Blame it on Charles Dickens. The great Victorian writer was the one who first wrote about a “scary clown” in The Pickwick Papers, according to a Time magazine article posted online Thursday morning, right about the same time Prince George schools were put on lockdown after an Instagram post of a cartoon image of three menacing clowns holding guns with the post “every school in PG about to be hit.”
The Time article, written in response to the wave of clown sightings across North America since late August, explains the fascination and fear of clowns, dating back to court jesters in the Renaissance era and the Punch and Judy puppet shows. Shakespeare included a fool in King Lear and Puck, the mischievous elf, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both precursors of the modern clown.
Time quotes Benjamin Radford, the author of Bad Clowns, who notes that clowns have mostly been up to no good during their history in popular culture, as troublemakers through to sadistic killers.
The image of clowns improved through most of the 20th century, the Time article notes, first with travelling circuses and then, after the Second World War, with the arrival of Bozo the Clown and Ronald McDonald.
Yet the Time piece ignores how bad clowns were still running around loose in American pop culture, the most famous example being Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker.
McDonald’s doesn’t use its iconic clown in its promotions much any more, partly to avoid criticism of marketing to impressionable kids, but also because most kids are scared of clowns, even ones named Ronald McDonald.
Stephen King put clowns right back into the bad category 30 years ago, with his book It, featuring Pennywise the clown. To this day, nothing frightens the little ones and creeps out adults like an adult male in garish face paint, bright red hair, big red shoes and a ridiculously colourful costume.
For young and old alike, the clown comes bearing mirth, disguising its real intentions of exploiting the innocence of youth. It’s that deceit that makes clowns such fearsome characters.
During the first clown sightings in South Carolina in the late summer, it seems people were dressing up and doing nothing more than walking through residential areas in the middle of the night, spurring panicked calls to police, some of which probably sounded like this:
“9-1-1. What is your emergency?”
“There’s a man dressed as a clown walking down my street!”
“And what is this man doing?”
“He’s just walking. No, wait! He’s stopped. Now he’s looking at me! He sees me watching him through the living-room window!”
“Is he on your property?”
“No, he’s on the sidewalk.”
“Is he moving toward you?”
“No, I told you — he’s looking at me!”
“Is he armed?”
“Yes — with big, scary eyes and now he’s smiling at me!”
“So a man was walking down the street and he stopped because he saw you watching him through your window and now he’s smiling at you?”
“Yes, but he’s a clown! Send someone to arrest him right away! I pay my taxes!”
On one hand, the whole thing sounds hysterical, but imagine waking up in the middle of the night, taking a glance out the front window into the darkness while chewing on some Tums to settle an upset tummy and seeing someone dressed in a clown costume standing under the street light two houses down. Even for those without a clown phobia, that’s a pee-your-pyjamas surprise.
The prank comes with some risk, with reports from several American cities of citizens pulling out their guns and shooting clowns in their midst. A fake news website fanned the flames with the false report that Congress had passed a law authorizing civilians to shoot and kill clowns on sight.
Before somebody gets hurt, everyone needs to turn down the heat on the clown anxiety.
As for Thursday’s school lockdowns, Prince George RCMP arrested two teens. In the real world, clowns are no match for the law.
Neil Godbout is managing editor of the Prince George Citizen.
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