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Clowning Around
is No Laughing Matter!

As the 'killer' clown craze move from the US to Britain, you'd be wrong to think that films wouldn't cash in on the mass hysteria - which kind of begs the question: why is something that is designed for joy and laughter, so utterly terrifying?

      There has always been the idea of comedians using laughter to cover depression, or the darkness inside them. The tortured artist.. the silent mime.. both have some psychological flaw that inhibits inner happiness, which they express through their art - often in a way that can seem strangely sinister.

      Clowns have been at the forefront of cinema since Charlie Chaplin took mime into the mainstream, but they only started to be seen in a non-comedic light when Lon Chaney Sr starred at Tito in the 1928 silent film, Laugh, Clown, Laugh. Beginning as a Fausto Martini story turned Broadway stage production, Laugh, Clown, Laugh explored the person behind the make-up and how the comic's tragedy was that he could make everyone laugh except himself. The idea that context plays a subtle part in inducing fear was explored by Robert Bloch in issue #16 of Famous Monsters of Filmland and inspired by the likes of Laugh, Clown, Laugh. A clown entertaining you on stage is one thing, but turning up at your door late at night with that ambiguous smile would be something else.

      After that, a number of dark comedies began to portray clowns in a sinister light, leading to the rictus grin of the clown-face becoming a staple of the horror genre. 

      In 1978, an innate fear of clowns was given very real substance with the murders commited by John Wayne Gacy, who dressed as a clown to entertain children. Turns out, a real-life killer-clown was suddenly an inspiration for horror filmmakers, with a number of clown-based horrors being released after Gacy's conviction. There's Funland (1987), a film about a vengeance-seeking clown mascot, Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988), and also Clownhouse (1989) in the '80s alone, just a decade after the Gacy killings. There are a number of different reasons why the clowns kill in these films, though doing it with a paedophilic connotation doesn't appear in a film until IT in 1990, which was adapted from Stephen King's novel of 1986. Curiously though, the director of Clownhouse, Victor Salva, is a convicted paedophile, aside from being the director of the cult Jeepers Creepers films! Salva was convicted of abusing the 12-year-old star of Clownhouse during the filming, so perhaps Clownhouse is particularly significant when it comes to the public's perception of clowns.

      Moving swiftly on, there's Rob Zombie and his terrific use of clown make-up in the hauntingly-titled House of 1000 Corpses (2003), and later when the same characters appear in The Devil's Rejects (2005). Captain Spaulding, played by Sid Haig, is one of the most iconic evil clowns in films, along with IT's Pennywise. House of 1000 Corpses is effectively The Texas Chain Saw Massacre - but with clowns: a messed up Texas family who like to torture and murder tourists exemplifies just how scared Americans can be about travelling to certain desolate parts of the US.

      There have been some extraordinary clowns on our TV screens in the last decade and since the appropriation of horror tropes into many US TV series. Twisty the Clown is one of the most unnerving clowns by far, appearing for the first time in the American Horror Story Season 4 'Freak Show' episode as a man who had only wanted to make people laugh but was (wrongly) accused of child molesting and turned into a monster with half a face!

      This Halloween, streaming channel Amazon Prime has jumped on the killer clown hysteria of 2016 and released Clown Town on VoD. Tom Nagel's film about a town full of - you guessed it - is his directorial debut, and the latest in what is now a long line of clown make-up-wearing monsters. Taking a leaf out of the Rob Zombie book of random slaughter, Clown Town is a teen slasher, in which the usual group of potential victims lost in the Ohio backwoods unfortunately stumble across a coterie of serial killers dressed as clowns. Despite being released on VoD, the film is well made and sends more shivers down the spine than Zombie's own recent release, 31.

      So what's the big deal when real life 'killer' clowns haven't actually killed anyone? Like every other fad imported from America, this one will pass - but if you do happen to walk outside at night, alone, and a clown emerges from the bushes with an axe... don't say you haven't been warned!