Sacred Clowns and The Basis of Terror

What is so terrifying about clowns? Why do they seem to pop up everywhere sometimes? Over a week now into a supposed “clown scare” — which may or may not be a media invention to the extent past clown scares were. As ridiculous as how quickly this has become a national news story, it isn’t unprecedented. There have been past clown scares.

…in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 5, two clowns using candy as lures tried to entice children into their black van parked near Lawrence Elementary School. According to Loren Coleman in Mysterious America, police had a good description of the vehicle: it was an old model with ladders on the side, a broken front headlight and was missing its hubcaps. The following day the Boston police, “responding to persistent complaints, warned that men in clown suits were harassing elementary children.” One, driving a black van, was seen to be dressed as a clown only from the waist up; from the waist down he was naked. “By May 8th,” writes Coleman, “reports of clown men in vans harassing children had come in from East Boston, Charlestown, Cambridge, Canton, Randolph, and other cities near Boston…. 50 miles south, in Providence, RI, reports of clown men disturbring children were coming to the attention of psychiatric social workers counseling the city’s youth. —Rigorous Intuition

Before you dismiss this recent phenomenon as blind hysteria — or groups such as 4chan or ICP taking the narrative and passing it back to the press in the typically dismissive “all clowns matter” press push — consider just some of the mythic origins. Why are clowns reoccurring motifs in modern as well as ancient culture? What button do clowns push in our heads? What is it that we project upon their masks?

Clowns were an intrinsic part of many Native American pantheons, not to mention cosmologies. In fact, the fool or man in motley is considered a central or pre-figuratively divine member of many pantheons the world over. Only the stolidness of monotheism could destroy such a wide-reaching, trans-cultural element.

A masked appearance is noteworthy to the observers because it contrasts with normal appearances. Just this extraordinary aspect of the experience signals that it is symbolic… It is in their genius for portraying the most extraordinary that clowns find their role, and therefor we can see them as masters of religious symbolism. … Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Native American clowning was reported by outsiders in descriptions that scarcely hid the observers’ disapproval of the actions they witnessed. Their use of Latin or English euphemisms to describe the explicit sexual and physical antics of the clowns doubtless reveals as much about their own religious and cultural values as about the Native Americans— Native American Religions, Sam D. Gill.

From Gonzomentary

This is yet another function of the clown, to serve as a mirror, and to point out what cannot otherwise be shown to the authority who might otherwise grow to central and strong. In this way it is actually a powerful symbol designed tokeep one-sided autocracy from fomenting. They are agents of chaos as well as joy.

This actually seems so embedded in what a clown is that it needn’t be intentional, and ties into the more sinister element of what clowns can symbolize. Consider the “Day The Clown Cried,” which recently leaked, even this misguided attempt failed not just because of tastelessness, but because that otherworldly creepiness seeped through.


If you’re not familiar with it,

The Day the Clown Cried is an unreleased 1972 film directed by and starring Jerry Lewis. The film was met with controversy regarding its premise and content, which features a circus clown who is imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The Day the Clown Cried has become somewhat infamous among film historians and movie buffs as a film that has never officially been released. (See above for recently leaked scenes.)

What an ill-conceived notion! And yet, how perfectly clown-ish.

There is of course an even more overtly malignant side to the clown, which goes far beyond Stephen King’s IT, which derives from the perfectly amoral, transgressive spaces that these symbols can bring us in touch with,

Even for outsiders, clown antics are outrageously funny so long as they can be observed at a comfortable distance. … In the matter of this delicate dividing line between humor and fear, clowns are also masters. To be only threatening would greatly limit the impact of clowning, eliminating the subtleties of the humor. Yet to eliminate the element of the fear altogether would be to truncate the symbolic significance of clowning; it would then be mere acting. — Native America Religions, Sam D. Gill.

Although it will soon become clear what the material reasons for the present clown scare are — and the psychoanalyzing will carry on long after that — both of these are informed by symbols which are very much relevant to the psyche, and yet do not originate within it. Clowns are a trope that’s spread across way too many cultures and myths to be incidental, psychologically, with many contradictory histories and origins, because it is one of those reoccuring motifs. The clown as liminal figure especially in ethical terms. That’s why they are innately whimsical and sinister at the same time.

It’s so boring of you to make this about politics, when you could just as well blame rising global temperatures giving us a glut of worms to feed on, or astral alignments poking pores in the fabric of your universe. Why clowns? Why now? Isn’t a big sad-faced clown about to reach out for the Presidency? Aren’t you all afraid, safer than you’ve ever been in your homes surrounded by three lines of cops with military-grade weapons, but terrified of the refugees, of the terrorists, of the criminals, of whatever it is that’s lurking in the dark by the edge of the woods? It’s even worse when you psychologise. The horror of the clown is the sad man behind the painted smile, that desperate need, going back to old Grimaldi, for the unhappiest ones to make other people laugh. Learn the truth: we are not unhappy. There is nothing behind our masks. — Creepy Clown Manifesto

Of course, real-life versions of clowns turned sinister are not always so funny, as the examples of John Wayne Gacy or Wearie Willie’s grandson shows, despite recent professional clowns organizing “Clown Lives Matter” so people stop hating on them. Don’t worry, clowny clowns. Creepiness and inscrutability are both part of the appeal.

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