The IT remake is finally here. The new version, based on the 1986 Stephen King novel and an update of the 1990 made-for-TV miniseries, follows seven outcast children ("The Loser's Club") and their attempt to stop It, a demonic representation of fear that most often appears as Pennywise the dancing clown.
The clown worked well as the embodiment of evil in King's book because there has always been something scary about clowns, even when they're just meant to be frolicking adults with painted faces. IT is often cited as the main source of modern-day fear of clowns, but clown weirdness goes back centuries.
The father of clowning was Joseph Grimaldi, an actor whose clowning was closer to theatrical than the circus or carnival. He was the first to don white face paint with bright red cheeks, he wore ridiculous clothes, and Grimaldi even had a blue mohawk. Active in the late 1790s and early 1800s, Grimaldi made no secret of his depressing offstage life, one that included losing both his wife and son, bouts of depression, and intense physical pain. He died in 1837, a broke drunk, and Charles Dickens was tasked with putting together Grimaldi's memoirs.
Andrew McConnell Stott, dean of undergraduate education and an English professor at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, claims that Dickens created the idea of a scary clown. In his novel The Pickwick Papers, Dickens explores a "ghastly, wasted" clown that was supposedly based on Grimaldi's son, a clown himself who died at age 31 of alcohol-related problems. In Dickens' world, clowns destroyed themselves to make others laugh. Stott says that it made the character of the clown less wholesome, and more damaged than perhaps the average person. "It becomes impossible to disassociate the character from the actor," he told Smithsonian Magazine back in 2013.
As the circus grew in popularity in the late 1800s, clowns became less menacing and more humorous, an antidote to the death-defying trapeze acts and big cat acts that were popular at the circus. Despite this, sad "hobo clowns" were still popular, personified by the popularity of Emmett Kelly.
The 1960s was what was perhaps a clowning "renaissance." Clowns were the biggest draw on television, delighting millions of children after school. With characters like Ronald McDonald and Bozo the Clown, clowns became solely children’s entertainers.
Clowns in America were forever changed in the 1970s, not by Stephen King’s IT but by a much more real evil clown: John Wayne Gacy. Gacy was a construction worker with strong community ties in suburban Chicago. He was also a serial killer. In the early to mid 1970s, Gacy abducted, raped, tortured, and killed at least 33 teenagers and young men. He was known as the Killer Clown, because he created a clown persona, Pogo the Clown, who would perform at community events, children’s hospitals, and parties.
Gacy didn’t actually kill anyone while dressed as a clown (though he did rape at least one young man while in costume), but in prison he was known to paint menacing images of clowns. He also infamously told police that “clowns can get away with murder.” In his case, Pogo didn’t get away with it. Gacy was executed in 1994.
Which brings us to IT. Stephen King wrote this classic tale of fear personified in childhood that bleeds into adulthood in 1981, and published it in 1986. It was the idea of trolls and bridges that inspired the tale, not clowns. Yet clowns are the takeaway from IT, especially after the 1990 made-for-TV movie that starred Tim Curry as Pennywise.
"I would only be guessing by this statement, but I think 'scary fictional clowns' from my personal memory probably started with the original It movie," World Clown Association president Pam Moody told me. "I personally do not believe it has changed the landscape of professional clowning."
And yet, from my research into evil clowns, it seems that people outside the big top hate clowns for many reasons, not just an old and mediocre TV movie.
She goes on to assure me that professional clowning does not include "evil clowns." "Evil clowns are actually fictional characters and do not exist in real life. If there were to be an 'evil clown' sighting (as was experienced in last fall's media mania), those were people wearing rubber Halloween masks for the purpose of terrorizing people. They had nothing to do with professional clowning. A professional clown brings love, humor, and laughter to a hurting world."
In a similarly unscientific poll I conducted on Facebook, only one of the respondents pointed to It as the basis for their clown hatred. Valentina, 29, of Pittsburg, says her first memory of a menacing clown was watching the original It at age 3. This led her to believe her clown statue was going to come alive and kill her. I think that even the most hardened horror fans can agree that 3-year-olds should not be exposed to Pennywise.
Aaron, 41, of Los Angeles, said that it was the clown doll in Poltergeist that made "the phobia become real." He added: "Tim Curry's Pennywise put my phobia in a weird place where I teeter from fear to fascination and back again."
Other respondents remembered their fear of clowns starting with real-life clowns, either at birthday parties or at the circus. Allison of Los Angeles remembers a clown at her brother's birthday. Even at age 3, she found the face paint and giggling "unsettling." Grace, also of Los Angeles, remembers seeing a clown at the Santa Monica Pier trying to come up to her stroller when she was 5. "My dad kept trying to encourage me to talk to him, but I just got more and more upset."
Christy of Kentucky grew up with the seedier side of clowning. "Living in a very rural town in Kentucky, we were not privileged to have a Barnum & Bailey level of entertainment. These [clowns] were beat up. Everything was low-rent, like a group of performing hobos. Costumes were tattered (even more than regular patch-work costume of a regular clown), faces were weathered and they just exuded this air of loneliness. I kept thinking as a six year old, 'What on Earth has happened to these people? Where are their parents?' It was kind of a lightning bulb moment for me - I better work hard, be nice to my mom and dad, and get an education, otherwise, this would be my life. Deep thoughts for a six year old."
Each respondent told me that the thing that bothered them most about clowns was the face paint. Christy believes "all that white is unnatural." Grace thinks clown smiles are creepy. Aaron thinks it looks like they are hiding something behind the makeup.
So what has this all taught me? IT is not the cause of coulrophobia. Clowns are.
For more on the history of the dark side of clowns, check out this article from SmithsonianMag.com. IT hits theaters on September 8.