Episode 97: Clowns

Halloween is a time to face your fears. And Julia is making Amanda come along with her as she faces one of her biggest fears: clowns. Learn why we’re afraid of clowns, who started the “killer clown” trope, and where the killer clown sighting phenomenon comes from.


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Amanda: Welcome to Spirits Podcast, a boozy dive into mythology, legends and folklore. Every week, we pour a drink and learn about a new story from around the world. I'm Amanda.

Julia: And I'm Julia.

Amanda: And this is episode 97, Clowns.

Julia: Yeah. I faced a big fear in this episode but I make it good.

Amanda: I am right there with you in the fear because you made me endure some things and now we get to share those with our audience.

Julia: I did. I'm so glad that I made us record that as you watched it. You'll see what we're talking about in just a few minutes, but I'm sorry and also I love you.

Amanda: You know who does not have a debilitating fear of clowns?

Julia: Is it our new patrons, Sarah, Aime, Taylor and Betty?

Amanda: Yes. And our supporting producer level patrons who make a little like tickle down their spine when they see a clown but they can overcome it. Philip, Julie, Kristina, Eyor, Josie, Amara, Ella, Neil, Jessica, Maria, Ryan, Feelfresh and Debra.

Julia: You all can fight the evil clown that is clearly the main villain in Stephen King's, It.

Amanda: Thanks as well to our legend level patrons: Alyssa, Zoe, Casey, Sara, Sandra, Audra, Mercedes, Jack and Lian. Now, these legend level patrons are going to be receiving a 20% off coupon to our brand new merch when it opens in just two weeks. Everybody on October 17th, that's pledging to our Patreon at the four-dollar tier and above, are going to get that special coupon. We're not going to give that discount again, we are not going to give it after October 17th so if you want to get it on it, you have two weeks left.

Julia: And let's just say, that merch is sweet. We've seen all of the markups, they are all gorgeous. I am so excited to share it all with you.

Amanda: And we are posting a new hint about what the new items could be on our Patreon, public for everyone to look at. That's at patreon.com/spiritspodcast.

Julia: So Amanda, do you remember the drink that I made us this episode?

Amanda: I remember it being orange, the color of horror.

Julia: Yes, orange is the color of horror. It was called a killer clown cocktail. It featured, of all things, Sour Patch vodka which I made myself.

Amanda: You did. It felt like refined college. Like, "Yes we have been graduated for four years." And yes, we do steep candy with vodka.

Julia: Yeah. Sometimes you got to do what you got to do and when it's Halloween time, you use that candy to your advantage and you make it boozy.

Amanda: Jules, do you have a recommendation for me this week? What have you been watching?

Julia: I do. Jake and I have been watching Korean comedy/drama called Oh My Ghost on Netflix. It is wonderful. It is genuinely one of the best shows I have ever seen in my entire life. There are only like 13 episodes of it. They're all over an hour long which is wonderful. It is about a girl who can see ghosts who works at a restaurant with a really famous chef and is kind of in love with him. She gets possessed by a ghost who helps her make the chef fall in love with her. It's amazing. It's so good.

Amanda: I love it.

Julia: Do you know what else I love?

Amanda: What?

Julia: I love our sponsors for this episode.

Amanda: Whoa. You mean Calm and Audible?

Julia: I do. I do mean those.

Amanda: Can you go to calm.com/spirits for 25% off of a Calm premium subscription?

Julia: I'm pretty sure you can.

Amanda: Can you go to audible.com/spirits or text spirits to 500500 for a 30-day free trial and a free book?

Julia: You absolutely can. I know that one.

Amanda: And can you come see Spirits live in Brooklyn on October 14th at Brooklyn Horror?

Julia: Yes, it's so easy to do all of those things.

Amanda: What?

Julia: Well, only easy if you live in or around Brooklyn. But you should come if you do those things.

Amanda: And I lost my momentum on the hype train here but we also wanted to thank David Shields, one of our listeners, for sending us two bottles of beer that he brewed for his brother's wedding and some stickers and a beautiful card. They are so lovely. And if you want to send us any kind of gift, card, postcard from your travels, maybe some booze, maybe your favorite liquor that's locally produced and we can't get here in New York City, I'm just giving you ideas, you can. Our P.O. Box address is Multitude P.O. Box 3241 Astoria, NY 11103. That's also on our website, spiritspodcast.com in the contact page.

Julia: It's super easy to find in case you don't want to rewind and hear our voice say it multiple times.

Amanda: You know, it's really just up to you. But regardless, enjoy Spirits Podcast episode 97, Clowns.

Julia: Clowns.

So Amanda.

Amanda: Yes.

Julia: When I was four years old, I have a very distinct memory.

Amanda: Okay.

Julia: I remember coming downstairs kinda late one night and my dad was watching TV, he was watching a movie on TV.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: And I distinctly remember watching a balloon on the screen pop, a man getting covered in blood and then a clown laughing and screaming.

Amanda: Julia, and we wonder why you are the way you are.

Julia: Which like, okay, in hindsight, I was a four year old and I probably shouldn't have been watching Stephen King's It.

Amanda: Yeah. But then would you be the person you are today?

Julia: Maybe.

Amanda: Probably not.

Julia: Maybe. But also Tim Curry is terrifying in that series.

Amanda: Yeah but you're-

Julia: Have you seen it?

Amanda: ... to the scars. No babe.

Julia: Listeners, I'm going to have Amanda live pull up right now the trailer for Stephen King's It. The original like 1994 TV series, I want to say.

Amanda: Okay. We aren't going to meet that volume because copyright. All right, two minutes long. Kids walking through a thing, very '90s. Okay, a library or school maybe. Got a black and white photo, probably those kids are dead now. On the box car, aw. All right, too much childhood idyllicness. Someone's going to die. Oh, someone's throwing a rock, please don't do that.

Julia: Oh wait, I just realized I should have you watch the first scene, that's even better.

Amanda: All right, I have googled Stephen King, It, opening scene.

Julia: Okay.

Amanda: You have a cute little babe, don't go downstairs baby. That's where sad things are. My grandma's basement was like this with the unfinished stairs and also immediately when you open the basement door, just everything that's unchild safe, like cleaning supplies, nails, hammers.

Julia: Wax in this case.

Amanda: Oh, is that what he has?

Julia: Yes.

Amanda: Oh no, don't do that.

Julia: So this is Georgie, he is the main character of the story, which is basically a Stephen King insert. That's his younger brother.

Amanda: Okay. So the baby has the adorable Paddington style yellow raincoat on.

Julia: He does.

Amanda: And this boy used some glue to, what, make him a paper hat or something, a boat?

Julia: It is a boat and he used liquid wax so that it doesn't ... It's a paper boat.

Amanda: Smart. Cute.

Julia: 'Cause he's going to go outside and use the boat in the rain like you do when you're a child in the '60s.

Amanda: I mean, what else was there to do?

Julia: Or '70s. I don't remember how old these kids are supposed to be.

Amanda: This boy looks blared. Oh nice, that boat swim pretty well. Going down a curb in the rain.

Julia: I'm going to have you forward the scene, turn the volume on, because you need to hear Tim Curry's horrifying thing.

Amanda: There's some very sharp piano music. Don't like this one a bit. Oh, ducking under a barricade. Don't do that. Oh, oh. Oh no.

Julia: Not his boat.

Amanda: Going down a different barrier. Child. Oh-

Julia: Georgie no! Oh, down the storm drain.

Amanda: Oh no, does the clown come from the storm drain? Oh no.

Julia: Oh God.

Amanda: No. His eyes are so bloodshot. A balloon! Yeah, Georgie, don't take that from strangers.

Julia: I'm getting actually nervous. I'm not even watching this, I'm just watching you watch it. I'm just like, "Oh no."

Amanda: This is such a like classic clown. Also the fact that he's a bald spot, is terrifying.

Julia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amanda: Oh no. Oh Georgie don't reach in. Oh no. It's just a boat. You can make a new one. Your brother had so much wax, so much wax. I wonder how many hours of makeup Tim Curry had to do?

Julia: It depends on which version of the makeup he's in 'cause there's two versions of Pennywise.

Amanda: Man, this clown is saying this kid's name 15 times, too many.

Julia: Right, yeah. They need you to-

Amanda: Don't reach.

Julia: They need you to know Georgie's name very early on.

Amanda: No! Fuck!

Julia: Yeah.

Amanda: That was like a yellowish dog teeth mouth. The kid dies?

Julia: Yeah.

Amanda: Julia.

Julia: Yeah. It's even worse in the remake 'cause you watch him get his arm bitten off.

Amanda: Yikes.

Julia: Yeah, it's bad.

Amanda: What's the point of this?

Julia: 'Cause patron Julia, four year old Julia, just watched that scene.

Amanda: Bad.

Julia: Yeah. Not good. Definitely not good. I like to think of myself as a rational person but probably one of my biggest irrational fears is clowns.

Amanda: That was why I had to watch that?

Julia: Yes. So you will understand why I have a fear of clowns.

Amanda: Okay.

Julia: But actually I'm not the only one, Amanda. According to a poll that Vox Media put out, more Americans are afraid of clowns than they are of climate change, terrorism and death.

Amanda: Okay.

Julia: Which is kind of fucked up but also I can't blame 'em. I'm one of those people.

Amanda: No, I understand. Yeah.

Julia: From the poll, out of 2,000 Americans, 42% of those surveyed said that they were afraid of clowns and people between 18 and 29 were the most freaked out of clowns with one in three claiming that they suffered from coulrophobia, which is the irrational fear of clowns.

Amanda: I mean, it's not irrational if Tim Curry's going to come eat you from a storm drain.

Julia: I know, right?

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: Jesus. I love Tim Curry, he's a fantastic actor. I just like I'm a little bit afraid of him.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: Just like normal Tim Curry now because of this movie.

Amanda: Yeah, the shot with the teeth really did it for me.

Julia: That's real bad. But I think in order to figure out how we got to this idea of the creepy clown as I just made you watch-

Amanda: No.

Julia: ... we need to understand the origin of the clown in general.

Amanda: No.

Julia: Yes. That's this whole episode, it's just going to be clowns.

Amanda: Oh, my hands are sweating already. Okay.

Julia: I'm going to establish that we know several people who do clowning as a profession or have studied clowning.

Amanda: And we really respect it. It is an art.

Julia: It is an art. It is very interesting. We are not talking about-

Amanda: Theatrical clowning.

Julia: We are going to talk about theatrical clowning but I want to establish that theatrical clowning is different from creepy ass clowns that were just like are terrifying.

Amanda: Yes, that's true.

Julia: Okay, cool. Establishing that off the bat. Both of us studied commedia dell'arte in high school as part of our theater training Amanda.

Amanda: We did.

Julia: Do you remember anything about it?

Amanda: Well, my first show I worked on was called Scapino which is a fuss about the Italian trickster character, Scapin, and it was very fun and clowns were there for comedic relief. And there were some types and that's about all I got.

Julia: Okay, good. We're going to talk about those types.

Amanda: All right.

Julia: Specifically the clown as we know it now came from the Zanni archetype in commedia dell'arte, which is the servant/trickster. Which there's many servant/tricksters-

Amanda: Scapin.

Julia: ... such as Scapin. We actually get the word zany from Zanni which is really cool.

Amanda: Ooh, didn't know that.

Julia: In turn, the Zanni itself is derived from the quote rustic fool character in ancient Greek and Roman theater.

Amanda: All right.

Julia: They were defined by childish characteristics and the idea that they were often dressed in peasant clothing or else ill-fitting garments.

Amanda: Right, which is the potato sack shirt that you see these folks wearing.

Julia: The actual word clown didn't appear until 1560 and at that point it meant rustic or peasant.

Amanda: Okay.

Julia: And it may have come from the Scandinavian word for clumsy. We're not entirely sure.

Amanda: Yikes. I bet that came from a lettered individual in the higher ranks.

Julia: Probably. By 1600, the term was being used for fool or gesture and even appeared in the works of Shakespeare like Othello and The Winter's Tale.

Amanda: Yes.

Julia: Actually, let's take a quick detour and talk about Shakespeare's clowns.

Amanda: I'm actually surprised that it came about so recently. Thought it'd be something that arose for the first time in the 1920s or '30s being a trademark of art being made today, which doesn't seem that wild. But looking back, it seems like the past is the past, once and forever. So it surprises me that Shakespeare was born the same century as the word clown first arose.

Julia: I know. Isn't that weird?

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: So talking about Shakespeare's clowns, Shakespeare tends to use commedia dell'arte style in that there are two types of clown. There is the rustic, country bumpkin or the professional fool.

Amanda: Yes.

Julia: For example, Costard in Love's Labour's Lost, is funny because compared to the noble characters he's surrounded by, he doesn't have the same characteristics as everyone else. So he is specifically funny by his own terms.

Amanda: And not having the same social training as other people and making quote unquote like, "clumsy" errors or whatever. That often is the basis for the humor.

Julia: Right.

Amanda: Or using crusted language or just being kind of ... I call that sort of fish out of water character.

Julia: Yes, absolutely. And then the professional fool tends to appear in tragedies such as Othello.

Amanda: Oh, Lia, yeah.

Julia: So they play servants or companions to kings. They're often known for wordplay, insults and are the tricksters and deceivers.

Amanda: Yes.

Julia: So they're the reality check of the show, which is what the source I was using said that about them and I'm like, "I really like that. That's fucking true." They bring down the other serious characters to their level.

Amanda: Yes, they do.

Julia: Like the whole scene with the Porter in Macbeth.

Amanda: I was just thinking about that where, "Oh, here's a bunch of murders. Oh nope, here's a bunch of sex jokes from a guy who's drunk." And it gives-

Julia: Always need one of those.

Amanda: ... gives the crowd a little bit of a moment to regroup. That's how our director characterized it anyway to kind of help the actors understand what they were doing and not just seem like completely random in the middle of the play. But it also is like deeply grim when there is this like dramatic irony of a character being foolish or whatever, just funny when there's something very serious going on that only the audience knows about.

Julia: Yeah. And Shakespeare does that so well honestly, especially utilizing comedy to kind of ... If it was just so grim dark all the time, Shakespeare wouldn't be as good as it is.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: Yeah. So the next evolution of the clown is the harlequinade, which developed in England also in the 17th century. This was specifically a slapstick adaptation of commedia dell'arte themes and focuses on five specific characters. The Harlequin, which is a traditional Zanni type character. Interestingly, all of the characters in harlequinade are some form of trickster character.

Amanda: Huh. I mean, they're the best.

Julia: Yeah. There's Columbine, who is the love interest and sometimes is basically the female version of the Harlequin.

Amanda: Okay.

Julia: There is the Pantaloon, which is the Columbine's greedy father who wants to separate the lovers.

Amanda: That I remember from commedia dell'arte.

Julia: The Pantaloon is assisted by the clown and the servant, Pedro, who pines after Columbine himself.

Amanda: Right.

Julia: Pedro in particular is a really interesting archetype because he is the basis of sort of like the sad character that shows up later on.

Amanda: And I should say that one of my uncles is a huge fan of Cirque du Soleil and has seen lots and lots and lots of their productions and taken Connor and me to a few as well. And they make really effective use of clowning. Like beautiful, silent, like pantomime style clowns. They adapt them into different productions, they kind of roam the audience. Like it's super effective. I super, super get it. Also the sad one creeps me out.

Julia: Yeah. I get it. 'Cause they just look so sad and melancholy.

Amanda: I know.

Julia: We're going to talk about why clowns are creepy later. I have a whole section on the psychology of why clowns are creepy.

Amanda: Let's just rip the bandaid, let's just do it.

Julia: So up until this point, the clown had only really been in plays even if they were comedies or slapstick like the harlequinade. But they extended to the circus clown during the 19th century. Clowns were added to the modern circus because the circus originated as a quester in shows and owners wanted to keep their audience amused in between performances.

Amanda: Did not know that.

Julia: Yeah. Isn't that interesting?

Amanda: Yeah. I'm actually reading a book right now called Highbrow/Lowbrow. Did I mention this on Spirits already?

Julia: I think you might have but please continue.

Amanda: Yeah, I think I might have mentioned it in a pre-roll. It talks about how Shakespeare was entertainment for the people early on. Like in Boston there were like 45 different productions happening one season or some crazy number like that. But there was often a fascicle type entertainment that happened between acts of the show even to kind of keep the populace entertained. And it was this kind of increasing like quote unquote like, I don't know, "cheapening of the high A art" that made people take Shakespeare back. Like make intellectuals take Shakespeare back. It's like, "No, this is how you properly appreciate, this is how you properly act during a performance as an audience member." And just kind of police people's bodies and needs and entertainment. So sounds like this is kind of a similar trend where they're sort of taking like a highbrow form and adding lowbrow entertainment as it were to keep the audience there and paying.

Julia: But I mean, I think commedia dell'arte has always been like lowbrow comedy.

Amanda: For sure. Like working people comedy.

Julia: Yeah. And like the harlequinade was slapstick so that's like very much like the Punch and Judy kind of style.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: And then even Shakespeare, like you just said, was lowbrow and the fact that people are trying to claim it back is-

Amanda: So many dick jokes.

Julia: ... silly.

Amanda: So many.

Julia: Clowns were added to the modern circus. The clown as we know it was developed by a man named Tom Belling, who created the red clown or as he called him, Auguste.

Amanda: Okay.

Julia: He was identifiable by his quote "lower class persona." This is a common trait that we keep seeing at the formation of the clown. He had a red nose, white makeup around the eyes and mouth, oversized clothes and specifically oversized shoes. From here, we get the infamous Bozo the Clown.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: Do you know anything about Bozo the Clown?

Amanda: No. Only that he was the basis for a character on the Simpsons that my dad really loved and I found very sad and creepy.

Julia: Yeah, that's about right. So Bozo was actually one of the first results of franchising in early television, which is why his imagery is so pervasive in our collective memory as a country. He was originally created by Alan Livingstone as part of a children storytelling record album and read along book series. So you buy the album, you also read along with the book.

Amanda: Oh yeah, nice.

Julia: But after that, he appeared on U.S. TV for the first time in 1949. He was well-known for his blue and red costume, oversized red hair and white clown makeup. Based on Bozo's popularity, we get the dreaded birthday clown here in the United States.

Amanda: Uh-huh.

Julia: From here, Amanda, we're going to transition into the evil clown stuff. I'm nervous. But first, I really, really I'm going to need a refill.

Amanda: Let's do it.

Julia: Amanda, after all this really creepy clown talk, do you know what I need more than anything right now?

Amanda: Do you need to just like chill the fuck out for one second in this world?

Julia: Yes, please. Do you have a suggestion for how to do that?

Amanda: I do. It's one of our sponsors this week, Calm. Now Calm is an app for sleep meditation and relaxation. It is genuinely good everybody. It is so well done. It has soothing sounds. You can listen to rain or birds or the sound of a rainforest while you're working. It has sleep stories where people with beautiful Scottish accents tells you a beautiful story. ut it's like they're singing you a lullaby to sleep because I fall ... Actually had to listen to the same one over and over several nights in a row 'cause I fall asleep halfway through and I want to hear the end. But Calm is the best way to be mindful, to learn to meditate, to get some help going to sleep. And I don't know about y'all, but if you are anything like Julia and me, that sounds like something you really need right now.

Julia: Yeah. And if you head to calm.com/spirits, you'll get 25% off a calm premium subscription. Which includes hundreds of hours of premium programs including guided meditations to help anxiety, stress, focus and relationships, sleep stories like Amanda mentioned and so much more.

Amanda: We really love Calm and we think you will too. So head over to Calm, C-A-L-M.com/spirits.

Julia: That is Calm, C-A-L-M.com/spirits.

Amanda: One of the best ways to ignore the scary realities around you is by reading a book. And when it is dark and you're under your covers and you don't have a flashlight or your mom told you it's lights out, you can listen to an audiobook instead.

Julia: Or if you decide you don't want to sleep that night, you can listen to Stephen King's It on Audible.

Amanda: Yeah, maybe you have been cursed by a witch where if you fall asleep a monster will get you new nightmares.

Julia: You're describing-

Amanda: Freddy Krueger.

Julia: Yeah, A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Amanda: Aren't you so proud?

Julia: There's no witch in that but I'm proud of you anyway.

Amanda: Okay. Well, in any case, if you want to scare yourself, and listen, as human beings, we love scaring ourselves, it's just one of our primal things. It's like, "Oh my God I'm going to die. No I'm not." That's the best feeling. Julia, tell me about It, what is it all about?

Julia: It is a story about a clown. Well, he's not just a clown.

Amanda: Oh oh.

Julia: Basically his clown is how he lures children and then he transforms into their worst fear because basically, and I'm not exactly quoting but, fear makes children taste better.

Amanda: Ah, ground breaking.

Julia: And so, a group of kids, called the losers club, they decide they're going to kill it.

Amanda: Okay.

Julia: Because it comes around every 30 years or so or whatever, and then decides, "Hey, I'mma eat some kids for a year then I'm going to go back to sleep." And like, that's fair It, like you do you. Power nap. And so the kids defeat It but they don't kill It and then they have to come back to their hometown after 30 years to destroy it once and for all but as adults.

Amanda: That's a pretty interesting premise.

Julia: Yeah.

Amanda: I think that's really cool. Well, I may actually be tempted now to sign up for a free trial on Audible and listen to this audiobook.

Julia: I think you totally should.

Amanda: Listeners, if you want to suffer along with me, and let's be honest, I think you do, go to audible.com/spirits or text spirits to 500500 to start a free 30-day trial, which includes a free book. And that free book could be It, could be Sunshine and Puppy Dogs. And get you something that isn't horrifying offer October but this is what we like to do.

Julia: And I highly recommend It because it is a long audiobook. It is a long book, it is a long audiobook and you will definitely get your money's worth.

Amanda: Yeah, for sure. That is at audible.com/spirits or text spirits to 5005000. We love Audible, thank you for being a sponsor. And if y'all want to support the show, this is a great way to go sign up and find a new audiobook of your own.

Julia: And now, let's get back to the story.

Amanda: Oh, if we have to.

Julia: All right Amanda.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: Creepy clowns.

Amanda: Okay.

Julia: Let's just try and do this, okay?

Amanda: Listen, I have a drink in hand and I can do pretty much anything with some spiked mulled cider.

Julia: That's completely fair. So where did the evil clown character come from? And this is a highly debated topic on the internet.

Amanda: Really?

Julia: Yeah.

Amanda: Huh.

Julia: You know, people love creepy pastas and scary things and stuff like that.

Amanda: This is true.

Julia: So figuring out where the creepy clown originated is kind of interesting. One of the first examples that is often sited is Edgar Allan Poe's Hop-Frog. Do you know that one? I know you know a little bit of Poe.

Amanda: Didn't read that one.

Julia: So it's about a court jester who is abused by the king he serves who quote "seemed to only live for joking and abuse the jester for his own amusement." In revenge, the jester dresses the king and his cabinet in costumes saturated in tar and covered in flacks for a masquerade and then lights them on fire and burns him to death.

Amanda: Yikes.

Julia: Additionally, Leoncavallo, Pagliacci, is an opera that features a murderous clown and it ends in several deaths before the final line, which is la commedia e finita, which is the comedy is finished.

Amanda: I very much appreciate that blood-soaked narrator man.

Julia: In La femme de Tabarin, a clown murders his cheating wife on stage and as she lays dying, she smears her husband's lips with her own blood.

Amanda: Makes sense. Makes sense. Makes sense.

Julia: Giving the clown appearance.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: So that's a couple of early, early examples for you. The modern evil clown seems to make its first experience in, of all places, National Lampoon with Frenchy the Clown.

Amanda: Huh.

Julia: The character was created by Nick Bakay and illustrated by Allan Kupperberg. Not only was Frenchy evil and bitter because, by the way the created said that he was quote "Ever so slightly embittered and pissed off at the world," it is also said that the character quote "Had a way with the ladies." And there are several instances where the characters imply to sexual assault women. Great, thank you National Lampoon.

Amanda: A truly evil clown.

Julia: So actually, the Frenchy the clown strips were so bad that the magazines lawyers actually refused to publish several of the strips that were submitted.

Amanda: And it's my understanding that National Lampoon is like a edgy comedy magazine. So it's like say something that that would be objectionable even to the council for the magazine.

Julia: I mean, National Lampoon is infamous for its movie series that featured Chevy Chase pretty heavily. So I think that says something.

Amanda: That's something you have to know. Yeah.

Julia: Yeah. So another theory as to why the evil clown emerged is because of John Wayne Gacy. Do you know who John Wayne Gacy is?

Amanda: I do.

Julia: Okay, good.

Amanda: I like murders.

Julia: Good. I will describe it.

Amanda: I don't like murdering. You know what I mean.

Julia: Yeah, I know what you mean. I will describe to our listeners in case they don't know who John Wayne Gacy is. Gacy was a serial killer who murdered at least 33 teenage boys or young men between 1972 and 1978 in the Chicago area. He infamously buried several of his victims in the crawl space of its home or somewhere on his property. He is also infamously known as the clown killer because Gacy was a goddamn party clown.

Amanda: He was.

Julia: I should note that he never did his murders in his clown costume as far as anyone can tell but I still don't trust it. He was part of a group called the Jolly Joker clown club, which is group that dressed as clowns and performed at fundraising events and parades and sometimes at children's hospitals.

Amanda: Yikes.

Julia: He went by Pogo the Clown and later Patches the Clown. And created his own costumes and taught himself how to do the makeup. One of the more notable things about Gacy's costume is that unlike the rounded mouth makeup that most clowns do in order to not scare the children, Gacy would do his makeup with sharp points.

Amanda: Yikes.

Julia: Gacy after arrested would state that acting as a clown allowed him to regress into childhood, which God, there are better ways of doing that my dude.

Amanda: Listen, if a big part of your life revolves around how to find more people to murder, you know, we got some things to work through.

Julia: I would like you to google search John Wayne Gacy clown please so you can see how creepy it is.

Amanda: Oh no. Oh he made paintings of clowns.

Julia: Oh, even fucking better.

Amanda: Yikes.

Julia: Yeah. The super sharp mouth.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: Yeah, that's bad. Then there was Stephen King's It, which we've already discussed really. In the novel, it is the monster that feeds mostly on children by luring them with a form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown which you saw.

Amanda: I did.

Julia: It chooses a form that will scare the children the most because according to the monster, fear makes children more delicious. So all good things.

Amanda: It's a very good line.

Julia: I mean, yeah.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: I think he's more detailed in the book and the movie but he basically describes it as aging meat. Like it makes it more yummy.

Amanda: It's horrifying but it's horrifying.

Julia: Yeah.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: But like meat consumption can be horrifying at times. I am a carnivore, I will eat whatever you put in front of me. But the idea what we do to meat to make it more delicious is a little scary sometimes.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: This cultural fear has led to several weird urban legends and phenomenon that now that the internet exists, just perpetuate fear through sensationalizing stories about clowns or starting urban legends about them. For example, there was a woman named Marlene Warren who was murdered in Florida in 1990.

Amanda: Okay.

Julia: Her doorbell rang and when she opened the door, a clown was on her doorstep with flowers and balloons.

Amanda: No.

Julia: A moment later, the clown shot her in the face and fled in a Chrysler LeBaron.

Amanda: No please.

Julia: Warren died two days later and her murder remained unsolved literally until last year.

Amanda: What the hell man?

Julia: Where they arrested a woman who apparently was having an affair with Warren's husband at the time and then married him after Warren died.

Amanda: Oof.

Julia: Yeah.

Amanda: That's just like ... I mean, I get it from a disguised point of view and also I suppose walking around the neighborhood you're not going to look conspicuous. But like damn.

Julia: But that's a thing that people used to do. They used to hire people like singing telegrams.

Amanda: Yeah, it's true.

Julia: People to show up with costumes at your doorstep with like-

Amanda: I guess like JibJab eCards made that no longer necessary for us.

Julia: Thank God. I would never answer a door if I saw a fucking clown on my doorstep.

Amanda: I had a discussion with my partner very early on like, "I don't like surprises man. If you want to do a surprise, ran it by Julia. If she says no, don't do a surprise."

Julia: That's fair. That is true. And then there are the phantom clown sightings that have been happening since 1981.

Amanda: No.

Julia: Phantom clown sightings since 1981.

Amanda: No.

Julia: The first siting was in Brookline, Massachusetts where children said that-

Amanda: A creepy place let me just say.

Julia: Have you been to Brookline, Massachusetts?

Amanda: Yeah. A bunch of haunted fucking houses y'all.

Julia: All right, whatever. Children said that a man dressed up like a clown tried to lure them into a van. This being-

Amanda: Stranger danger, especially when clowns.

Julia: This being the '80s, obviously led to a panic with sightings throughout the Midwest and Northeast. It spread over the next 30 years with sightings in Phoenix, Arizona all the way to New Jersey and even Honduras.

Amanda: Good God.

Julia: I should note that no police officer has ever seen any of the evil clowns.

Amanda: It'll be too easy Julia.

Julia: I know.

Amanda: Come on.

Julia: But several police departments have said that they've investigated the reports.

Amanda: And I guess no ...

Julia: And not much.

Amanda: No dice.

Julia: No.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: It's like, "Yeah, the kids said they saw a creepy clown. We didn't see a creepy clown. Case closed."

Amanda: Don't worry about it, bloop.

Julia: There is one confirmed evil clown and I put confirmed in quotes here.

Amanda: Okay.

Julia: Known as the North Hampton clown who became an internet sensation because he would stand motionless in North Hampton streets in England since 2013. Just dressed as a clown being creepy.

Amanda: Oh, that's very good.

Julia: There was a whole spat of evil clown sightings in 2016 as you might remember. Do you remember the evil clown sightings?

Amanda: I might have blocked it out. What was this all about?

Julia: That's fair. The first of these sightings supposedly occurred in August in South Carolina when a nine year old told his mother that two men dressed as a clown tried to lure him into the woods.

Amanda: Yikes.

Julia: By mid October, clown sightings and attacks had been reported in nearly every state of the United States, in nine out of 13 provinces in Canada and 18 other countries.

Amanda: I guess copycat.

Julia: Yeah.

Amanda: Wow.

Julia: The internet makes it so that this people be like, "I saw a creepy clown somewhere." And then everyone's like, "Well, we also saw creepy clowns." Or people go out and they dress like creepy clowns.

Amanda: Yeah. Well, it primes the other witnesses to see them and it unfortunately gives ideas to people who want to so discord and mayhem at best and commit crimes at worst.

Julia: Yeah. A lot of these were just people pulling pranks but there were some people that took it very seriously. For example, the Russian Embassy in London issued a warning for Russian and British citizens because of the clown scare.

Amanda: Man, embassy warnings are very serious but sometimes they're also very good.

Julia: Yeah. A bunch of news outlets reported ridiculous stories about how there was going to be a clown initiated attack purge style on October 31st of 2016.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: That was mostly bullshit but there was an attack that happened in Orange County where a man and his family were attacked on Halloween by 20 people wearing clown masks.

Amanda: Oh God.

Julia: Like just beat 'em up.

Amanda: Did they find like links to enemies this person may have had or random.

Julia: Nothing ever got track down. These people went to the hospital and that was it.

Amanda: That's fucked up.

Julia: Yeah.

Amanda: I know. Don't use Halloween as an excuse to commit crimes.

Julia: No, it's dumb.

Amanda: Commit small crimes.

Julia: Small crimes.

Amanda: Just small crimes.

Julia: You can't do crimes.

Amanda: Began do small crimes otherwise don't.

Julia: Or white collar crimes. Not anything that would hurt a person.

Amanda: Do like a victimless-

Julia: White collar crime.

Amanda: Beat the system crime. That's the kind of crime that I don't endorse your honor but would enjoy reading about maybe.

Julia: I'm not encouraging you to scam banks out of money but they are ensured.

Amanda: Tax payers fund the FDIC.

Julia: Yeah.

Amanda: But yeah.

Julia: Where really does this phenomenon of clown fear come from? Do you have any guess?

Amanda: I think that the exaggerated features don't help. Like red and white, I think there is something that's confirmed biological that the color red, we are primed to act toward aggressively or to view as a threat. Red berries are often poisonous, stuff like that. And so I think that that maybe just has some subliminal messaging of an exaggerated face. It's why masks are scary. But also I mean, as adults, looking back, some of childhood is creepy and there's just something about that link between a childhood figure that I am like already 85% willing to believe anything from my childhood is probably creepy now.

Julia: No, that's ... You're pretty on the head there. So we'll take our first theory from Wolfgang Zucker who points out the fact that a clown's appearance is similar to modern cultural depictions of demons.

Amanda: That's true.

Julia: Saying that the clowns chalk white face in which the eyes almost disappear while the mouth is enlarged to a ghoulish bigness looks like a mask of death.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: You're right Wolfgang.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: Pretty solid.

Amanda: Yeah, like walk around any museum, look at death masks, look at ceremonial masks. Like this is a thing that our eyes know how to categorize.

Julia: Yeah. But maybe not as a child. So professor Joseph Durwin states that the fear of clown develops early on. That young children, quote, "Are very reactive to familiar body type with unfamiliar face."

Amanda: Yes.

Julia: And that there is a corelation to the uncanny valley effect when it comes to fear of clowns.

Amanda: Huh.

Julia: The psychologists also point out that people tend to not like clowns because the paint does not allow a person to see their real expressions.

Amanda: Yeah, that's true.

Julia: Additionally, a clown's actions do not align with societal standards of normal which can activate a flight or fight reaction in children.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: Like if you see a goofy guy just dancing around, you're like, "I've never seen anyone do this before. He needs to stop. This is not okay."

Amanda: Julia just did the car dealership noodle man dance and it was very terrifying. No, please stop.

Julia: Why is my noodle dance terrifying? Is 'cause we're talking about clowns?

Amanda: 'Cause it goes against societal expectations of what's normative for bodies.

Julia: That's fair. In particular, clowns are psychologically frightening because they hide their faces. This is called deindividuation, which is a state in which one's identity is hidden and as such, they no longer act like themselves.

Amanda: Which makes sense when you consider its origins. Like as a figure that is supposed to be depicting a general concept, not like a person with motives or a character with motives, but an archetype.

Julia: Just an archetype.

Amanda: Exactly. That was one of the most fascinating things that I learned about in our theater program. The fact that it was really around 14 concepts and kind of the rise of the novel that characters started being a thing we cared about and wanted to read about. Before that, it was all about known figures doing tales that we probably knew already, like folktales or archetypes like in the commedia dell'arte. So it's by design that a clown is meant to be a figure and not a character. But that's also, to people growing up now, not a thing that we expect whatsoever.

Julia: Yeah, and the really interesting part is in psychology, deindividuation, when a person sees themselves as a different person, they hold themselves to different standards. And morally, this often results in personality changes usually for the worse. And in a state of deindividuation, human beings act their worst. For example, an executioner wears a mask, enormous hate on the internet, even famous slasher films. We're talking about that kind of archetype where they're hiding their faces in order to commit these heinous acts.

Amanda: Yeah. And they become exactly a figure or something other and not a person tied to a background, tied to a moral code, tied to consequences.

Julia: Right, and I think Jake and I made you sit down last Halloween and watch Halloween with us. And as you can recall, young Michael Myers puts on that mask and kills people. And then he goes to the prison or the asylum or the prison, or whatever version we're watching, and he, for about 18 years or so, doesn't do a murder. But the minute he starts doing the murder again, it's 'cause he has that mask back on. And so, it's this idea that they're not just hiding their face because they're committing crimes, they're hiding their face because their putting on a mask that makes them the killer.

Amanda: Yeah. Or gives them that excuse to enable that part of them.

Julia: Sure.

Amanda: But I don't know. I mean, it really hits home for me. Like I experience in my depression sometimes, like depersonalization, which is this effect where you sometimes feel removed from your self, from your personality from ... Like, "Who am I? Like who made the choices for me to end up here? Like what do I believe? What do I like?" It's easy to lose touch with kind of those core aspects of your personality. So for me, what helps is like listening to my podcasts frankly and watching my video blogs. Which, sounds kind of dumb to speak about but it does help me to just remind me that this feeling will pass and that there are things in my life that I've chosen for myself that I know I enjoy. And even though I don't enjoy them right now, I will at some point.

So this is like an extreme version of that and reading about people who suffer from extreme psychological or personality disorders where they get these effects where they completely forget their old life or extreme personality changes. Like it is terrifying in a way that clowns are for some people because just tasting a little bit of that effect, I know how scary even that is.

Julia: I completely agree. And this idea that you can become separate from who you are and potentially commit these heinous acts is why the clown and the clown makeup is so scary because they don't feel like people anymore. Or they feel like people who are capable of something much, much worse than like I could ever commit.

Amanda: Yeah, especially the physical comedy, like falling down and getting back up again. At a certain point, bodies don't do that and it is, ah, now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense. That watching someone do a pratfall that would make a living body probably stay down or get back up and stagger forth, just kind of bounce back, it is unnatural in a way that makes my body go like, "No, no, no, no."

Julia: Don't do that.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: Or like when you ... One of my favorite scenes in Scapino as he rides a bike off stage and all of a sudden you hear a crashing noise and so I'm like, "Oh no, there would be broken arms and legs if that was me." And he just walks back on stage totally fine. I'm like, "No."

Amanda: That's part of the character too. Is like bouncing back from situations that he shouldn't be able to. Like getting himself into impossible scrapes and then coming back out, not just physically, but also like serving two masters or being in love with two women or whatever the situation is.

Julia: And if you tie that to the horror movie trope, constantly in horror movies we see, "Oh the killer's been defeated." And you see him, like for example Mike Myers, out of the window on the ground clearly dead and they look away for a second and they look back and he's gone. You be like, "Oh no, that is, no, not what I want." Or even when we talked about Stephen King's It, it is hurt but it is not killed and they have to come back and kill it.

Amanda: Or, and I'm going to go on a limb here and name a horror movie, is that the opening scene of Scream with the white mask where the lady's on the phone, the babysitter like-

Julia: Drew Barrymore.

Amanda: Yeah.

Julia: Yeah.

Amanda: That one. But that brings to mind too the kind of like the fundamental premise of the horror movie is like the violation of the social contract and the violation of private space and then ultimately of the self. And so, that also is a thing that you are in an impossible situation. Like it seems as if, "Okay I have a house, I have an alarm, I have a phone. I'm doing all the good things that society tells me to do and bad things shouldn't happen to me." But that is the premise of the movie. Is sometimes they do and sometimes the life looks impenetrable and yet something bad happens anyway.

Julia: And it's so interesting that you picked Scream for that example because Scream really is a commentary on the horror film up to that point and the idea that the horror movie there are certain societal contracts in a horror movie. So it's like, if you have sex, you'll die. If you are the virgin, you will make it to the end. And the interesting part about Scream is that it fucks with those standards that are set by horror movies and it's like, "Oh well, you did run upstairs so we do have to kill you now." Or something like that. It's really, really interesting that you picked that one as an example too. I really enjoyed that. Regardless of why we hate clowns, evil clowns are a pretty universal thing now. There's about 50 different just evil clown movies that have existed since the 1980s.

Amanda: Wow.

Julia: Some of the greatest villains and antagonists in pop culture are evil clowns. The Joker from Batman, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Zeebo the Clown from Are You Afraid of the Dark. Do you remember Zeebo the Clown?

Amanda: Oh no. I think I do.

Julia: Yeah, I know it's not good. Sweet Tooth from Twisted Metal, the video game. There was even an evil clown wrestler in the '90s called Doink the Clown.

Amanda: I'm not surprised.

Julia: You shouldn't be. There was an evil dentist character in wrestling. So we are going to keep being afraid of clowns for the foreseeable future with no indication of it slowing down. If anything, it's probably going to continue going because of the way that the internet is. And the way that we can keep perpetuating this scary like, "Oh no, there's clowns everywhere and they're ready to kill us and kidnap our children and things."

Amanda: Yeah, the internet is very good at going deeper into existing trends or someone's scared of clowns, well good luck. Here-

Julia: Good luck. Here's all of the evil clowns that you can possibly want.

Amanda: Yeah. But all of these reasons that we've named why clowns are scary, are also reasons why actual clowning is a very beautiful and moving art. Where being able to evoke emotion and feeling and plot with your body.

Julia: Laughter and joy.

Amanda: Exactly. It's a way that people can lose themselves in pure emotion. So definitely no disrespect to our friends who study the very physical intense art of clowning.

Julia: Yeah. It's impressive.

Amanda: Also, I'm scared of Mike Myers now so thanks.

Julia: You're welcome.

Amanda: So, as we embark on the creepiest of months, remember listeners ...

Julia: To stay creepy.

Amanda: And stay cool.