowers and balloons. in the other hand, the clown was holding the gun that was used to shoot Marlene in the face and end her life.
the case went cold until 2014, when improved DNA technology was used to test samples that had been saved. Shelia Keen, who was known to have been having an affair with Marlene's husband, Michael Warren, at the time of the murder went on to later marry Michael in 2002. DNA evidence testing finally gave creedance to long-held suspicions that the clown was none other than Sheila. after being delayed 6 times, her trial date is set for Oct. 21st, 2022.
2013: Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix is shot in the head and killed by a man dressed as a clown at his 64th birthday party. Felix was a known drug trafficker and likely had many enemies; several suspects were identified, but ultimately, no one was convicted of his murder.
there is a short video taken at the party that shows the killer moments before shooting Felix, but due to the clown getup and poor image quality, it was impossible to identify him from the footage.
1981: although no children were confirmed to be harmed during this time, there were many reported sightings of clowns terrorizing children around Boston. most reports described clowns riding around in a black van offering children candy and asking them to enter the vehicle. one of these individuals dressed as a clown was even reported to be nude from the waist down. the issue became so concerning that the police issued a warning to all nearby school districts to be 'extra cautious'. sightings started to spread to other states such as in Kansas, where someone even reported seeing a clown brandishing a sword.
most of these cases were unsubstantiated and the sightings started to be called 'phantom clowns', with the majority of people chalking the phenomenon up to an odd form of mass hysteria
2002: Jose Guadalupe Jimenez, a professional clown who went by El Tin Larin, kidnapped a 12 year old girl from a Taco Bell. in full clown makeup, he grabber her, pulled her into his car, and drove away to rape her. Jiminez did not face any punishment for this crime until 2011. his DNA had been taken in 2010 due to another crime he committed against a child, at which time police were able to connect him to the previous crime. he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
2007: Amon Paul Carlock Jr, also known as Klutzo the Clown, came back from a mission trip visiting and entertaining children in an orphanage in the Phillipines. he was arrested in the airport, where he was caught with child pornography (including many pictures he had taken while abroud).
Carlock died in jail awaiting his trial date and his cause of death is something people still debate. some believe that an underlying condition might have been triggered after he was tazed multiple times by police during his arrest, but others think it may have had to do with keeping the secrets of a larger ring of pedophiles.
2014: several groups of clowns start to terrorize students and pedestrians throughout France. 14 people dressed as clowns and armed with baseball bats, knives, and guns were arrested for threatening and chasing people around while laughing. another man dressed as a clown was arrested for beating a man on the street with and iron bar. one case involved a student having his hand sliced open while trying to defend himself from an axe-weilding clown, with one sighting even claiming that 4 clowns had been chasing schoolchildren with a chainsaw. the perpetrators mainly claimed to be influnced by videos on social media and simply saw it as a harmless prank. French officials did not see it that way, as one town decided to officially ban people 13 years or older from dressing as a clown around halloween.
2016: similar to the previous 'killer clown' outbreak, individuals dressed as clowns started to chase and scare people in the United States around and during Halloween. police took this pretty seriously and the clown craze led to arrests all over the country.
unfortunately, there was at least one known murder committed due to the general public's increased anxiety surrounding clown costumes. Christian Torres, 16, was fatally stabbed by a man named Avery Valentin-Bair. although the victim was wearing what could be considering a disturbing clown mask resembling one seen in the 2013 movie 'The Purge', the entire motive behind the stabbing is somewhat unclear from media coverage of the case.
do you know of any murder cases involving clowns that
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