By Jim Dodson
As sure as October nights arrive cooler and earlier, stories about dark clowns may soon begin circulating again, as they did four years ago when I posted this frightful ditty for my Simple Life column.
I first heard about dark clowns on the radio several weeks ago while driving home from the country at twilight. The BBC presenter sounded skeptical, even amused by reports out of Greenville, South Carolina, where people dressed as dark clowns were reportedly trying to lure children into the woods with candy and money.
“So …is this just a silly hoax or something people there are really concerned about?” the host asked a local reporter covering the story.
“I can’t say it’s a hoax,” she replied with a note of unease in her voice, “because the police are taking this very seriously. They have warned parents and doubled patrols. This really has a lot of people in South Carolina really freaked out.”
So-called “dark clowns” have been spooking America quite a bit lately, it turns out, most recently in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where a photograph of a dark clown roaming early morning streets carrying black balloons set the Internet ablaze. Not long ago, moreover, residents of Bakersfield, California, were also spooked by photographs of “evil after-dark clowns” roaming their streets after hours, showing up under lamp posts and on idle kiddie rides. Since then, reports of dark clowns have cropped up in a dozen other places around the country.
“The police don’t know whether the stories are coming from the imaginations of children or something sinister is afoot, but panicked residents seem to be taking the law into their own hands,” The New York Times noted about this latest outbreak of menacing clowns in upcountry South Carolina, adding that shots had been fired into wooded areas where the sightings occurred.
Whatever else may be true, clowns occupy a peculiar space in American popular culture, somewhere between perfectly innocent and deeply disturbing.
Just in time to either fuel or inform the mania, my September issue of Smithsonian notes that clowns have been with us since man’s earliest days in the guise of everything from mythologized tricksters to painted medicine men. Pygmy clowns entertained bored Egyptian pharaohs and Medieval court jesters were entitled to thumb their warty noses at the king without fear of losing their heads. Ancient Rome had professional clowns whose job it was to pacify unruly crowds at festivals, bumbling peacekeepers who kept an eye out for troublemakers. “Well into the 18th and 19th century,” writes Smithsonian’s Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, “the prevailing clown figure of Western Europe and Britain was the pantomime clown, who was sort of a bumbling buffoon.”
Once, standing in a crowd of camera-wielding tourists next to my young daughter on Jackson Hole’s main drag in Wyoming, awaiting a parade of local rodeo riders, I spotted a mime working the crowd in our direction. My daughter was delighted. Her father not so much.
Mimes have always made me uncomfortable, a modest phobia I trace to a powerful moment in my early childhood in South Carolina where my father worked for a local newspaper. One evening in the late fall, he took my brother and me to a political rally in a corn field just outside of town where politicians made speeches and a group of people showed up in a neighboring field wearing white robes and hoods and stood around a bonfire. We didn’t stay long, just long enough for the hooded figures to frighten the bug juice out of yours truly. On the drive home, I asked my dad why those men wore white hoods. “Because people who wear masks are weak people often up to no good,” he replied. Our mother gave him holy hell when she found out where he’d taken me.
Forty years later, picking up on my post-Klan jitters, the mime paused right in front of us and attempted to make me smile. He made a huge happy face followed by a manically tragic sad one, rubbing away imaginary tears when I wouldn’t yield. The crowd ate it up.
“Thanks,” I said through gritted teeth. “Feel free to move along now.”
Clowns were everywhere in the America where I grew up.
Most were fun-loving and perfectly innocent in those faraway days of Ozzie and Harriet and “Father Knows Best” – Clarabelle the clown on “Howdy Doody” and Bozo the Clown with his internationally syndicated show – which according to Smithsonian had a ten-year waiting list for tickets.
There was even a clown I liked on my favorite weeknight TV show, Red Skelton’s eponymous Clem Kadiddlehopper, a bumbling painted-up fool who was tolerable because he often broke up halfway through his skits. In my bedroom, I even had a harlequin desk lamp, sitting astride a miniature world. The first chapter books I ever read – almost all were adventure tales featuring unexpected heroes and dark characters up to no good – I read by the light of the harlequin’s lamp.
The first time I attended a performance of the Ringing Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, on the other hand, I felt badly for the animals and truly bothered by the antics of clowns. Only the acrobats appealed to me.
“So the question is,” Smithsonian’s McRobbie wonders, “when did the clown, supposedly a jolly figure of innocuous, kid-friendly entertainment, become so weighed down by fear and sadness? When did clowns become so dark?”
The truest answer is, long ago and far away.
Classical operas and Shakespearean dramas, after all, have long used clown figures as sinister messengers of mystery and intrigue. But in the modern American context it may well have been an evil clown named Pogo who established the motif of the dark clown haunting the streets of heartland America.
His real name was John Wayne Gacy, a friendly chap who entertained children in the Chicago suburbs for years during the middle 1970s before he was arrested, tried and convicted of killing 33 young men. “You know,” Gacy reportedly told investigators with chilling ease, “a clown can get away with murder.” Before he faced execution in 1994, America’s Crown Prince of Killer Clowns spent his time in his jail cell painting pictures of clowns and self-portraits of himself as Pogo the clown.
In the mid 1980s, I officially swore off watching horror films after writing a piece for Boston Magazine about a reclusive teen in western Massachusetts whose mother allowed her son to gorge himself on the Friday the 13th films only to have her troubled son don a hockey mask one Halloween night and slash several kids before hanging himself in the woods. The psychologist who’d been treating him for years told me that “his identification with Jason seemed pretty harmless.”
A toxic flood of even more ghastly films continues to flow into your local Cineplex, feeding our insatiable desire to terrify ourselves. Heath Ledger’s brilliant if disquieting Joker in the 2008 Batman remake The Dark Knight seemed almost too real and sadly prefigured the gifted actor’s own demons rising to the surface shortly before he died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose.
I sometimes wonder if we aren’t simply hardwired to value a good harmless scare in a world that appears full of very real dangers, providing life to whatever bogeyman has always lurked beneath the bed. In another age, after all, fairy tales and fables of trolls loitering beneath bridges and witches in the woods were meant to instruct children on the dangers of straying too far beyond the light or down the road of ruin, real or imagined. “Always hold tight to hand of nurse,” went a famous British ditty, “for fear of finding something worse.”
Perhaps this explains why Americans can’t seem to get enough of Halloween’s faux gore and fright wigs, projected to shell out a record $7 billion or $75 per ghoul among those celebrating the holiday this year – second only Christmas retail spending.
It’s all part of the funhouse ride that thankfully isn’t real, and every town larger than the hips on a snake seems eager to cash in on the phenomenon with its own haunted corn maze or “woods or terror” peopled by chainsaw-wielding psychos and evil clowns, bless their dark little hearts.
According to Smithsonian, only two percent of grown-ups suffer from excessive fear of clowns, technically a phobia called coulrophobia.
Indeed, maybe the way to fight back against this intense fear of clowns is to simply make light of such darkness the way John Candy did in the 1989 John Hughes classic Uncle Buck. It’s one of the great moments of Hollywood comedy.
When a stumbling clown shows up at the door from an all-night bachelorette party to entertain children at a birthday party where Uncle Buck Russell, good-natured loser – played to perfection by the late great Candy – is babysitting for his nephew and two nieces, Uncle Buck discovers that the clown is drunk, refusing to let him enter.
The offended clown declares, “Don’t you know who I am? In the field of local live home entertainment, I’m a god!”
Uncle Buck calmly points to his rodent-themed VW bug and calmly tells him, “Now get in your mouse and get out of here.”
The clown snarls violently at him, “Hey, you! Don’t you know who I am? Let me tell you something you low-life, lying, four-flushing sack of sh…”
He never gets the words out. Uncle Buck flattens his big fat rubber nose. Twice.
I cannot speak for the anxious parents of Green Bay, Bakersfield and Greenville, but – between us — I’m more worried about some of the dark clowns we’ll have to decide about in the voting booth a few days after Halloween.
Talk about a scary October surprise.
In the meantime, if some dark clown is foolish enough to show up at my door on Halloween night, don’t be surprised if I give him a shot of John Candy just to remember me by.
This Simple Life was first published in October 2016.