What makes Pennywise from It so damn creepy?
“I hate clowns. You can’t tell what they’re thinking” (Peter Pan (Peter Pan in Scarlet))
Andy Muschietti, the director of It (2017), would seem to have made a grave mistake. He has based the scares of his new horror film on a clown. And clowns, as we all know, are not about fear, but fun.
Despite the apparent mismatch, Muschietti’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel is doing extremely well. Rotten Tomatoes reports that It has now, for the second weekend in a row, “out-grossed every other film in release, combined.” It has also received rave critical acclaim. The horror film and the clown appear to be match made in heaven (or, as the film’s audience would surely argue, hell). What is going on? Why does the image of the silly clown so effectively frighten audiences?
Clown Pennywise from It, played by Bill Skarsgaard.
Perhaps, if we consider the history of the clown, there is no real mystery. After all, clowns have not always been all about fun. Clowns, and the Shakespearean jesters and medieval fools that came before them, were always a little unnerving. They were about saying the things you were not supposed to say and doing the things you were not supposed to do. But there is a long way from being a bit loony and outré to being outright scary, and we have only very little evidence that, hundreds of years ago, people considered fools and jesters scary. In contrast, today a whole industry leans heavily on the scare-potential of clowns.
Some of the change is probably due to the haunting portrayals of clowns or clown-like maniacs that started to creep into popular culture around the turn of the 20th century. By far the most well-known of these was, of course, the Joker from the Batman (DC) universe, but there was also Ubu from the play Ubu Roi (1896) and Gwynplaine from the early American horror film The Man Who Laughs (1928), among others.
Gwynplaine from The Man Who Laughs, played by Conrad Veidt. The character inspired the Joker from the Batman universe.
And then there was the real killer clown. Between 1972 and 1978, the American John Wayne Gacy raped, tortured and finally murdered at least 33 young men. At day, Gacy entertained local kids dressed up as ‘Pogo the Clown.’ At night, he lured unsuspecting teenagers and young men into his house. They would never again be seen alive. When police investigators finally grew suspicious of Gacy and started questioning him, he is reported to have said to them, in a joking tone, ‘You know… clowns can get away with murder.’
Gacy was arrested in the winter of 1978. When that happened, the image of Pogo, the sadistic clown-murderer in full make.up, was burned onto the retina of the American public almost overnight. The dramatic reveal almost certainly paved the way for evil clowns to smile, laugh, and murder their way into every nook and cranny of the popular imagination in subsequent decades. In 1986, we got Stephen King’s novel It with the terrifying clown Pennywise. Many killer clowns would follow, including the Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), Twisty from American Horror Story (2011-), and of course the enduring Pennywise from the TV adaptation of It (1990).
A photo pf John Wayne Gacy in the guise of Pogo the Clown.
A TV series adaptation of It released in 1990. The series’ two episodes featured Tim Curry as the iconic killer clown.
There is no question that clowns can be scary. Pennywise, in all his incarnations, most certainly is. But is our culture’s coulrophobia—our seemingly collective fear of clowns—rooted in more than the vagaries of popular culture and the shock of a lone serial killer? Are clowns somehow inherently scary? There are several reasons to suspect that they are.
As horror buffs and scholars alike have noted, clowns are eminently unpredictable. There is no telling what goes on inside the head of a clown. First there is the thick makeup, which literally masks the clown’s facial expressions. Social creatures that we are, we judge others’ mental states at least partly by looking at what a frown, a wink, or indeed a smile reveals. This is one way of getting information about the person’s beliefs and desires so that we can judge what they are up to. We are understandably creeped out when we cannot get access to such information, and the clown’s painted face certainly frustrates our efforts. Deciphering the clown’s mental states is made even harder by the clown’s constant smiling, which, as we all know perfectly well, is really a façade. No sane person is deliriously happy all the time. The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) plays up this psychological fact when he tells Batman conflicting stories about how he got the scars that make up his permanent smile. We are left to wonder what the real story behind it, and behind the Joker himself, is.
“Do you want to know how I got these scars?” Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)
The unnerving expressive reticence of the clown has been connected with a psychological phenomenon known as the uncanny valley. The term was coined by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970 to account for the strange phenomenon that human-like robots creep us out the most when they look and act a lot like us, but not exactly like us; when something’s ‘a bit off,’ as they say. Research would later bear him out. We find robots and other artificial agents more interesting and appealing as they come to seem more like us—but then, at some point, there is a switch. We begin to find them unsettling or even repulsive. Perhaps we do this because, suddenly, we no longer know how to classify the strange thing standing before us. Is it a human being, like myself, with desires, thoughts, and fears that I can understand and resonate to emotionally? Or is it an uncaring machine that pushes those same emotional buttons in me, only it does so coldly and mechanically? We cannot be sure. And uncertainty, as psychologists Frank Andrews Sara Koehnke have shown, is intimately bound up with creepiness (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0732118X16300320).
‘Creepy girl’—a computer-animated girl whom most of us would like to see banished to the uncanny valley.
The uncanny valley seems a fittingly unsettling place to hold the key to the clown’s scare potential. Clowns are much like the rest of us in most respects, but they seem to differ bizarrely from the average person in their limited emotional and expressive range. That alone makes them seem creepily unpredictable, and their jubilant and erratic behavior does nothing to temper that impression. Add to these unfunny characteristics the fact that popular culture has suffused the image of the clown with horror. Clowns, we now know from both fiction and reality, can harbor unspeakable evil, and so we cannot help but sense its presence somewhere behind the clown’s inscrutable white visage.
Bill Skaarsgaard would seem to have known all this when he prepared to act the part of Pennywise in the new It adaptation. As he has stated in an interview with The New York Times, he wanted the clown to appear extremely unstable—“constantly on the level of bursting” —from the evil within. His job was arguably made easier by the clown figure’s creepy characteristics and sinister presence in popular culture. Not so strange, after all, that we dread Pennywise and his ilk.
Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen is a PhD student at the Department of English, Aarhus University.