I never found clowns scary, and still don’t. I know right now there is a epidemic of bad clowns, people jumping out on passers by wearing clown masks, but they are no more scary than someone in a ski mask to me. The whole clowns are scary thing I just don’t get.
When I was growning up there were two types of clowns. Circus clowns and Pierrot clowns. Every Christmas and Easter at least one of the UKs four TV channels would show a circus, and that would include the classic circus clown. Red nose, colourful clothes, white face paint and buckets of water. Normally they were the most boring part of the show. The point where you would turn over to see what was happening in the circus on the other channel. They were not scary.
Then there was the Pierrot Clown. Or rather the image of Pierrot, no self respecting new romantic could live without a Pierrot doll, poster, t-shirt, keyring etc… it was everywhere. Now I was a bit too young for this as well so that went over my head. But no one found it scary. Not even David Bowie and a bulldozer could make it scary.
The turning point seems to have been the 1990 miniseries ‘It’ based on a Stephen King novel. In it or should that be in ‘It’ the antagonist is Pennywise played by Tim Curry an evil entity, the titular It, in the form of a clown. Pennywise entices children then takes their soul. King came up with Pennywise after asking himself what scared children “more than anything else in the world” and his answer was clowns.
While ‘It’ and Pennywise seem to have reenforced the idea that clowns are scary, and made clownphobia more prevalent in the UK, it doesn’t explain why people think that clowns are scary in the first place.
One theory is that the white death like make up scares children. Although mostly modern clowns forgo the white base layer. The Pierrot can look like a death mask, it was the inspiration for Eric Draven’s make up in ‘The Crow’, but it isn’t that far removed from the make up worn by geisha and there is no such thing as fear of geisha.
In the past some clowns were more like evil tricksters than comic relief they were distraction criminals, and many circus clowns still perform a pick pocket act. Some used the cover of the clown to perform darker crimes. Batman’s nemesis The Joker could be viewed as just such an evil clown. The citizens of Gothem do have reason to fear him, but then that brings us back to the fact that an evil clown is no more scary than an evil non clown just because he is a clown.
Formally there were Clown Doctors who visited children in hospitals to cheer them up. However in 2015 they became Giggle Doctors because of the perceived notion that everyone is scared of clowns. Some Clown Doctors argued that by changing they were re-enforcing this, rather than helping children see that clowns are nothing to be scared of.
This also exposed one thing, fear of clowns is American. The rest of Europe and the Republic of Ireland kept their Clown Doctors, but the UK followed the US in abolishing them. Perhaps there is something deep in the American psyche that fears clowns. That has now spread to the UK.
Clowns are just people in face paint, unless they are holding a gun or a knife then there is nothing to be scared of.