Offbeat 30 September 2016
The big news in the horrortainment industry is a remake of Stephen King’s It, this time as a movie. Apparently the series in the Nineties was not able to fully depict the brutality of the book, but the two-part movie will.
I never saw the series, but I read the book and enjoyed it thoroughly. The characterisation in the book is brilliant, but the centerpiece is the evil that afflicts the small town in which the story is set, Pennywise, the clown. I will almost certainly watch the movie, as long as the thing is rated in a way that tells me it is definitely not suitable for kids. If it is really good, I might even take to avoiding drain holes on public roads in case there really is something floating down there.
When I was a kid, clowns were funny, bumbling creatures of mirth, and the Boswell Wilkie Circus was a treat. All that has changed, and Pennywise is at the center of it. His hair is red as flame, his teeth are sharp, and his eyes are savage, as in the way your mother’s eyes looked when you knew you had gone that one little step too far, and should probably consider running away from home. Scary stuff.
Nowadays horrortainment is full of scary clowns. The most notable addition is Twisty from season four of American Horror Story, with the huge paste-on mouth that hides a terrifying secret. Twisty is so creepy, I put the series on hold because I couldn’t make it through one episode featuring him and a pair of young lovers. I need to pick it up again.
There are several other clowns that feature large, particularly Violator from the Spawn comics, in addition to the rash of creepy clown dolls in just about every other horror movie. Then of course there is the real life horror clown, Pogo, better known as Ted Bundy, the serial killer.
Clowns have become so creepy that even adult acquaintances avoid them. One person even stated his repulsion outright when I changed my Facebook cover to a shot of a rather bad-tempered clown smoking a cigarette.
The thing that brought me back to the idea of clowns was a reread of the Neil Gaiman story, Harlequin Valentine. It’s a fun story about the Harlequin, one of the commedia dell’ arte clown figures. The cold-blooded brutality that underpins the story intrigued me so I looked Harlequin up on the web. No, a Harlequin costume is not a good way to show romantic whimsy and tomfoolery, if you want to be a purist.
Somewhere along the way, I learned that the character of the clown, actually named Clown, as well as the makeup was invented by Joseph Grimaldi. Clown became a foil to Harlequin, disrupting his plans with chaos. And somewhere along the way Harlequin became less demonic. Now he is a figure of kitsch artworks and porcelain sculptures, or pretentious a capella musical reviews. Instead we fear the clown. Apparently the fear is triggered for some in early childhood exposure. The clown is a chaotic creature, associated with bangs and thumps and all the dangers of life, from pratfalls to being knocked around by others. The true face is hidden from us, so we don’t know what might be behind it. We never hear a voice to reassure us. That echoes in horror, with the presentation of the clown’s face and motley dress presented as the sinister promise of evil.
Perhaps the clown is a translation of the imaginary fear into a real life threat that we see before our eyes. I can go with that. I must have been about seven when I last laughed at a Boswell Wilkie clown. After that, it all became a face that held the threat of evil.
But for Ted Bundy, I can easily absorb and appreciate the clown. Ted Bundy made the implied danger real. Fictional portrayals of chaos and evil give me a thrill. They are far easier to contend with.
In the wake if the announcement of the remake of It, there is a bloom of articles going viral about creepy clown sightings. Maybe it’s a marketing stunt, or maybe it is the subconscious longing of people similar to me, who want to give a face to evil, just one that is easier to deal with.