Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk really love scary clowns. Throughout American Horror Story‘s seven seasons, the pair has played on people’s discomfort around the oil painted faces of childhood entertainers. This season, they’ve turned the clown terror up to 11. AHS: Cult has seen the return of the horrifying child killer/immortal wandering ghost murderer, Twisty the Clown. At the same time, a roving band of killer clowns has been bringing Sarah Paulson‘s Ally to her knees through her immobilizing coulrophobia. If we weren’t all already in agreement, clowns are officially terrifying again.
But why have clowns become such a creepy cultural touchstone? When did the Evil Clown trope first become popular? We’ve delved into the long and twisted history of these murderous circus folk for your eerie enjoyment.
From pop culture to true crime, Evil Clowns have saturated modern horror for at least two decades. But way back in the early 1800s there was a more famous face of clowning: Joseph Grimaldi. A renowned character in the London theatre circuit, Grimaldi first used the white makeup that has become synonymous with clowns everywhere. Though never playing a murderous clown himself, the paintings of Grimaldi–like pretty much every painting from the Victorian times–are unfeasibly terrifying, making it easy to see why they’ve become so feared.
Grimaldi wasn’t the only famous clown of the era. In the 1800s, a small trend of operas about murderous clowns took center stage in what can probably be called the first appearance of the Evil Clown trope. La Femme de Tabarin and Pagliacci portray Lifetime movie-esque love triangles in which the betrayed husband also just happens to be a clown… like we said, it was a weird and terrifying time. Strangely, these weren’t the only killer clown relationship dramas of the time, just the most well known. Both were constantly dogged by rumors of plagiarism from creators of the lesser known murder clown operas. Theatrical beefs aside, one thing was for sure: the idea of clowns as murderous monsters had been unleashed on the public.
When Bill Finger and Bob Kane created Batman, they took from what they saw as a primal fear of bats and crafted a dark and noir-ish hero who needed an equally terrifying villain. Though he’s become synonymous with the Caped Crusader now, The Joker–created along with artist Jerry Robinson–was originally meant to die after his second appearance. Ultimately, his impact was too large and the Clown Prince of Crime lived to see another day. The creators added inspiration from Conrad Veidt’s performance in a silent film called The Man Who Laughs, and another generation of coulrophobes were born.
Though the horror of fictional clowns was already in the cultural conscience, serial killer John Wayne Gacy cemented clowns as eternal horror fodder when it was revealed that the mass murderer also worked children’s birthday parties as character named Pogo the Clown. Shortly after Gacy’s arrest and subsequent trial, the murderous clown made a cinematic comeback with movies like Killer Klowns From Outer Space and Clownhouse. And let’s not forget that Michael Myers himself is dressed as a clown when he commits his first murder on that fateful Halloween night. Soon a television miniseries would changed the cultural landscape of creepy clowns and certified the trope as solid gold. That series was called It.
Pennywise the Clown is arguably the most infamous creepy clown of all time. Stephen King‘s killer creation was brought to life by Tim Curry in the 1990 classic and went on to scare children and adults alike for decades. Pennywise was the white-faced red-nosed nightmare that truly put evil clowns on the map. From then on, there was no stopping our collective imaginations where clowns were concerned. That led to numerous fantastically trashy movies like The Clown at Midnight, which incidentally has kids being stalked by an evil Pagliacci opera clown.
Rob Zombie‘s horror homage House of 1000 Corpses introduced the ’00s to Sid Haig’s Captain Spalding, a grease paint clown who loved fried chicken and a whole lot of murder, igniting a brand new wave of frightening clown movies. But it was Heath Ledger‘s portrayal of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight that would influence Halloween costumes and Hot Topic for nearly a decade. His chaotic clown was a more realistic rendering of the trope and had a massive cultural impact.
As is the way, art imitates life and life imitates art. Last year we began to see a spate of spooky clown sightings and hear ominous rumors of murderous clowns trying to lure children into dark woods. These stories quickly gained prominence, with viral videos and photos proliferating online, creating a truly modern urban legend and setting the perfect scene for this year’s It remake.
So, here we are in 2017. With It smashing box office records and American Horror Story: Cult exploiting coulrophobia for all it’s worth, it’s clear creepy clowns are here to stay. Who are your favorite killer clowns? Did we miss anything in our horrific history? Let us know in the comments!
Images: DC, Warner Brothers, Fox, Green Epstein Productions, Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi