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12 October 2016

The only clown we should be scared of is Donald Trump

A new creepy "killer clown" craze is distracting us from the real horror in our midst.

By Eleanor Margolis

What has been touted as the clown apocalypse (and is actually some people going around dressed as clowns) began in the US this summer. Now that it’s spread to the UK, with “clown sightings” from County Durham to Somerset, mild perturbment has pervaded our shores like an incredibly thin mist.

So far, no one has been hurt by one of these particular lurking clowns. Although a knife-wielding specimen was spotted – I’m sorry – “sighted” in Manchester, and there was one with a chainsaw on the Brunel University campus, in London, this week. It’s been suggested that the craze was inspired by the upcoming remake of the 90s horror classic It, based on the Stephen King novel, in which Pennywise the clown terrorises a small town. But what these Pennywise-inspired “killer clowns” don’t seem to understand is that clowns don’t need chainsaws to be scary. It’s overkill. It’s like strapping a bomb to a really big spider. The point is – unarmed clowns are already scary.

Sometimes scary things are accidentally funny. Like a bad horror film, or a lacklustre ghost train. On the flipside, funny things that are accidentally scary can be very scary indeed. Seeing as no one (outside of France) has laughed at a clown since the 1400s, what we’re left with – clown-wise – is pure, uncut scary. Psychologists have used Freud’s theory of the uncanny, in which something is disturbing because it’s simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, to explain why we’re scared of clowns. A grown man, or woman (but usually a man) in several layers of face paint and a baggy onesie is clearly a human adult, while at the same time something other, something awful, something Freud probably didn’t call “fucked up”.

One of the creepiest things about clowns is that they want to be liked. Like serial killer John Wayne Gacy lulling kids into a false sense of security as his alter ego and birthday party entertainer, Pogo the Clown. A clown with a chainsaw doesn’t want to be liked, which actively detracts from his scariness as a clown. Don’t get me wrong, a chainsaw-wielding person is scary, but that person could be dressed as a fish, a hedge, or Alex Salmond, and still be scary. When someone is potentially going to cut you into many, many pieces, their appearance is immaterial. 

This is why, if anything, this spate of try-hard “killers” is detracting from the scariness of clowns. In fact, professional clowns have started to hit out at the Clown Apocalypse clowns. The professionals claim that the pranksters are besmirching the good name of clowning. The irony being that the professionals (people so dedicated to slapstick they’ve made a career out of it) are way, way scarier than the amateurs. The scariest thing about the clown craze is that it’s ruining an effective horror trope. It’s turning clowns into… clowns. Although maybe this is a sign that the whole scary clown thing is utterly knackered, and we should all grow up and focus our collective fear on something like the US presidential election.

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Besides, with his painted face and propensity for nonsense, is Donald Trump not the ultimate clown? Clowning is dead. It’s done the full circle. It may even — but don’t quote me on this — be funny again. In a tragic, “we’re all screwed” way, at least. Maybe this isn’t even new. After all, Juggalos (devotees to the hip hop group Insane Clown Posse) have been making clowns un-scary since the Nineties.

And in terms of accidentally scary things, I’ve always thought puppets were scarier, anyway.