When DePaul sophomore Alyssa Padilla watched the horror film “It”, Pennywise the dancing clown haunted her dreams and intensified her already poor perception of clowns. The heavy make-up disguising the human identity beneath, and horrific intentions against a group of children, added onto her belief that clowns could do no good. Padilla can’t explain her fear of clowns, or what it is that frightens her but she knows one thing: she can’t even be in the same room as one.
“It could be a clown with little to no make-up and I’ll still freak out,” she said. “I feel uncomfortable when they are around me and tend to freak out when they get near me.”
The cultural perception of clowns has evolved over the years. With recent creepy clown sightings terrorizing neighborhoods across the country, clowns have gained a bad reputation being seen as creepy killers, bad omens and mysterious figures, causing people like Padilla to despise them immediately.
Associate professor of media and cinema studies Paul Booth said the art of clowning has been around for centuries in various formats.
“We might think that clowns are a recent phenomenon, but every culture has some type of clown,” Booth said. “There are differences between types of clowns, though — the clown image we have today is a combination of many different types of clowns, including the circus clown, the jester and the ‘Pierrot’, a type of clown from French court.”
Booth said that clowns have been portrayed in a variety of ways including as mean and angry or figures of trickery and mischief.
“The clowns we see today are actually just an evolution from the earliest depictions of clowns,” Booth said.
“Fear of clowns is called Coulrophobia, although most people just think they’re creepy rather than having an actual phobia.” Booth said that clowns are a cultural symbol of where we stand as a society today, acting as a mirror to ourselves.
“What changed is not the clown itself but the fact that our culture today is more sensationalistic, voyeuristic, and extreme than in the past,” Booth said. “The clown reflects culture back at us.”
The Chicago Tribune reported sightings of clowns armed with weapons including knives and guns attempting to lure children into the woods. Clowns have also been reported to chase nearby bystanders as well as stand outside homes and schools.
DePaul senior Michelle Cahill attributes her poor perception of clowns to past actions made by criminal clowns.
“I never really understood their appeal,” Cahill said. “I guess it has to do with people like John Wayne Gacy who dressed like a clown to entertain people. I realize that it’s a costume, like any performer, but I think it’s the false happy face and the fact that you don’t really know what’s going on behind the costume.”
Director of the DePaul Humanities Center and philosophy professor H. Peter Steeves said that marketing clowns as an unknown and mysterious figure has increased our collective fear and dismissal of clowns.
“If it’s the case that ‘creepy clowns’ are now more popular in terms of marketing, it’s because capitalism is good at colonizing all of our consciousness, ready to turn anything into a product for consumption. Even our fears,” he said.
The idea of hiding underneath the mask of make-up is what is most frightening to Cahill.
“I remember when I was a kid, clowns were pretty standard Ronald McDonald types,” Cahill said. “Then when I was older they started changing and this really unique development started where people started using the make-up to express different ideas. Not just this childish entertainment.”
Clowns in entertainment range from the friendly image of Krusty the Clown from the legendary show “The Simpsons” who though friendly is a deadbeat clown to The Joker, the DC Comics super villain who paints his face in clown makeup.
Cahill understands that not all clowns are killers or creepy but thinks that their unknown identity comes from a history of mystery.
“To do terrible things dressed as a clown is especially terrifying because it’s the antithesis of what’s considered normal behavior” she said.
“I actually feel sorry for them,” she said. “Just because I’m not a fan doesn’t mean that they don’t have fans and this weird warped aspect of their identity just hurts their overall appeal. Especially because some of it is intentional, like when people dress up like clowns to do bad things. I don’t think people who dress like clowns to visit kids in the hospital deserve to be lumped in with people manipulating the image for nefarious reasons.”
Booth also attributed public perception of clowns to marketing in the media in horror films and Halloween stories.
“An image or product can change in many ways, and for many reasons,” he said. “Media and popular culture play a major role in how we understanding images and products, so when we see something in the media being depicted in a certain way, it can help make it more universal.”
Media representation in television and film changes how cultural symbols like clowns can be seen, but the intention is what is at the core of the image and the mirror to the greater society remains.
“This is both good and bad — while clowns can be made to be scary through media representation, other aspects of society, like a more inclusive culture and diversity in identity, can be made more popular through media depictions. So clowns are not just a laughing matter.”