Coulrophobia; one of the more bizarre fears
John Wayne Gacy was a likeable and affable man, who gave the appearance of a caring member of his community. A local business owner, he carried out and even spearheaded several charitable community events in Norwood Park Chicago, Illinois. He was appointed Director of the local Polish Constitution Day Parade and was very active in fundraising and campaigning for the Democrat Party, which led to him meeting and being photographed with First Lady Rosalind Carter. Gacy also joined a local ‘Moose Club’, whose ranks included a Jolly Joker Club of members doing charitable works while dressed as clowns. It was through this that Gacy adopted his alter-ego of Pogo the Clown, under which he would voluntarily and regularly visit children in hospital, making them smile and laugh with his antics. Norwood Park township frankly loved the local businessman with a heart of gold.
Then it call came crashing down when a police officer searching for missing 15-year-old Robert Piest detected the unmistakable stench of decomposing flesh in Gacy’s home, and a subsequent search uncovered the body of Piest – and 25 other bodies of boys and young men in varying states of decomposition. Forensic examinations proved that all had been choloroformed, anally raped, then asphyxiated.
John Wayne Gacy, who was killed by lethal injection on 10 May 1994, has gone down in history as the epitome of the “killer clown”; the funny man turned bad. Thought to have been the inspiration of horror writer and lifelong coulrophobe Stephen King for his character of Pennywise in his novel and subsequent movie, IT, Gacy epitomises for many people the image of the creepy clown. For many others this is much more than being creeped out, it is a deep psychological matter. Coulrophobia, the irrational fear of clowns, is an all too real condition which can cause extreme anxiety, stress and panic attacks.
The most famous of the world’s sufferers of coulrophobia is possibly the most surprising; screen actor Johnny Depp. I say the most surprising, for in many of his roles Depp has to paint his own face and appears almost clown-like himself. Johnny Depp’s phobia is so very pronounced however that in order to force himself to face his fears, he actually bought John Wayne Gacy’s self-portrait in the guise of Pogo the clown. Imagine wakening up and finding that smiling down at you – and knowing it is actually a sexual predator and serial killer? I’m not a coulrophobe myself but I would say that Johnny Depp is a braver man than I’ll ever be.
Johnny Depp’s coulrophobia is indeed an enigma, when one considers his acting career. He is of course best known for his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Carribean series of movies, and in those movies alone, he plays a flambouyant character, reliant upon heavy face makeup. More astounding still however was when he played the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s 2008 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Astounding as it was Depp himself, rather than Tim Burton who was mostly responsible for the Mad Hatter’s appearance. Johnny Depp actually produced watercolour sketches of what the Mad Hatter should look like, and came up with a character with wild, orange-red hair, a white-painted face, heavy eye makeup and painted lips. In other words, Depp’s Mad Hatter is a truly insane character which is every inch the clown. Why would someone so afraid of clowns ever create such a character for themself to be made up as? It is my belief that because Johnny Depp does suffer from coulrophobia, that only someone with such a phobia could create such a character. In the movie the Mad Hatter is a good and kindly character, but he could easily also be devious and frightening, and it is that which I believe Johnny Depp’s mind created.
It is probably true to say that coulrophobia, or at least people who are creeped out by clowns, has been around ever since the inception of clowning. A recognised art form, clowning had it’s genesis in England, through mummery plays of travelling acting troupes, then court jesters, to the Harlequin of early popular theatres and music halls, until he found his modern guise as the painted-face fool. It was to mix however with the Italian comedy theatre of Commedia dell Arte to evolve into the clowning as we know it today. The man widely accredited with being the first clown was an English actor of Italian extraction, Joseph (Joey) Grimaldi (1778-1837), who mixed Commedia dell Arte with English Harlequin and appeared on stage in white face paint, large red-painted smile, red-painted cheeks, pronounced eyebrows and wild hair. His portrayal of Joey was much-loved, led to many copiers and ultimately started off an entire art form.
Yet even before this, the ‘clown’ was at times seen as a character to be ridiculed and despised. In 1552, Scots playwright Sir David de Lyndsay first produced his play Ane Satyre o’ the Thrie Estatis, in which the character Spiritualitie, self-admittedly knows nothing of the Bible he claims to live by, is stripped of his priestly robes and exposed to be wearing multi-coloured pantaloons, thereby being mocked as a figure of fun. This portrayal surely has it’s basis in the ‘fool’ characters of mummery plays and folklore, which would eventually evolve into the clown.
And ever since, of course, Harlequin-like characters have often been held up as a someone to be distrusted and even hated, which may go some way to explaining why so many people have a great distrust of them. They are rarely seen nowadays, due to their non-PC portrayals of domestic violence, but generations of children must have seen Punch and Judy shows. In Punch and Judy, the puppet of Punch, with his big red nose, his evil grin, angry eyebrows, ponted hat, pointed ‘hunch’ on his back, and his brightly striped ‘shirt’ certainly bares more than a passing resemblance to a clown. In the puppet show Punch hits the baby and Mrs Punch, and is thereby seen as an evil character who must have instilled knightmares into countless children.
Some psychologists believe that coulrophobia may be due to a traumatic childhood experience. And while this may be true in some cases, I doubt that it is the matter in all cases. It may however be due to how clowns are portrayed and how they portray themselves. Add popular culture into this, and the job is done.
In 1968 the popular British TV series The Avengers featured an episode entitled Look – (Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers, in which a series of crimes, including murder, were carried out by a gang of clowns. In 1985 the Scottish comedy movie, Restless Natives, features two ‘Robin Hood’ type characters, disguised as a wolfman and a clown, who set about holding up and robbing visitors to Scotland on tour coaches, then giving the money to the poor. In 1992, the cartoon series The Simpsons (Lisa’s First Words), featured Homer building a terrifying ‘clown’ cot for Bart, which results in him continually saying “Can’t sleep. Clown will eat me.” And of course the movies of IT and Killer Klowns from Outer Space have added to that damage. Even computer games have gotten in on the theme, with Fiendish Freddy’s Big Top o’ Fun featuring the evil-looking clown, Freddy. I once had a poster of the latter which one night I pinned to the back of my mother’s bedroom door. Only noticing it once she was in bed reading, she was not pleased with me.
When an idea gets instilled in popular culture, it is hard to remove it, and this probably accounts for why just so many people suffer coulrophobia, or are at the least creeped out by clowns. This can sometimes lead to unfortunate events, as childrens entertainers in Boston, Massachussetts, and then across the USA were to find out to their detriment in 1981. Following reports from children, on 5 May 1981 police in the Brookline district of Boston put out an all points bulletin to officers to look out for a van full of clowns who had allegedly tried to tempt children with candy. The following day, another APB was put out looking for another van, this time only containing one male clown, who apparently was only attired from the waist up, with his genitals in full view. From then on reports spread across Boston daily, prompting Boston Public School Investigative Counsellor, Daniel O’Connell, to issue a memo to schools, advising them to warn pupils to stay away from vehicles with strangers in them, particularly those dressed as clowns.
Of course, despite the varying wild claims of children (how would little kids even see inside a car, particularly an American car, to see if a clown was wearing his pants or not?), no clowns were ever found or apprehended in Boston. However, like the Orson Welles broadcast of War of the Worlds spread mass hysteria, the damage was done. As the Boston hysteria subsided, reports started springing up across other parts of the USA, notably Kansas City, Missouri, and Montclair, New Jersey. All the claims were made by very young children, from preschool to about 7-year-olds, no older children or adults ever encountered the cars or vans with clowns, no arrests were ever made, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, and even journalists pouring cold water on the stories, paranoia spread and clowns, those loveable characters who are supposed to be friends to children, were suddenly shunned and ostracised, threatened with and even suffered physical violence, which could only have been detrimental to those already on the breadline who were trying to scratch a living as clowns for parties in the Reaganomics of 1980s America, and hurtful to those who did the job because they genuinely adored children and wanted to bring joy and laughter to their lives.
We see here that one particular brand of coulrophobia ties in with the “stranger danger” paranoia, such as swept across the UK, fuelled largely by red-top tabloid newspapers, in the UK in the 1990s, which saw many single men targeted and chased out of their homes, purely because they were single and had no children (gay men were particularly prone to this attitude, which sadly still exists among some less well educated and some religious heterosexual people). This has been echoed by what has become almost a catchphrase, “They wear masks and they have access to little kids.” And even where the clown is not considered a paedophile, they are all too often suspected of being drunks. Given the propensity for clowning to be a low-paying job carried out by poor Americans, there may be some modicum of truth in this. The idea is certainly deep-rooted in US subculture, as evidenced by Krusty’s drinking in The Simpsons and the drunken clown in the John Candy movie, Uncle Buck. I find it highly amusing however that a society that fears clowns so much as suspected paedophiles and / or alcoholics every December will quite happily have their little ones pictured on the laps of Santas (and no reader, despite this article being about irrational fears, I am not going to stoop to doing the terrible joke about claustrophobia).
Some degree of coulrophobia may then indeed come from traumatic childhood events, but then it is obviously also fuelled by the media and popular culture. And there are those who feed upon that. October 2014 saw a gang of people dressed as clowns – some with evil smiles – in towns in California, USA roaming the streets in the dark. In Bakersfield, CA, several people phoned the police about the sighting of a clown carrying a firearm (not actually an offence under the Second Amendment of the US Constitution). He was never found. Nor was the clown with an axe who allegedly chased a little girl down a street in Wasco, CA (because of course, people seeing a child being chased by an axeman in a busy city-centre street would do nothing to intervene, would they?). The stories became splashed all over the media, both in the USA and elsewhere. The UK newspaper, the Daily Mail, carried several reports, all with “evil clown” in the titles. And the more the media covered the story, the more sightings occurred, and the clowns even started posting pics of themselves on social media on the internet. Whoever was behind it must have loved the attention and the paranoia they were creating. Some thought it threatening, some thought it was an art form. In the end, no arrests were ever made and the sightings came to an abrupt halt on 1 November – the day after Halloween. One reckons the saying “You’ve been had.” is all too apt here.
Phobias are commonly defined as ‘irrational’ fears, and this is never more true where coulstrophobia is concerned. I know it will be of little comfort to coulstrophobes but the fact is that crimes carried out by individuals in clown costumes are rare, those by professional clowns rarer still. Certainly, there are some cases of non-professional clowns abusing children, however these crimes are carried out by deeply disturbed individuals who are the exception rather than the rule. Similarly, the three ‘clowns’ who held up Brannigan’s pub in Manchester, England, may well have been inspired by the media, particularly Comfort and Joy. The latter is noteworthy in that it is a wonderful example of life imitating art. The men, having held up the manager and barmaid at gunpoint, tied the two up. It had actually been a slow night in the pub and they only got away with a small amount of money. Then making their getaway in a white Transit van, they managed to collide, clown-like, into four vehicles before evading capture.
But it truly would be an insane clown who carried out crimes while in costume, as they would quite simply be too easily recognised. John Wayne Gacy would promise boys and young men to show them ‘the handcuff trick’, and once he had them secured, he would tell them “The real trick is to have the keys to the handcuffs.” before raping and killing them. Similarly, the ultimate narcissist Gacy was, he taunted police “A clown can get away with anything.” He never once however carried out his crimes while in the guise of Pogo, as being seen leading any boy or teen away as such, he would have been instantly recognisable. Gacy may have been a sadistic sexual predator and murderer, but he was far from stupid. Like all abusers, he was coldly clever and calculating. And John Wayne Gacy of course was not a professional clown, any of whom chose to carry out crimes could be easily traced through their images registered with clowning organisations (traditionally these are painted onto eggshells which are then submitted to libraries and no clown may copy another clown’s image).
I am first to admit that it does little to allay some fears and I freely admit to still finding some clowns creepy. On the other hand I happen to actually know a woman who has a clown alter-ego. She is a lovely person who would sooner do anyone a kindness than do them dirty, who represents no threat to anyone and certainly not to children (she has three of her own). I love her clown persona – but then, I know the woman well. And of course, that is before we even touch on perhaps the best-known clown of all time, mascot of an organisation adored by many children, Ronald McDonald. How could anyone not love Ronald?
The very first commercial featuring Ronald McDonald:
Okay, perhaps not the best example. There’s something more than a little disconcerting about the burgers apparently emerging from Ronald’s groin area.
Perhaps we will never get over the irrational fears of coulstrophobia, but it is worth bearing in mind that the evil clown is a self-perpetuating and media-driven myth, who does not exist in reality. So I leave you with the heartwarming image below of a clown comforting a sad little girl;