(first published in 'The Conversation' in October 2016)
An unprecedented wave of ‘creepy clowns’ is, apparently, sweeping the globe. News reports allege that this current wave began in August in South Carolina, where two clown figures were spotted by children lurking near some woods, raising the concerns of local police. Throughout September the phenomenon spread across North America, and in recent weeks hundreds of clown sightings have been reported in Australia, New Zealand, France and in the UK.
A marketing ploy, a sophisticated enhanced reality game or a cyclical return of a cultural obsession with evil clowns that originated in Stephen King’s It: journalists and academic pundits have posed numerous theories about the cause of this troubling phenomenon. But for those of us involved in the business of clowning, the craze itself – as well as the frenzied internet response that appears only to fan the flames by regurgitating stock images of ghoulish clown faces – are yet another sad reminder of a widespread misunderstanding of what clowns are and what they do.
I am not one of those who says they cannot understand what is scary about clowns. As a performer I have experienced my own share of crying children and uncomfortable adults to know that there is something about clowns (even the least garish-looking ones) that arouses some discomfort. Throughout history clowns have played on our deepest fears of disorder, chaos and wrongness, often for crucial social purposes.
The Feast of Fools in twelfth-century France was a carnival of excess, masked hedonism and perversion of social values that was at first encouraged but eventually outlawed by the Catholic church. Amateur fool societies called societies joyeuses perpetuated the tradition of festive mayhem, often using their mime skills to denounce corrupt officials or other kinds of antisocial behaviour in public displays of humiliation called charivaris.
Native American clowns perform a similar role even today. Believed to possess magical shamanistic powers, they are also known for their use of taboo-breaking humour to expose social hypocrisy. According to anthropologist Ralph Beals, Pueblo clowns were permitted to indulge in ‘obscene behaviour’ and play ‘fear-inspiring characters’ specifically to punish known miscreants. From the powerful to the humble, everyone was fair game. Even if you were not the target of their punitive pranks, you knew that one day you might be. The clowns, released from constraints of proper behaviour, became objects of reverence and fear.
It is this freedom to personify wrongness and disorder, typified by the grotesque face of the circus clown, that gives clown impersonators the potential to be ‘scary’, as noted by some psychologists. But this power also gives true clowns the potential to reach deep into the truths of human existence and show us who we really are. Charlie Chaplin’s anarchic dance amid the powerful factory machinery in Modern Times illustrates that this quality of clowning also exists in western culture. And if you think that clowning died out with silent film comedy, watch an episode of Miranda to see a plethora of classical clown gags and routines being skilfully reimagined for the television format. From Morcambe and Wise to Rowan Atkinson to Sacha Baron Cohen, we see clowns, reinvented for the modern era, staring out at us through our screens, winking as they ridicule that which is normally held to be sacred.
Perhaps clowns’ powerful influence on society is most clearly seen in the field of social clowning. Hospital clowning, for example, has been an expanding global phenomenon since the 1980s, ever more widely recognized within the medical profession as having genuine clinical benefits. Likewise, groups such as Clowns Without Borders bring the spirit of laughter and play to areas of the world affected by conflict and disaster, including recent visits to refugee camps in Greece and Calais. My own research looks at social clowning in Colombia, where clowns have for years been involved in peace and reconciliation efforts. A powerful acknowledgment of the seriousness with which clown work is treated in Colombia, the UN has hired a clown artist, Camilo Rodriguez, as a special adviser and has funded a clown show that aims to engage young people in the peace process.
Perhaps the craze for scaring people using clown masks is an echo of the real function of certain clowns as justly feared purveyors of social justice. Yet, even if those responsible are conscious of such historical connections, they have missed one vital thing about clowning: it works by provoking delight and pleasure while exposing unacknowledged truths about human nature. Clowns bring the light of laughter to our darkest corners and dance a jig where others fear to tread. Hiding behind masks and scaring people with machetes has nothing to do with clowning and reveals nothing except the cowardice of the perpetrators. Most worryingly for those in the business, it devalues a cultural practice which is all about laughing at our own flawed nature. In today’s world, this is something we need more than ever.