A Short History of Clowns and Why They Are So Terrifying

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By bestselling author and paranormal investigator Joni Mayhan

Not so long ago, clowns were perceived as joyful and harmless characters. They blew up funny animal balloons in the shapes of poodles and giraffes and entertained the masses at circuses and birthday parties. Thanks in part to Hollywood and a certain serial killer, the day of the harmless clown is coming to an end.

Both the World Clown Association and Clowns International both report declining numbers, with a reported drop of 30% in the United States and even more in the UK. According to The Telegraph, Clown’s International’s membership has dropped from 1,000 clowns in the 1980’s to nearly 100 currently. Is it attrition or something else?

Even though the history of clowns dates back to 2400 BC, during the Fifth dynasty of Egypt, clowns didn’t become mainstream until the early 1800’s after English actor and comedian Joseph Grimaldi created the traditional white faced make-up design. The clown image later became synonymous with circuses when Englishman John Bill Ricketts brought the first modern circus to the United States in 1792. Since then, clowns have become a part of American culture, being major draws for circuses such as Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.


Did you know there’s more than one kind of clown? The major clown organizations typically recognizes three different types of clowns for their competitions: White Faced, Auguste, and Hobo. Most people are more familiar with the White Faced clown. They have a traditional white face, red nose, and exaggerated features, often dressing in bright colors. The Auguste clown, also known as the Red Clown, uses pink or red coloration in place of the white face, while Hobo clowns have a beard and white highlights around the eyes and mouth. The one thing they all have in common is their embodiment of humor and gags.


While some claim the decline of clowns can simply be attributed to a passing fad, many feel it’s due to the recent influx of evil clowns in movies and television. When you think of clowns, do you think of Bozo the Clown or Pennywise from Stephen King’s movie It?

According to professional clown Jeffrey Harris from Evansville, Indiana, it depends on the type of clown. “Most people are afraid of the White Face and Auguste clowns. We Hobo Clowns look a little more like real people and are accepted by scared people a little more.” If you believe clowning is easy, think again. “It takes a lot of work and dedication. It’s more than just throwing on some make-up and wearing colorful clothes.” He graduated from a ten-week clown school sponsored by a local Christian clown group and has spent several decades perfecting his work.


(Above) Jeffrey Harris in his Hobo Clown costume

Other clowns simply embrace the darker image. Penny S. Dreadfull from Corpus Christi, Texas, enjoys being a scary clown. She was actually afraid of clowns until she went to a sideshow at one of her favorite punk rock dives and met two clowns, Shivers and Quivers, who eventually became her long-term friends. “I didn’t immediately associate them as being clowns. I just thought they were an awesome Cosplay couple. We hung out a few times before they ever made mention of themselves as clowns. By then, they just became good friends.” When she told Shivers she was afraid of clowns, Shivers admitted that she too was once afraid of them, but became a clown to overcome the fear.


(Above) Shivers the Clown with Penny S. Deadfull

Coulrophobia is a valid phobia. Many people with a fear of clowns can’t look at a clown photo without feeling anxiety, something American Horror Story: Freak Show recently took full advantage of. Ryan Murphy, the creator of the show, wanted to develop the “scariest clown of all time.” He mastered that within a few episodes as Twisty the Clown ravaged the town of Jupiter, Florida, giving viewers ample nightmares in the process.

Beyond television and movies, the creepiest depiction of clowns comes from the real life story of John Wayne Gacy, Jr. Known in the media as the Killer Clown, Gacy was convicted in 1980 of the sexual assault and murder of 33 teenage boys and young men in the Chicago, Illinois area. Gacy often performed at charity events, parades, and parties as Pogo the Clown, a character he created himself.


(Above) John Wayne Gacy, Junior dressed as Pogo the Clown

When Tod Reise was a child, he went to a birthday party where John Wayne Gacy, Jr. was performing as Pogo the Clown. Tod said of his experience, “He just did tricks with the handcuffs and balloons and just seemed really into entertaining.” Tod saw him again at a neighborhood backyard party in 1977. “I heard about him being arrested but did not know he was the clown until a year later,” he added. Since many of Gacy’s victims were young men, it stands to reason he chose a pastime that put him in contact with children. Tod is lucky he didn’t encounter the serial killer after the events ended.

As clowns are on the decline, we have to wonder: did a serial killer and a horror novelist ruin clowns for everyone? You be the judge. Post your comments below. We’d like to know what you think of clowns.

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  • Anne Faust

    And what about TVs Clara Bell??? How did he get started?

  • ardyn

    I have a complete phobia of clowns ever since I was a kid I have always been scared of them an ex boyfriend of mine forced me to watch a clown horror movie called scary or die knowing full well I had a phobia of clowns he thought it was funny , after the movie I went into a complete anxiety attack and was up for a week without any sleep because I kept seeing clowns in my room and i kept having nightmares, so Ya I hate them