Origin of Everything

S1 E1 | FULL EPISODE

The True Origin of Killer Clowns

Well, sure the answer is partly from 1980s horror movies like IT and Killer Klowns from Outer Space, but the reality is much deeper than that. From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance to 19th Century England, clowns have always been around to bring a little chaos. And the truth is, up until the late 1800s they were NEVER for kids. The truth is, terrifying killer clowns are nothing new.

AIRED: September 19, 2017 | 0:06:37
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TRANSCRIPT

Today we think of clowns entertainers mainly for kids nothing to be afraid of

right? Well for a huge chunk of Western history clowns definitely weren't for

kids and they were always kind of threatening.

Hi. I'm Danielle and welcome to Origin of Everything.

Even though clowns are ostensibly for kids there are plenty of

people who are afraid of or at least creeped out by their overall weirdness.

And I can't say that I blame them. Clowns heavy makeup hides their true

expressions their silence and miming can sometimes seem menacing and they like to

play mean pranks. On top of that a rash of popular horror flicks in the 70s 80s

and 90s like Stephen King's IT and 1988 Killer Klowns from Outer Space

spiked people's fear of bloodthirsty clowns.

And in 2016 people across the

U.S. reported lots of ominous clowns lurking outside. So clowns clearly have a

lot of scary staying power and with the recent reboot of Stephen King's classic

It we thought it would be "fun" to look at where the idea of the scary clown comes

from. Because while it might not surprise you that clowns have always been viewed

as threatening it wasn't because they were out on killing sprees.

Unless you count serial killer John Wayne Gacy or the clown Pierrot who've

killed a little boy in 1836 by beating him with his walking stick. Rather the

larger reason clowns have been scary is because in Western history they have a

tradition of challenging the social order. But first things first we have to

ask where do modern clowns actually come from and how did they evolve because it

goes way further back than you probably think.

In his book Bad Clowns Benjamin Radford suggests we start with the medieval

jester aka the hired fool. In royal court jesters played a crucial role by

critiquing the monarchy and they were basically the only ones who could do it.

Picture going to work and telling your boss that he's fat has bad breath and

has sleeping with too many mistresses. All without getting fired or beheaded.

Which is actually a very real concern when we're dealing with the monarch

who's the head of the government and the army and the justice system and the

leader of the church and has absolute control over the lives of all of his subjects.

Think of it this way, King Henry the eighth of England had six wives and

he'd beheaded two of them for treason because he suspected them of cheating.

On the other hand his jester Will Sommers had a long career and outlived Henry.

And beyond just smack-talking the king in his royal court when you

consider that the jester was often the one person under the monarchy with real

freedom of speech you realize that's actually a surprisingly large amount of power.

I mean people often avoid sitting in the

front row of a comedy show imagine being in a royal court and facing the one

person in a whole country who could tear you to pieces with no consequences.

Okay so we have a general understanding that jesters provided relief from the social

hierarchy but that's not necessarily physically scary. To find out how that

may have happened we need to move forward to another pivotal moment in

clown history: 16th century Italian commedia dell'arte.

Now in case you're not up on your early Italian theater history in commedia characters on stage

represent familiar prototypes like the in Innamorati a pair of upper-class

hopeless lovers and clowns like the Pulcinella and Arrlechino aka Harlequin.

But unlike the medieval jesters that took potshots at the king or the

happy-go-lucky clowns at modern birthday parties

Harlequin isn't so clearly defined. He often served two masters but was loyal to none.

He could be benevolent or sly

depending on his own plots. Sometimes he hung out with spirits and fairies he

often threw a monkey wrench into others plans especially the wealthy.

He silently mimes while wearing a checkered suit and a thick mass that hides his expressions.

Basically Harlequin is a mischief-maker that does whatever is expedient or

amusing to him without a clear moral objective. Theatre nerds like myself

would call this character alignment a chaotic neutral.

Chaotic neutrals are their own kind of terrifying neither all good nor all bad they tend to favor

chaos over law and order. They can abide by their own code or no code at all,

including a willingness to get physically violent. And if you want a

modern Harlequin example think Batman villains like the Joker and Harley Quinn.

Whose name seems painfully obvious now. Plus lots of commedia dell'arte troops

started moving from town to town and started miming their acts because they

didn't speak the languages everywhere they went.

So they came to town and didn't speak the language, wore strange costumes, wore intense face paint that

masks their actual appearance, played a character with a terrifying lack of

morals and skipped town at the end of the show. Okay now we can start to see

why for a good portion of Western history

clowns were rather scary figures.

So how on earth did these characters ever become seen as something for children? Well that has two parts

involving Joseph Grimaldi and the rise of circuses.

First we have to go to. London in the early 1800s to meet the Kanye West of clowning Joseph Grimaldi.

You might not know his name but Joseph Grimaldi was a superstar he pioneered

the white face makeup and filly outfitted clown style we know today.

At one point it was estimated that 1/8 of London's population saw him perform his

very classical clown style. And like all celebrities he was in the limelight

partially because he was a famous performer and partially because of his

dramatic life and tablet exploits. He used to say "I am grim all day but I make

you laugh at night."

Wow super sad. But despite that Grimaldi left a huge impact on the world of clowning.

His signature white face makeup and outfits were copied the world over. And around the same time as the style was

being copied we saw an explosion of circuses and carnivals where clowns

started playing a major part. And it was in the circus we saw an evolution

towards funny slapstick clowns. They used clown techniques but with a lot less edge.

They were more playful and dropped much of the chaotic neutral social

commentary stuff we saw in the past.

Over time we got the pie in the face floppy shoes red-nosed clowns we all know today.

That leaves us with the final question: why are people terrified of clowns that go bump in the night?

And where did the recent uptick in reported clown phobias come from?

Well remember those psycho clown reviews from the 80s we were talking about earlier? Seems like a lot

of them were responsible for fueling people's underlying fears.

What's interesting when you understand the history of clowns is that movies like IT

or Killer Clowns from Outer Space essentially combine the more modern

sense that clowns are supposed to be for children with a much older tradition of

clowns being these very scary chaotic neutral characters willing to do

whatever crazy thing they felt like. Plus there's something very sinister about

taking a cute funny person you used to see at carnivals and turning him into

Pennywise a homicidal clown with a penchant for killing kids.

So how does it all add up? We've had the medieval court jesters who could mess with the social order. The

Italian Harlequin who comes on the scene as a mass chaotic neutral prankster.

Followed by Joseph Grimaldi and the rise of the white face circus clowns who

eventually got linked to horror movies and gave us the killer clowns we all love to hate.

Because when it comes down to it clowns definitely aren't just for kids.

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