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The Insurgence of Evil Clowns Is a Reflection of Our Troubled Times

By Bianca Husodo

“Marionette Clown”, c. 1936, by Lillian Stahl, Index of American Design. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, WashingtonIn the 1930s, California-based artist Lillian Stahl, then entering her 60s, actively painted. She began a paperboard series on clown toys, where she drew a hand puppet, a punch doll and a marionette. Pictured here is Stahl’s “Marionette Clown” watercolour sketch.

In the beginning of the movie “Joker”, Arthur Fleck, as portrayed by the actor Joaquin Phoenix, sits opposite a mirror and hooks a finger into each corner of his mouth. He pulls. Up, and down. A grin, a grimace. It’s reminiscent of the masks — comic and tragic, the two opposing moods — that actors in ancient Greek drama would wear. Fleck, who works for a clown agency as a sign spinner, assumes an artificial, happy-go-lucky caricature once his costume is on. Like the masks, his heavy makeup is a means for him to tap into an extreme joviality that conceals his real identity: an abused and anguished soul whose self-pity and inner turmoil swelled into unrestrained violence.

The physicality associated with clowning is unmistakable: the pasty white face; red, bulbous nose; unnaturally magnified outline of the lips; and the floppy shoes and clothes that tumble in clashing primary colours and confusing proportions. These are the outward manifestations of what a clown is: an overblown caricature that is detached, and defies, the prescribed social norms. As if their non-normative facade lends them pardon, they behave in freewheeling disregard of rationality. They prance, they mime, they hysterically laugh. But today, are we laughing at them or laughing along in solemn empathy? Are we even laughing? 

Clowns are a reflective funhouse mirror of the human rationale. Their impish, mocking nature has historically appeared in different cultures across centuries: in 2500 BCE, Pygmy clowns were a source of entertainment for Egyptian pharaohs; in ancient imperial China, a court jester named Yu Sze was, purportedly, the only person who could poke holes in Emperor Qin Shih Huang’s plan to paint the Great Wall of China; Ancient Rome’s clowns were of a stock fool type called the stupidus, who used innuendo and irreverent riddles jabbing at the scandals of the day in slapstick fashion; in medieval Europe, court jesters became a sanctioned medium for people under the feudal thumb to laugh at those who held the strings of power. 

Much like Phoenix’s Fleck, clowns of the past, as Andrew Stott, professor of English at the University of Buffalo concurs in his study, “have always been considered socially marginal, always on the edge of society.” It is perhaps rooted in a presumably underlying bitterness of social ostracisation that the mischievous prankster has always had darkness lurking beneath; its seemingly frivolous demeanour a defence mechanism. 

In 1837, Charles Dickens first chronicled the intricacy of the persona-versus-reality gulf of a drunken clown in “The Pickwick Paper”. Later in the century, the American painter Walt Kuhn documented clowns in a penetrating, sometimes unnerving, series of portraits: the deadpan inertness — so contrary to circus gaiety — of his subjects poke at what is hidden underneath the thick face paint. It was only later that the perversion of clowns ballooned into evil entities of their own. In the ’80s, Steven Spielberg’s supernatural film “Poltergeist” and Stephen King’s “It” novel were released: the former had an antagonistic clown doll, the latter had a terrifying demon in the guise of the now-iconic Pennywise. 

Outside the constructed realms of art and literature, the ironic dichotomy of the clown manifested most horrifically with ’70s serial killer John Wayne Gacy. His public face was of a genial, hard-working American. He was a registered clown who entertained at community events under the name Pogo. But across the Midwest belt of the United States, the criminal tortured and slaughtered more than 33 teenage boys. In a bizarre manner, Gacy revelled in his notorious persona: While in prison, he began painting; many of his paintings were of clowns, some self-portraits of him as Pogo. After his execution in 1994, these “artworks” were sold, several bought by families of his victims to be burnt. 

In unfunnily volatile times, when an orange-haired jester sits in one of the world’s most powerful offices and ignorant mockery of impending environmental decay gushes in flurries, the grand return of the sinister clown — riding on the pop culture wave of 2019’s “It Second Chapter” and “Joker” — is an emblematic reflection of what seems to be a horrific cultural shift. As it is in “Joker”, it is both a private swelling and a wider social malady. In the film, Fleck asks his social worker, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” Maybe it’s both.