Page 15 - December 2020 - January 2021
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Psychology of Clowns Being Scary                                                                                      15

                 The History and

             Psychology of Clowns

                     Being Scary

                  Continued from Page 14

        Stott credits Dickens with watering the seeds in
        popular imagination of the scary clown—he’d
        even go so far as to say Dickens invented the
        scary clown—by creating a figure who is
        literally destroying himself to make his
        audiences laugh. What Dickens did was to make
        it difficult to look at a clown without wondering
        what was going on underneath the make-up:
        Says Stott, “It becomes impossible to
        disassociate the character from the actor.” That
        Dickens’s version of Grimaldi’s memoirs was
        massively popular meant that this perception, of
        something dark and troubled masked by humor,
        would stick.

        Meanwhile, on the heels of Grimaldi’s fame in    during    a   performance.     Clowns    were    effect. Says Stott, “Where there is mystery, it’s
        Britain, the major clown figure on the Continent  unsettling—and a great source for drama.        supposed there must be evil, so we think, ‘What
        was Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s Pierrot, a clown                                                       are you hiding?’”
        with white face paint punctuated by red lips and  England exported the circus and its clowns to
        black eyebrows whose silent gesticulations       America, where the genre blossomed; in late      Most clowns aren’t hiding anything, except
        delighted French audiences. Deburau was as       19th century America, the circus went from a     maybe a bunch of fake flowers or a balloon
        well known on the streets of Paris as Grimaldi   one-ring horse act to a three-ring extravaganza  animal. But again, just as in Grimaldi and
        was in London, recognized even without his       that travelled the country on the railways.      Deburau’s day, it was what a real-life clown was
        make-up. But where Grimaldi was tragic,          Venues and humor changed, but images of          concealing that tipped the public perception of
        Deburau was sinister: In 1836, Deburau killed a  troubled, sad, tragic clowns remained—Emmett     clowns. Because this time, rather than a tragic
        boy with a blow from his walking stick after the  Kelly, for example, was the most famous of the  or even troubled figure under the slap and
        youth shouted insults at him on the street (he   American “hobo” clowns, the sad-faced men        motley, there was something much darker
        was ultimately acquitted of the murder). So the  with five o’clock shadows and tattered clothes   lurking.
        two biggest clowns of the early modern           who never smiled, but who were nonetheless
        clowning era were troubled men underneath that   hilarious. Kelly’s “Weary Willie” was born of    Even as Bozo was cavorting on sets across
        face-paint.                                      actual tragedy:  The break-up of his marriage    America, a more sinister clown was plying his
                                                         and America’s sinking financial situation in the  craft across the Midwest. John Wayne Gacy’s
        After Grimaldi and Deburau’s heyday,             1930s.                                           public face was a friendly, hard-working guy; he
        pantomime and theatrical traditions changed;                                                      was also a registered clown who entertained at
        clowning largely left the theater for the        Clowns had a sort of heyday in America with      community events under the name Pogo. But
        relatively new arena of the circus.  The circus  the television age and children’s entertainers   between 1972 and 1978, he sexually assaulted
        got its start in the mid-1760s with British      like Clarabell the Clown, Howdy Doody’s silent   and killed more than 35 young men in the
        entrepreneur Philip Astley’s equestrian shows,   partner, and Bozo the Clown. Bozo, by the mid-   Chicago area. “You know… clowns can get
        exhibitions of “feats of horsemanship” in a      1960s, was the beloved host of a hugely          away with murder,” he told investigating
        circular arena.  These trick riding shows soon   popular, internationally syndicated children’s   officers, before his arrest.
        began attracting other performers; along with    show – there was a 10-year wait for tickets to
        the jugglers, trapeze artists, and acrobats, came  his show. In 1963, McDonald’s brought out      Gacy didn’t get away with it—he was found
        clowns. By the mid-19th century, clowns had      Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy             guilty of 33 counts of murder and was executed
        become a sort of “hybrid Grimaldian              Clown, who’s been a brand ambassador ever        in 1994. But he’d become identified as the
        personality [that] fit in much more with the sort  since (although heavy is the head that wears the  “Killer Clown,” a handy sobriquet for
        of general, overall less-nuanced style of        red wig – in 2011, health activists claimed that  newspaper reports that hinged on the
        clowning in the big top,” explains Stott.        he, like Joe Camel did for smoking, was          unexpectedness of his killing.  And bizarrely,
                                                         promoting an unhealthy lifestyle for children;   Gacy seemed to revel in his clown persona:
        Clowns were comic relief from the thrills and    McDonald’s didn’t ditch Ronald, but he has       While in prison, he began painting; many of his
        chills of the daring circus acts, an anarchic    been seen playing a lot more soccer).            paintings were of clowns, some self-portraits of
        presence that complimented the precision of the                                                   him as Pogo.
        acrobats or horse riders. At the same time, their  But this heyday also heralded a real change in
        humor necessarily became broader—the clowns      what a clown was. Before the early 20th                                 (Continued on Page 16)
        had more space to fill, so their movements and   century, there was little expectation that clowns
        actions needed to be more obvious. But           had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of
        clowning was still very much tinged with dark    fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime
        hilarity: French literary critic Edmond de       clowns, for example, were characters who had                   Kal’s Korner
        Goncourt, writing in 1876, says, “[T]he clown’s  more adult-oriented story lines. But clowns                     Radio Show
        art is now rather terrifying and full of anxiety  were    now    almost     solely   children’s                       with
        and apprehension, their suicidal feats, their    entertainment. Once their made-up persona
        monstrous gesticulations and frenzied mimicry    became more associated with children, and                         Kal Korff
        reminding one of the courtyard of a lunatic      therefore an expectation of innocence, it made
        asylum.”  Then there’s the 1892 Italian opera,   whatever the make-up might conceal all the             To Listen To Past Episodes
        Pagliacci (Clowns), in which the cuckolded       more frightening—creating a tremendous mine                   CLICK HERE!
        main character, an actor of the Grimaldian       for artists, filmmakers, writers and creators of
        clown mold, murders his cheating wife on stage   popular culture to gleefully exploit to terrifying
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