top of page

[Viva La Horror] What Hides Behind the Painted Smile

Viva La Horror is a bi-monthly column discussing horror films and iconic moments that have revolutionized the horror genre. Sadie Clark looks at how moments in horror history have radically evolved the established order of horror cinema.


“I’ll take him. I’ll take all of you. And I’ll feast on your flesh as I feed on your fear.” – It (2017)

Max Schreck as Count Orlok in NOSFERATU, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) directed by F.W. Murnau.
Pennywise taunts Richie and the Loser's Club, It (2017)

The ever-changing nature and essence of the clown is a phenomenon that causes people to fear the once loveable yet pitiful acts. Clowns have been around since the beginning of time, with jesters working to entertain Egyptian pharaohs as far back as 2500 B.C.E. Even before the existence of the clown car and the squishy red nose, clowns worked to entertain and bring joy to those around them. If this was their historical purpose, at what point did their image take such a malevolent turn?

The clown image exists to mock humanity. Clowns were clumsy, silly, sometimes depicted as sad, and simply trying to cheer up those around them despite their troubles. In other cases, they honked their large noses and piled out of clown cars to deliver a quick pie in the face. Many iconic “clowns” rose out of early history, especially those in the plays of William Shakespeare.

In Shakespeare’s works, such as Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream, clowns drive the comedic end of the story while also appealing to the cynicism and dark truths buried in the play. These characters were primarily referred to as “fools,” but there were two different ends of this spectrum. In stories like As You Like It, Touchstone is thought to be a wise fool, contributing to a better understanding of the play as a whole. There are also characters like Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, who is rather nonsensical and meant to be ridiculed. While the archetypal attributes were there in both cases, the clown makeup was not yet formally established.

Joseph Grimaldi (1778 - 1837) was an English actor, comedian, dancer and one of the most famous clowns.
Joseph Grimaldi (1778 - 1837) was an English actor, comedian, dancer, and one of the most famous clowns.

While there were jesters who entertained their superiors early in history, the earliest recorded “real” circus clown was Joseph Grimaldi, startling audiences in 1801 at Sadler’s Wells Theater when he came out in childlike, extravagant makeup and patterned costuming. Grimaldi’s clown attire marked the beginning of white face makeup that covered the face, neck, and ears. Bright red paint splotches were plastered on his cheeks and lips, extenuating his features to the point of insanity. This shocking getup, typically attributed to the likeness of a child, only helped to further the mania of the clown act on stage. Although ridiculous, Grimaldi’s once unique act signified the beginning of what would come to be known as the modern clown. What was so significant about Grimaldi’s character is that his clown, like many common clowns, is associated with being childlike and seeing the world through their eyes. Through time and shifts in popular culture and society, the perception of the clown would take a distinct turn from the adolescent, innocent jester to a demonic and sinister being.

Even in Shakespeare’s plays in the 1600s, clowns were linked to dark truths and mysteries. In “A Brief History of Clowns: How Did They Become Evil?” dark clown expert, Dean of Undergraduate Education and English Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo Darcie Nadel has stated, “The medieval fool was continuously reminding us of our mortality, our animal nature, and how unreasonable and petty we can be." It really comes as no surprise that clowns were destined to be symbolic of horror.

While clowns once symbolized comedy and lightheartedness, they always harbored a darker side. Although it took hundreds of years to manifest in the horror genre, the first clowns appeared in scary movies in the 1980s, beginning with the iconic Tommy Lee Wallace adaptation of Stephen King’s IT (1990) as a television miniseries. While it appeared at the turn of the decade, King’s 1986 novel followed a group of outcast children who fight what seems an impossible battle with an evil clown. This clown, also widely known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Tim Curry), is a mysterious and murderous monster.

Tim Curry as Pennywise in IT (1990) directed by Tommy Lee Wallace and adapted from the novel by Stephen King.
Pennywise the Dancing Clown in IT (1990)

The unbridled evil nature of Pennywise separates it from previous clowns as a genre-defining entity. Pennywise takes the deepest and darkest fears of victims and uses them when luring prey (in this case, children). The creature deliberately drives people to insanity and uses shapeshifting abilities to appear in many forms to breed fear. It is an all-powerful and all-knowing being that takes the form of the once foolish and innocent clown, which society thought so endearing and entertaining. The relationship between clowns and innocence is what makes this shift in tone for the creatures truly alarming. Clowns were a source of entertainment and camaraderie for children, especially at traveling carnivals, where clowns first appeared in 1899 in the Forepaugh and Sells Brothers Circus in Saginaw. Stephen King and the horror genre turned society’s perception of clowns on its back, especially with the arrival of Pennywise.

The name John Wayne Gacy is pivotal to turning the societal perception of clowns from innocent to evil. Gacy was once known to be a good, honest, and hardworking man in Norwood Park, near Chicago, Illinois. He was even registered as a clown named Pogo, frequenting children’s birthday parties and other events for younger audiences. The public would come to find out that Gacy was a serial killer, brutally murdering at least 33 young boys, with 29 bodies reportedly found underneath his Norwood Park home. This marked the end of innocence associated with clowns and signified the beginning of a much darker existence. The concept of evil hiding behind a mask was beginning to unveil itself to the entire world.

Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise (IT) in IT (2017) directed by Andres Muschietti based on the novel by Stephen King.
Pennywise flaunts a signature red balloon at Eddie in It (2017)

With modern CGI and effects as advancements today, the evil and paranormal aspect of clowns is given a new platform. In director Andres Muschietti’s two-part film adaptation, It (2017) and It: Chapter Two (2019), Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) has a much more horrifying and less innocent appearance than Tim Curry’s Pennywise decades prior. Curry still slightly resembled a harmless circus clown, but Skarsgard’s interpretation would chill audiences to the bone. The creature's humanoid nature expands in this reimagining, and the costuming differs. In these adaptations, Pennywise wears an outfit resembling a doll or the dress of early clowns from as early as the 1600s. The creature's head is very large, and Muschietti uses Skarsgard’s eyes to unsettle modern audiences. While Curry’s Pennywise worked to instill that initial fear regarding the shift of innocence to evil, the modern Pennywise amplified those fears to a new level. It is unknown what lurks beneath the painted smile or what creatures masquerading as clowns live in the dark.

People frequently talk about being plagued with coulrophobia or the fear of clowns. Children and adults alike are unsettled by even the most innocent clowns, seeing them consistently in horror films and popular culture, especially during the killer clown resurgence in 2016. During this time, people wearing clown costumes were spotted all over the United States following people in a silent and unsettling manner. Usually, these unidentified people had knives and other weaponry in hand. Was this an innocent trend or a resurgence of clown-costumed killers? That question remains unanswered. Instead of being the comedic and fun-loving jesters that preserve the innocence of children, clowns are now the gatekeepers of evil and the one true enemy of youthful purity.

Today, clowns are used as the main attractions in scary corn mazes, haunted hayrides, and countless horror films. Even the face of Ronald McDonald is tainted, with many people writing scary stories regarding the fast food mascot or painting him with blood to make him up as a villain. While working clowns today must work to fight the stereotype that they are all evil child-eaters, society no longer sees them as the innocent entertainers they once were. They now entertain (or elicit screams) by existing on-screen and the horrific creatures they were destined to be all along.


Sadie Clark is an English major at the University of Central Arkansas and contributing writer for Dead Talk News in addition to her bi-monthly column for Slay Away. In her spare time, she enjoys watching horror movies, reading, and spending time with her guinea pigs, Ginger and Spike.


bottom of page