Clown Horror Oblivion

“Why is Clown Horror such a neglected genre?” This is the question my brother and I asked each other (I can’t remember who asked it first, we both drifted towards the topic) a couple of weeks ago during a conversation about the status of the horror genre. Both of us could not think of a better, scarier piece of Clown Horror Cinema than The Tale of Laughing in the Dark:

Truly Zeebo has stood the test of time, traumatizing us as children (when Nickelodeon had a healthy edge) only to remerge just as chilling upon a mature reviewing. The story structure of this episode is perfect and it stands out, for me, as the clear best episode of Are You Afraid Of the Dark? and undoubtedly the scariest. Cinar tried to replay this card with The Tale of the Crimson Clown, which was altogether less memorable but equally traumatizing:

But after discussing these two episodes of an old kids show, and running through the familiar gamut of just-plain-fucking-awful Clown Horror atrocities (e.g. Killjoy, Fear of Clowns, S.I.C.K.,) we had to truly ask ourselves “seriously? The monopoly on good clown horror goes to Nickelodeon?”

the orange splatter is clown blood

My brother mentioned the obvious epic of the genre IT by Stephen King. This more than 1,000 page novel takes Clown Horror beyond the object and to the roots of what fear truly is (I’ll come back to this) describing the menacing Pennywise, the dancing clown, as only one of many manifestations of IT.

The subsequent miniseries starring Tim Curry as Pennywise got a love it or hate it reception and falls somewhere between Killer Klowns from Outerspace (which succeeds more as Clown Horror Comedy <a genre eating its own fucking tail> than as pure Clown Horror) and Zeebo as far as good coulrophobic horror goes.

It’s not that we suffer from a lack of scary clowns in our media. Scary clowns get a cameo in plenty of horror flicks (e.g. Poltergeist, Hellbound,) the Joker has long held the position of king-villain in the DC Comics universe, and Juggalos nationwide continue to represent the aesthetic with mad loyalty:

Zeebo laid down the roots of this movement

…but good, scary horror films that really focus in on a clown as the central monster are few and far between.

And so our search began, and after some diligent googling through horror message boards we finally found exactly what we were looking for.

The holy grail of Clown Horror:

Clownhouse just straight owned this genre, reinvestigated everything that is at the root of Clown Horror and turned it in on itself, drew on what Stephen King explored in IT (as far as the clown is fear is clown is fear ad infinitum) and focused in. I’m not saying Clownhouse is a better movie than IT, Laughing in the Dark, or even Killer Klowns From Outer Space, but I am saying it is better clown horror than all of them. It is Clown Horror perfected.

 

The protagonist of Clownhouse is Casey, a young boy who suffers a near crippling fear of clowns and (as horror movie luck would have it) is about to go off alone with his two older brothers to the carnival.

"I wanted to go bowling"

After being basically told that he’s going to die by a fortune teller they go (it was inevitable) to see the clowns, the leader of whom immediately recognizes Casey’s fear and, therefore, picks him out of the crowd and tries to drag him on stage. Casey, naturally, runs from the tent screaming.

Why would a clown go out of his way to pick the obviously terrified child? Somehow this makes the joke funnier. The whole crowd can’t understand why the child is so afraid, the clown is a silly man, look at the nervous kid, aw, look at him panic. His fear is our pleasure. Perhaps it is this, the sadistic and isolating formula of a typical “clown exploits shyness” joke, that makes them appear so threatening.

I remember reading an R.L. Stine short story called “Afraid of Clowns” when I was younger that focused particularly on this aspect of clowns (i.e. their uncanny ability to locate fear in their audience and to exploit it.) If I remember correctly the story tells of a young coulrophobic who is one day taken out from the crowd at a circus and beaten in front of everyone on stage while the audience laughs (believing it to be a joke.) He is then taken back into the circus tent with the rest of the clowns where they explain that they were all once that scared kid in the crowd, that this is the means by which clowns are made, that it is only by having such a fear that you can learn to spot it in others and act as a fearhound (an apparent necessity for clowns.)

This seems to be a commonality in good Clown Horror. The victim of the clown’s aggression has brought it upon themselves with their own fear.

This is what IT is, IT is fear, IT is the ominous emptiness of neglect and violence, IT is us feeding our personal terrors, giving them strength and letting them control us until that day when we can turn from them like Nancy did Freddy (in the original Nightmare on Elm Street) and tell them “you’re nothing. You’re shit,” so that they fade into blue light mid swipe.

At the very end of Clownhouse a quote appears on the screen:

No man can hide from his fears; as they are a part
 of him, they will always know where he is hiding.

 

Thank you Victor Salva (child-molestor though you may be.) The perfection of your clown opus stems principally from this epigram.

It is Casey who brings the clowns to the house. Casey who invites them. Fear baits the fearsome.

This gives a new meaning to the last line of Clownhouse (right before the epigram appears on the screen) spoken by Casey’s older brother (the middle child, the kinder brother) as he cradles our sobbing protagonist.

“Casey,” he says “your nightmare’s over.”

Indeed Clownhouse walks that postmodern line where the clowns may be either real or imaginary and at the same time are both.

For this reason Casey’s coulrophobia enters a self-perpetuating cycle. He is scared that the clown will pick him out of the crowd and he gets picked out of the crowd because he’s scared.

But Casey illuminates another, more integral aspect of his fear after running in a panic from the clown tent. His (nicer of the two) brother approaches and tries to placate his terror saying:

Bro: He’s just a man Case.

Casey:  I know

Bro: Paint on his face.

Casey: Pretty funny huh?

Bro: No. Know what I used to be afraid of? Still sort of am? The Wolfman. I don’t know why. I know he’s fake, but still.

Casey: That’s what I don’t like about clowns. Their faces are fake. Big happy eyes. Big painted smiles. It’s not real. You never know what they really are.

 

(incidentally, one of IT’s other forms than Pennywise is The Wolfman)

The same as small or obscured eyes are a visual cue for evil in most movies because they convey dishonesty and antipathy (see RedLetterMedia’s review of Avatar) Casey interprets the obscured facial expressions of clowns as sinister and deceptive. There’s something even worse about the fact that clowns disguise themselves with a wicked satire of what happiness is supposed to look like.

So here is the essence of Clown Horror, it is an ironic excess, it is a sick caricature of how we perceive happiness, it is silly beyond silliness, it is uncanny. And so over-the-top silliness becomes horror, the same as over-the-top horror can become silliness (think Evil Dead 2)

This is another area where Clownhouse shows brilliance, it does not rely on gore (which is one of the freshest reliefs in this Gorno age) and therefore never overdoes unto silliness. Remember when movies relied on creep and not shock? Too long has the grisly trend of raw torture-porn-horror hid under the guise of “pushing the boundaries” when it’s really just laziness. The creep factor of Clownhouse left me more scared than the most brutal torture scene from any of the Saw movies.

As soon as Clownhouse was over we started looking around for more. The dark circus in our minds had been illuminated and now it was insatiable. We found a decent Clown Horror episode of Supernatural called “Everybody Loves a Clown” (season 2, episode 2), reviewed Zeebo and Crimson, and then settled into a final burn of Killer Klowns from Outer Space, which was good fun as a capper:

Now, why would an alien species look and act exactly like clowns in every way (including cocooning people in cotton candy and putting on deadly shadow puppet shows?) After a full Clown Horror oblivion you’ll come up with an answer. We had two theories, my brother’s was that long ago, at the dawn of man, their species visited earth and some Cro-Magnon spotted them, and that is where our whole conception of clowns comes from. My theory was the exact opposite, that at some point a clown costume or a birthday video of Bozo made it’s way through the stars and landed on a distant planet, prompting this species to base their whole way of life on earth’s clown archetype.

Despite this reasonably sized oblivion the Clown Horror genre is still wanting. Look at how many goddamn vampire movies there are out now! Are vampires really that scary? (no they’re sexy, that’s the point.) As the horror genre is exhausted by remakes and sequels it’d be nice to see somebody step up to the plate and make the next great addition to the freakish genre of Clown Horror.


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