While clowns struck some people as creepy before the 1986 publication of Stephen King’s “IT,” the author’s book about a supernatural being that takes the form of a terrifying clown undoubtedly did not boost positive feelings toward clowns.
Whole generations have grown up associating red noses, oversized shoes and white face paint with otherworldly horror and serial killers. And now, some clowns are playing on people’s fears in North Carolina, where police are investigating sightings of people dressed as clowns wearing scary Halloween masks.
Scary clowns have been reported in a sort of “harlequin triangle” in the Greenville, Greensboro, Winston-Salem section of the Tarheel State. Although there’s nothing illegal in those municipalities about wearing masks or dressing up as a menacing clown, Greenville police have said anyone found terrorizing the public will face arrest.
The Bangor Daily News decided to ask Bangor’s resident clown expert, Stephen King, about why people find clowns scary. If anyone would know, he would.
“When I wrote my novel ‘IT’, I set it in Bangor, because it’s a town with a tough and violent history. I chose Pennywise the Clown as the face which the monster originally shows the kiddies because kids love clowns, but they also fear them; clowns with their white faces and red lips are so different and so grotesque compared to ‘normal’ people,” King wrote this week in an email to the Bangor Daily News. “Take a little kid to the circus and show him a clown, he’s more apt to scream with fear than laugh.”
King attributed the clown scare in the Carolinas to a recurring phenomenon: the supernatural bogeyman who lurks in the shadows. Phantom clown scares have happened before, most notably in the 1980s in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Arizona and a few other places.
“I suspect it’s a kind of low-level hysteria, like Slender Man, or the so-called Bunny Man, who purportedly lurked in Fairfax County, Virginia, wearing a white hood with long ears and attacking people with a hatchet or an axe,” King said. “The clown furor will pass, as these things do, but it will come back, because under the right circumstances, clowns really can be terrifying.”
Although King has helped give clowns a bad name, fear of clowns does pre-date “IT.” The Joker from the Batman comics is a kind of deformed, psychotic clown. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who murdered 33 people in Illinois in the 1970s, had a day job performing as a clown at children’s birthday parties and at fundraisers. Fear of clowns even has an unofficial Latin name — “coulrophobia,” which, while not listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 listing of mental illnesses, is certainly a real fear for some folks in North Carolina right now, as well as for any 5-year-old that bursts into tears when a circus clown approaches.
Actor “Lon Chaney said (or is reputed to have said), ‘There’s nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight.’ Meaning, I suppose, a clown seen outside of its normal milieu, in the circus or at the fair,” King said. “If I saw a clown lurking under a lonely bridge (or peering up at me from a sewer grate, with or without balloons), I’d be scared, too.”
In other words, clowns on the lam are no laughing matter.