‘It, Chapter 2’: Movie leaves us with question: 'Why are we afraid of clowns?'

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Clowns - A non-scary look at what you need to know

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

They didn’t start out to scare anyone.

Clowns have held a favored, albeit slightly outcast place throughout history – first, as comic relief to those in power, performing magic tricks, pranks or slapstick routines, then, later, as entertainers to the masses.

The clowns we see today – doing everything from taking orders at restaurants to keeping circus performances moving along with their antics – can trace their history back hundreds of years to entertainers often dressed in bright clothes and often, in some way, hiding their identities.

For many, they are a reminder of an innocent time in childhood (think Ronald McDonald, Clarabell and Bozo). For others, they are the face of some of our deepest fears (think the clown doll in “Poltergeist”).

Just this week, “It, Chapter Two,” a sequel and conclusion to the 2017 version of Stephen King’s “It,” opened in theaters. The movie features an evil being called Pennywise that takes the form of a clown and proceeds to kill children in a small Maine town.

So, minus movies that have clowns as murderers, what is it about them that terrifies us? It could be a lot of things, according to a study by Andrew McConnell Stott, former dean of Undergraduate Education and an English professor at the University of Buffalo, SUNY.

Stott, who now teaches at the University of Southern California, has written about the clown culture from the earliest historical mentions of what are now called clowns to the familiar stars of the circus and neighbor kid's birthday party.

Here’s a look at the history of clowning and what about it sets some of us on edge.

The beginning of scary clowns

Early on, clowns were not generally seen as scary. They were jesters and entertainers, but not threatening as a rule.

Stott speculates in his book "The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi," that the death of Grimaldi, seen as the "father of the modern clowns" may have been the point where people began looking at clowns through a different lens.

According to Stott, while Grimaldi was considered one of the greatest of modern clowns, his personal life was nothing to laugh at. After enduring a difficult childhood, the death of his wife in childbirth and a son who drank himself to death, Grimaldi died a penniless alcoholic.

The tragic figure

After Grimaldi's death, a young Charles Dickens was assigned to edit Grimaldi's memoirs which painted a picture of a lonely life. It was Dickens' "The Pickwick Papers," Stott says, that set up a look at a tragic clown who gained laughs only at the expense of great personal pain.

The passages about clowns in the book are believed to have been inspired by the tragic life of Grimaldi’s son.

As Dickens advanced the theme of clowns destroying themselves from within, a clown portrayed by Jean-Gaspard Deburau gained popularity in France.

Deburau, who used white face paint with bright red lips and exaggerated black eyebrows when he performed, had a reputation as a sinister man. That reputation was born out when in 1836, he killed a boy by hitting him with a walking stick as the youngster hurled insults at him along a Paris street.

The clown as a dark figure would gain popularity a few years later when an Italian opera, “Pagliacci,” began being performed around Europe.

The opera featured a clown murdering his cheating wife on stage during a performance.

The modern clown turns scary

By the 20th Century, the clowns we think of today – with their identities concealed by makeup – were seen mostly as entertainment for children.

However, social psychologist Phil Zimbardo said that the concealing makeup that clowns wear now is a psychological trigger for some.

Zimbardo has studied “variables” that seem to predict anti-social behavior. One such variable is deindividuation or a state in which one’s identity is hidden.

People who engage in deindividuation, Zimbardo said, are more likely to engage in other various abhorrent behaviors.

Is there a name for the fear of clowns?

Yes, there is. It’s called coulrophobia which means the excessive fear of clowns.

Am I the only one scared of them?

Not by a long shot. Should you ever feel that way, click here for a forum for those who, as the name implies, dislike clowns - ihateclowns.com. The mission statement for the website: "ihateclowns.com is the official website for people who are afraid of, or just plain hate, creepy, evil clowns. A perfect site for people suffering from coulrophobia (the fear of clowns)."

What can I do to overcome my fear of clowns?

Clowns are people who dress up in costumes, smear makeup on their faces and act silly or sad. Mental health officials say seeing a person being transformed into a clown could help some realize the clown is a persona a person assumes. Some circuses offer opportunities to help ease fears by allowing customers to see their clowns put on the makeup  (click here).

Types of clowns

There are three traditional types of clowns – the White face, Auguste and The Character. White-face is what you think it is, a clown with white face makeup; Auguste is a zany clown with a flesh tone makeup base, and a character clown is a clown that can be any character, such as a cowboy, a doctor or a policeman.

Famous people scared of clowns

It’s true that celebrities are just like us, especially if we are terrified of Bozo. Here are a few celebrities who prefer not to be around clowns:

• “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe

• Actor Johnny Depp

• Rapper P. Diddy who is said to have had a “no clown” clause in one of his contracts

• Comedian Carol Burnett

• Late chef Anthony Bourdain

Sources: The Smithsonian Magazine; Movieweb.com; The Associated Press; All About Clowns

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