Clowning Around – How an entity meant to entertain children is so terrifying?

The annual arrival of the Gemini Circus always made my cousins brimming with joy, and me disappointed, because my parents had secretly sworn never to take me to any of its shows. That was until one day my wish was granted when an uncle who took me along to the event with his kids.

I was excited beyond limit! The fanfare, the loud music, the swinging acrobats, elephants, horses, tigers – the expectation to see the extravaganza I had till then only heard stories of had me thrilled!

This was nearly two decades ago, thus my recollection of the details of that evening are considerably blurred.

Except one. The memory of a grotesque figure of a peculiarly dressed creature – an uncomfortable bunch of frills at the neck of an oversized polka-dotted overall and an equally large pair of shoes, floppy and ablaze in a hue most distressing to the eyes.

Why was its face chalk-white? Was it because it was dead? A corpse hideously imitating the movements of a madman in its wobbly walk and voluntary falls? Why was its mouth gaping and red? Was it smeared blood from devouring something alive? Were its hands gloved to not leave behind fingers prints on a victim whom it had strangled? Or stabbed? The guttural laugh from the deformed face became a staple for nightmares.

The fears, clearly, aren’t unfounded

My first day at the circus, I decided, would definitely be my last.

This unease evoked by clowns is oddly a phenomenon sweepingly felt across the globe, and has aptly become a popular trope in horror movies, most memorably as Pennywise from Stephen King’s It, or Batman’s notorious nemesis, Joker. Indian media too has exploited this element – while people more broadly relate the term ‘joker’ to Raj Kapoor’s portrayal of an amicable clown in his celebrated 1970 movie Mera Naam Joker, a section of the populace still get shivers from the memories of the clown-villain in the television series Woh.

The fact that a figure meant for children’s entertainment can cause such panic leaves many perplexed. Psychologists believe that this ‘fear’ stems from the core vibe of uncertainty that defines a clown – its mask of distorted and exaggerated facial features hides its true expressions, concealing signs of its actual intensions. It could beguile while being potentially dangerous. Its actions are unexpected, unscripted and, most importantly, far removed from the normal.

Suitably, Batman’s archnemesis, Joker, is also a clown

Instead of simply jumping into the purview of fear, we have evolved an adaptive reaction to situations that seem familiar but clearly has something off about it – we call it being “creeped out”.

So, last year in the run up to Halloween (a traditionally Western Christian holiday that has somehow become a staple in Indian clubs), was it a surprise that it was not a witch or a zombie or even a vampire – images more typical to induce fear – but the obscure clown that had people terrorized, from the United States across the United Kingdom to Australia with their appearances in desolate sites, luring children into forests, attacking passersby with sharp weapons.

There had been multiple sightings of the costumed clown at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 2016

Phones had been ringing off the hook in police stations from distressed witnesses, and schools had come under lockdowns. Some had gone as far as to call for a complete ban on clown-costumes all together.

In a profession born in the morbidity of the gallows of ancient Rome, it shouldn’t be that astonishing for certain practitioners to want to revisit the dark roots of their artform.

Or for psychopathic criminals to feel most at home under the skin of a clown.

-Zaiceka Ahmed

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