The evil clown is a subversion of the traditional comic clown character, in which the playful trope is instead rendered as disturbing through the use of horror elements and dark humor. The modern archetype of the evil clown was popularized by DC Comics character the Joker starting in 1940 and again by Pennywise in Stephen King’s 1986 novel It. The character can be seen as playing off the sense of unease felt by sufferers of coulrophobia, the fear of clowns.
During the 1970’s the National Lampoon published a series of mock comic books in the pages of the magazine, entitled “Evil Clown”, which featured a malevolent titular character named Frenchy the Clown. During that decade, American serial killer and rapist John Wayne Gacy became known as the Killer Clown when arrested in 1978. It was discovered he had performed as Pogo the Clown at children’s parties and other events. However, Gacy did not actually commit his crimes while wearing his clown costume.
Cosplay of the Stephen King character Pennywise the Dancing Clown, a famous evil clown
The modern stock character of the evil clown was popularized by Stephen King’s novel It, published in 1986, which introduced the fear of an evil clown to a modern audience. In the novel, the eponymous character is a pan-dimensional monster which feeds mainly on children by luring them in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown and then assuming the shape of whatever the victim fears the most.
The evil clown archetype plays strongly off the sense of dislike – it caused to inherent elements of coulrophobia. However, it has been suggested by Joseph Durwin that the concept of evil clowns has an independent position in popular culture. He argues that “the concept of evil clowns and the widespread hostility it induces is a cultural phenomenon which transcends just the phobia alone”.
A study by the University of Sheffield concluded “that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable.” This may be because of the nature of clowns’ makeup hiding their faces, making them potential threats in disguise.
A psychology professor at California State University, Northridge stated that young children are “very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face”. This natural dislike of clowns makes them effective in a literary or fictional context, as the antagonistic threat perceived in clowns is desirable in a villainous character.
Researcher Ben Radford, who published Bad Clowns in 2016 and is regarded as an expert on the phenomenon, writes that looking throughout history clowns are seen as tricksters, fools, and more. However, they always are in control, speak their minds, and can get away with doing so.
When writing the book Bad Clowns, Radford found that professional clowns are not generally fond of the bad-clown (or evil-clown) persona. They see them as “the rotten apple in the barrel, whose ugly sight and smell casts suspicion on the rest of them,” and do not wish to encourage or propagate coulrophobia.
Yet, as Radford discovered, bad clowns have existed throughout history. Radford argues that bad clowns have the “ability to change with the times” and that modern bad clowns have evolved into Internet trolls.
They may not wear clown costume but, nevertheless, engage with people for their own amusement, abuse, tease and speak what they think of as the “truth” much like the court jester and “dip clowns” do using “human foibles” against their victims.
Radford states that, although bad clowns permeate the media in movies, TV, music, comics, and more, the “good clowns” outnumber the bad ones. Research shows that most people do not fear clowns but actually love them and that bad clowns are “the exception, not the rule.”