Clowns and Serial Killers

I’m thinking about clowns today.

My friend’s friend is doing this amazing project where she has to spend an entire year (I think?) living each week according to the schedule of a friend. This week is my friend’s schedule, and he is forcing her to become a clown. I’ve been following her adventures, which are disturbing because they are so clowny. I’ve been thinking about why it is that clowns are so near-universally hated and feared, and yet simultaneously such a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon/image? Clowns are regularly used in marketing as fun, engaging symbols of stuff that is free-spirited and/or good for kids and/or hilarious (ice cream; toys), yet I don’t know a single person in the world who isn’t filled with a real specific sense of dread when encountering a clown. I can’t think of another entity/image that has this extreme of a duality in its cultural perception.

If Crispin Glover has made a video about something, then you know it is terrifying.

Wherefore, clown?

Whoa. I highly recommend visiting the wikipedia entry on “clown.”

While wikipedia quotes Peter Berger as saying that “it seems plausible that folly and fools, like religion and magic, meet some deeply rooted needs in human society,” it also goes on to point out that “in slang, ‘being a clown’, such as messing things up or blowing an opportunity is generally considered to be a negative thing.”

The entry goes on to discuss the ancient Greek roots of clowning, the most well-known American clown-types (hobo, tramp and bum), and “Native American clowning.”

“When a clown joins Clowns International in England, which claims to be the oldest clown society in the world, he can register his individual make-up. An eggshell is decorated as a miniature version of the clown’s head and added to the “Egg Gallery” which then acts as sort of clown copyright.”


I love wikipedia so much. I can spend hours surfing through the links on wikipedia. You can start with “The French Revolution” and somehow end up with “vermicompost.”
For example, I present to you the word “Coulrophobia:”

“It can also be said one’s response to a clown might depend on where it is seen. At a circus or a party, a clown is normal and may easily be funny. The same clown knocking on one’s front door at sunset or sitting in a diner (see picture) is more likely to generate fear or distress than laughter or amusement. This effect is summed up in a quote often attributed to actor Lon Chaney, Sr.: “There is nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight.””
(Lon Chaney, Sr. has clearly never seen a production of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”—ed.)

“The British arts and music festival Bestival cancelled its planned clown theme in 2006 after many adult ticketholders contacted the organizers expressing a fear of clowns.”


The wikipedia entry on Coulrophobia for some reason fails to mention what is in my opinion a great example that demonstrates many things that are terrifying about clowns, namely, John Wayne Gacy, who famously said “a clown can get away with anything,” which, in his case, was basically true. I mean, if you can rape and murder 32 little kids and stuff them in the crawlspace under your house before anyone even suspects you of anything, I’d say you’d gotten away with something pretty major.

I deleted the rest of this entry because I kept feeling weird about writing so much about serial killers, like it was bad karma or something. I felt like the entry spiraled out of control into a really dark place that I didn’t want to put into the cosmic vibe-o-sphere. I mean, do we really need another blog entry about how scary serial killers are?
For those of you who missed it, I discussed Joyce Carol Oates (not a serial killer (that we know of)), Jeffrey Dahmer, my hatred of Sujan Stevens (which I of course realize is not universally-shared (see comments)), the phenomenon of violent rape in our nation’s prisons, and a New Yorker article about sociopaths I read awhile ago. TOO DARK, and not funny, unlike my very funny entry about September 11th, which, while dark, was mitigated by being very, very funny (now deleted).

Let’s try to keep things a bit more positive from now on. Or at least not just unmitigatedly (?) terrifying. Unless it’s about sharks. Or zombies. That’s more like good, clean fun.

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7 Responses to Clowns and Serial Killers

  1. kim says:

    “If you only know about John Wayne Gacy from that horrible Sufjan Stevens song which tries to make you tolerant of gay/different/weird people by pointing out that John Wayne Gacy’s father drank or something ”
    I am seriously confused by this statement. I would never want to talk anyone out of their prejudice, considering how attached I am to my own. But I’m pretty sure Sufjan Stevens doesn’t want us to love or tolerate a serial rapist/murderer/party clown. He’s just writing about him. Where is it stated that the things we write about we love?
    I can completely understand any aversion to Sufjan Stevens, although I do like his music. There is a lot of overly precious pop music out there these days, and he kind of fits the bill. (I think we are, as a culture, overcompensating for 30 years of full throttle hair metal dick rock.) But I still like his music.
    When I was 17 I hated Morrissey. And then, one day, I didn’t. One day he made me want to tear my eyeballs out, and the next day I owned every single album he ever produced. There’s just no arguing taste. I couldn’t even argue it to myself.
    The Decemberists, on the other hand, them and their sea shanty singing b******t: Inexcusable. Surely we can be united in our dislike of The Decembrists.

  2. regarding says:

    Have you heard the JWG song? I’m not applying a crazy or fanciful reading onto it. I certainly do not think everyone can only write songs about stuff they love, obviously! I am basing my critique on his own lyrics and the vibe of the song. The song is all about JWG being a sad child, with bad/sad parents, and then imprinting “quiet kisses” on the dead little boys, taking off “all their clothes for them.” The song closes with a phrase about how “on my best behavior / I’m really just like him” and how we should look under Sufjan’s floorboards for his own secrets.
    If this isn’t about identifying/empathizing with JWG then I am really confused. I take this song to be SS’s classic phony baloney new-age moralizing about not judging people. A veiled song about tolerance. Which is fine, but it’s super childish and misguided in this case. I mean, I’m pretty uncomfortable with rhetoric that allows fucking JOHN WAYNE GACY to serve as a figurehead for accepting difference / acknowledging that we too are not without sin. It’s pretty much guaranteed to make me feel better about myself, actually. Sure, I’ve sinned, but I certainly never RAPED AND KILLED 30 PEOPLE. It doesn’t exactly beg the comparison. I do not find SS’s deeply-emoting voice to be convincing or interesting when he is singing these lyrics.
    Plus the music is barfy. And I’ll admit that doesn’t help, for me.

  3. kim says:

    I’m really familiar with the song. In fact, I like it a lot.
    I think the song is intentionally creepy. I have played it for friends (who don’t listen to lyrics) and they had no comment, until I pointed out that the song is about a serial killer. Then they thought it was a creepy song.
    The song reads like your average Time/Life serial killer literature. They love to focus on all the details surrounding the case, because EVERY detail of a person’s life seems creepy when you’re a serial killer. He was a clown: Oooh, creepy. He met Rosalyn Carter. Very creepy. He even gives the midwest a bad name simply for having lived there.
    Apropos of not much, when Matthew and I first met we had a serial killer-off: Which state has more serial killers, Texas or Wisconsin? Texas won. But it established early on our own unique methods of flirting.
    But getting to the last line, which I think is where your claim lies, I think he’s just pointing out that people are sinister. People have secrets, and false pretenses, and bad motives. Yeah, I would agree with that.
    Nathaniel Hawthorne was big into that, too. (The Scarlet Letter.) The secret inner sin. I mean, Stevens is no Nathaniel Hawthorne. I’ll grant you that. But it’s not unusual to use big stories of evil in order to draw milder parallels within common lives.
    I have to go to SF to exchange a coat.

  4. regarding says:

    I feel like the whole “everybody is sinister / everybody has secrets” statement is really just another way of saying “he who is without sin,” right, which is the new-age twee-sincere singer-songwriter’s go-to sentiment for songs about tolerating difference (the idea of “difference” being a “sin” is a whole other ball of wax). This is what makes me think of it as SS’s bizarrely misguided attempt to be like “don’t judge people who are different from you.” Which is a nice sentiment, but using JWG as an example of “not judging those who are different” feels accidentally really offensive to me, like all “difference” is the same? JWG was a damaged human being. He was broken. He didn’t just have a “different lifestyle.”
    But, I have many fine friends who really love this song and feel really personally invested in it, so whatever, I could be totally wrong. This is just what I thought and felt when I heard the song, which is obviously subjective. And, I fully acknowledge that my critique makes some cognitive leaps that are not totally blatantly present in the song itself, which is bad scholarship and I’ll be the first person to admit it.
    Also, I guess it makes sense that Texas has the most? It’s so big! But still, you’d think a mega-dense state would have more–people jammed on top of each other seem more likely to go completely batshit crazy to me. But maybe there’s something about those flat, burning, wide-open spaces that brings out the wall-eyed bananas in a person.
    I really want to stop thinking about serial killers now. I am really disturbed by this entire entry and all the thoughts it has entailed.

  5. Kevin Erickson says:

    We have talked about this song TO DEATH but i think we have landed on a crucial point–Stevens is a calvinist, so nothing is really framed in terms of “difference” as much as “Universal Depravity”. The point is less about not judging people based on “differences” as much as not judging people based on “similarity” since “ALL HUMAN BEINGS ARE TERRIBLE”
    The critique that i land on then is more about writing from a perspective of false universalism. He erases differences. This is typical of straight white dudes.
    To the point: C.S. Lewis-quoting jerks-i-don’t-like often are found using this song as evidence of their sensitivity
    i like his orchestral arrangements though.

  6. chancel says:

    ok! I missed all the extra-disturbing part of the entry, but I would like to say that Kim, we can definitely be united in out hatred of the decemberists. HATE. that landlord’s daughter song? do we Really need to explore the mind of a rapist in terms of emotion? I can’t listen to it. and did they purposely choose the worst vocalists they could find?

  7. BURKE says:

    I love that this is where the entry on CLOWNS went!!!!
    “The same clown knocking on one’s front door at sunset or sitting in a diner (see picture) is more likely to generate fear or distress than laughter or amusement.”

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