The It Factor: Are Clowns Villains or Victims? 

Are clowns scary? We asked the experts.

Meet Pennywise the Dancing Clown. He wears makeup and a frilly outfit, and has a cherry-red nose. He's a bit of a homebody, having lived in the town of Derry, Maine, for as long as anyone can remember, and he has a voracious appetite—mostly for children.

"I thought to myself, 'What scares children more than anything in the world?' And the answer was clowns,'" said author Stephen King in a 2013 interview. Pennywise plays a major part in his 1986 horror novel, It (Viking).

Since its publication, It has been adapted twice, the first time for television (1990), and again for the big screen in 2017. The first adaptation starred the legendary Tim Curry and aired on the ABC network in 18 million households, making Pennywise the most widely recognizable clown in the world almost overnight.

That rubs Robert Franklin the wrong way. He's the vice president of a "community entertainment organization," Clowns of Idaho, and when he's in garb, he goes by Pop Tart the Clown. The organization's mission is very simple.

"We're basically all volunteers, and what we do is present the ancient and happy, silly and heartfelt and wholesome art of clowns to the Boise community," he said.

When Franklin talks about clowns being ancient, he isn't kidding. They go back at least as far as ancient Greece, and they've been ubiquitous in entertainment ever since.

click to enlarge COURTESY CLOWNS OF IDAHO
  • Courtesy Clowns of Idaho

More recently, clowns have come to be associated with community and charity events—roles the Clowns of Idaho are happy to play. Franklin said he and his group, which includes approximately 30 members, perform often. In September, they participated in the Summer Block Party at First Christian Church in Nampa and at Oktoberfest at St. Mark's Catholic Church in Boise. This month, they gathered at Kleiner Park in Nampa for the Alzheimer's Walk. Franklin feels clowns get short shrift when they're portrayed in the media as madmen, killers or the incarnations of evil metaphysical entities, like Pennywise.

"Since it's Halloween, there is a proliferation of scary clown stuff, and just in the past couple of years, this scary clown idea seems to have [caught] fire, not just in the Treasure Valley, but in the United States and the world," he said.

The evil clown trope is comparatively new. Representations include Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "Hop-Frog" (1849), the killer Canio in the opera Pagliacci (1892) and real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy in the 1970s. In 2016, a rash of clown sightings in the United States quickly spread to Canada and 18 other countries, leading to warnings, costume bans and a handful of arrests. In 2017, a new adaptation of It hit theaters, adding fuel to the scary-clown fire.

click to enlarge COURTESY CLOWNS OF IDAHO
  • Courtesy Clowns of Idaho

"The Halloween stores sold items to help people create the scary clown look," wrote Clowns of Idaho member Wanda "Miss Bee Havin" Jennings in an email. "Real clowns bring joy and there is nothing scary about them. Overall, our national clowning organizations are working to create fun images of clowns and to develop more ways to help people become clowns."

Some observers of the horror genre, however, believe it may be too late to turn back the clock on the scary clown trope. Kylie MacEntee has worked in film since she was 15 years old—for the Sun Valley Film Festival and the Idaho Horror Film Festival, where she was asked to direct programming for its second year. At Spacebar Arcade, where she works nights, she plays horror films like Scream (1996), Urban Legend (1998), Idle Hands (1999) and more. For her, quality scary-clown films are rare but provide fertile ground for horror.

"Obviously, there's the mask. You don't know who the person is, and the charades of it. [Clowns] are like mimes. Mimes are like a canvas or a mirror, but clowns have a personality, and you have to take it at literal face value, which is creepy," she said.

Clowns' potential for comedy or horror depends on context, MacEntee said, and there's nothing inherently scary about them, but in a media-rich environment that cuts into the attention-share of live entertainment, the creepy clown trope may be breathing new life into a fading tradition.

"Honestly, I don't feel like it's unfair [to clowns], because [horror] has called attention to them that otherwise they wouldn't have," she said. "This phobia—it keeps them relevant, in a sense, because we're so saturated by entertainment. If clowns weren't scaring people, I don't think they'd be as prevalent."

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