“Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?”
–Fool, King Lear, Act I Scene 4, William Shakespeare
So are clowns the new zombies? I don’t mean to draw too much attention to a fad that will likely fade much faster than the undead who have risen and kept stalking through pop-culture for decades now. But I do think the media’s current fondness for “creepy clown” sightings, along with lots of pranksters joining in may be a certain kind of colorful canary in a certain kind of collapsing coal mine that is worth exploring.
Before we go further, though, I’d like to make a distinction between “creepy” clowns and what I’ll call “spooky” clowns. “Spooky” clowns, in my view, are part of an entertainment and arts profession that delights in performance art, imaginatively dark makeup and costuming, and engages in everything from fire juggling to stapling each other’s flesh to the strains of gypsy jazz. I’m very fond of spooky clowns, and when I went to Portland, Oregon, to a horror convention a few years back, an evening of smoking and drinking with spooky and brilliant clowns was by itself worth the trip.
But when I talk about current news articles concerning “creepy” clowns trying to lure kids into the woods for money, that’s an entirely different wad of face-paint. So what’s up with the clown-thing? It’s not like they haven’t been a theme for as long as zombies, vampires and werewolves. Google them and you’ll get the works—American Horror Story, Stephen King, Rob Zombie, John Wayne Gacy, to name a few. And yet the fact that we currently have this phenomena of news items about people seeing them “out of place” in typical yet menacing combinations of baggy clothing, wigs, and makeup, means there has been a new and foreboding incarnation of the threatening fool.
Literary criticism will tell us that fools and clowns represent an inversion of societal structure. Shakespearean fools subvert the roles of the highest and lowest in European history—who is the real clown, the king or the jester, they ask. Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin offers his theory of the carnivalesque—that everyday folks, when participating in “carnival” situations, such as, in contemporary terms, holidays like Halloween and traditions like Spring Break and Homecoming, can break out of traditional roles and commit subversive acts with impunity. Some would say the archetype of the creepy clown comes in part out of this tradition. And yet the point of the aforementioned “subversive” behavior is that it’s condoned—like you can go topless on Spring Break and still grow up to be a lawyer right?
So then, whence comes the menace, and more importantly, the current popularity, of the creepy clown? I think it’s likely a complex story, but I’ll offer what might be one clue here, starting with thoughts on the zombie-craze. This got me thinking about the clown sightings not so much because of what the zombie-craze is wholly about, but what I have frequently overheard people say about it in casual conversation—that the popularity of zombies comes from fearing that the masses are numb dimwits who do what they’re told. The zombies are supposedly symbols of people who work bland jobs and just live to eat and shop and don’t question their existence. They obey without knowing they are obeying. The heroes in zombie stories therefore, are the people trying to “survive”—live “real” lives—without becoming zombies.
Okay, let’s entertain that concept for a moment, that the “zombie” symbol can be tagged to whoever we think these zombie-masses might be. One could be a Trump hero fighting Clinton zombies or a Clinton hero fighting Trump zombies or a prepper-conspiracy-theorist fighting off Oak Grove zombies. However you cut it, it’s a cornucopia of rotten choices. But maybe that’s just where we bring on the clowns—maybe there’s a bit of a consciousness developing that there really is no “other” to deem the zombies. Maybe there’s a sense of trapped-ness that the idea of droves obedient undead consumers doesn’t conveniently sum-up.
Some have offered theories that clowns can be scary because their appearance occupies the “uncanny valley”. Masahiro Mori, a Japanese Engineering professor, coined the term when talking about why life-like robots can seem scary (see interview). Some argue clowns can occupy this “uncanny valley” with their “life-like” appearance with a face that is frozen in some ways like a robot’s. But here’s where I point out an important difference—typically, clowns’ faces are frozen in an happy state. They do not merely possess a life-like appearance—they possess a happiness-like appearance. Except creepy clowns aren’t happy. Creepy clowns, like John Wayne Gacy, would just as soon say “kiss my ass” (his last words before his lethal injection) after killing your kids. They’d just as soon stab you as jingle their bells and giggle. A disturbing notion, but then, think of it in contrast to the folk-theories on the zombie-craze—maybe the people with the bland jobs shopping at the mall who before were going to metaphorically eat your brains, maybe they’re not so obedient after all. Maybe for some of us, there are cracks showing in the smiles painted on our faces. Maybe when we scratch our heads, wondering where all the so-called random violence is coming from, maybe there’s a little bit of orange hair and greasepaint under our nails. I offer the possibility that the popularity of the creepy clown-craze could be a backlash to forced happiness, an anger that forced discord between our outsides and the insides can have dangerous results. Ever have to give service with a smile when inside you are not smiling at all? Ever considered that feeling that way every day is freezing your face into a grotesque state of happiness and anger?
Of course most of the time we can separate stress from leisure, say that’s how the polka-dotted ball bounces and move on. But I do wonder, in a time of increasing automation, a time when concepts of an automated dystopia are coming frighteningly close to reality, if the idea of the vengeful clown, frozen in a smile, has become too appealing for some of us to resist. For these folks, it’s time to stand in the weeds beside the highway with a wig, baggy pajamas and a steak knife—just as a prank, of course—we hope…
Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, forthcoming from Charon Coin Press.