Once upon a time, clowns were benevolent figures of laughter and joy.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, American children followed the animated antics of Bozo the Clown on television every week. The cartoons were presented by local presenters composed like the Bozo with carrot. One was Willard Scott, who would later become a meteorologist for the NBC Today show. Willard Scott was also the first Ronald McDonald, making his first appearance in a 1963 television commercial for the hamburger franchise.
Fast forward ten years to Cook County, Illinois (interestingly, the location of one of the first McDonald’s restaurants). A character calling himself Pogo the Clown is a popular attraction at community events. Meanwhile, young people keep disappearing …
Beneath the clown makeup and clothes is a psycho named John Wayne Gacy. Between appearances as Pogo, he strangles 34 victims to death. He does not wear the clown costume when he kills, but his Pogo alter ego forever changes the image of the clown in the popular consciousness. Almost overnight, clowns are scary, with Gacy paving the way for numerous portrayals of bad clowns in literature and film, most notably in Stephen King’s It.
King’s novel came out in 1986 and was a huge bestseller. In 1990, his nightmare creation, Pennywise the Clown, was brought to the small screen in a miniseries. Also in 1990, a Florida woman, Marlene Warren, opened her front door to a brown-eyed clown carrying flowers and balloons. The clown shot him in the face and drove off in a white Chrysler. The clown’s victim died two days later. The murderer, a woman, eluded capture for more than a quarter of a century, but is now serving time for murder.
The 1990s and 1990s saw chilling depictions of The Joker, the green-haired joker in the Batman franchise, by characters like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. We also put Krusty, the degenerate clown from The Simpsons.
But it wasn’t until 2016 that caulrophobia, the fear of clowns, reached a real fever pitch. In the latter part of that year, the world was caught up in a wave of ‘scary clown’ sightings. In the run-up to Halloween, social media sites received numerous posts about sinister-looking clowns reportedly lurking first in forests and then in a number of urban locations in the US, UK, and UK. Australia and several other countries. It got so bad that the president of the World Clown Association, Randy Christensen, took to YouTube to condemn people who dress up as clowns to scare people. “Whoever is doing this crazy thing is not a clown,” said Christensen, a Minnesota-based party clown. “He is someone who is using a good, clean, healthy art form and distorting it.” Christensen added that members of his association had suffered job cancellations and felt threatened after coverage of terrifying clown sightings.
It was all too much for McDonald’s. On October 11, 2016, the hamburger giant announced that its mascot would be keeping a lower profile as a result of the incidents. A spokesperson said the hamburger clown was reducing his appearances at community events as a result of the “current climate surrounding clown sightings in communities.”
There was a knee-jerk reaction from other corporate entities like Target, which took clown masks from its website and stores. Schools as distant as Ohio, USA, and Otago, New Zealand, banned clown costumes and masks.
Fast forward to Halloween night, Monday, October 31, 2016. Caulrophobia had taken hold so terrifyingly in the United States that large numbers of heads of households and parents of traffickers had firearms at the ready that night.
Fearing retaliation from vigilantes, most of the clowns kept a low profile on Witch’s Eve. Not so in Orange County, Florida, where two men needed medical treatment after being attacked by a group of 20 people wearing clown masks. But other than that, Halloween night 2016 seems to have been a bit of a fizzer in the scary clown department, given all the buzz that led to it.
Now blinking until May 2017. A bald man with glasses in front of a court in Nova Scotia, Canada. It’s Dale Raincourt, aka Klutzy the Clown. He pleads guilty to the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl over a six-week period. The judge imprisons him for two years and prohibits him from working as a children’s entertainer. Another nail in the coffin for authentic clowns trying to earn an honest living.
Then in the fall of 2017, the big-budget film production of It arrived. Pennywise was back, scarier than ever! The film proceeded to do a very dynamic business indeed at the box office, with the highest attendance ever for a September-October premiere.
So where does that leave the benevolent, child-friendly clown of yesteryear? Well, many of them have hung up their clown costumes and wigs forever. Others have strategically aligned themselves in the market, promoting themselves as “balloon artists” and avoiding all use of the “c” word.
And poor Ronald McDonald has been put to pasture in most of the world. On a recent trip to Thailand, I found his life-size effigy outside a McDonald’s in Bangkok. Her palms were together in a “wei” greeting. Alternatively, he could have been praying, asking for divine intervention when the clown joins the ranks of vampires, zombies, and other inhabitants of our worst nightmares.