What evil lurks behind a greasepaint smile? Who are these orange-haired strangers folding balloons for our kids? What could be worse than when clowns go bad?
The fear of clowns is no laughing matter. It's called coulrophobia, and for many, it's way worse than that nagging fear that you'll be buried under a bucket of confetti by some big-top bozo.
P. Diddy: I'm No Clown-Phobe
Just recently, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs denied being a coulrophobe, after reports circulated that he demanded a "no-clown clause" in his performance contracts. Did the rap star ever get pummeled silly with a rubber chicken?
Perhaps the venerable art of clowning is still haunted by the memory of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who tortured and killed 33 young men and boys. In his spare time, Gacy strapped on oversized shoes and performed as "Pogo the Clown" at birthday parties.
"Perverts and bad people have all sorts of rackets," says Kathryn Keys-O'Dell, executive director of the International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee. "It's no wonder they dress as clowns. Children trust clowns."
Nevertheless, Keys-O'Dell points out that there are some 30,000 entertainers in the United States who work at least part time as clowns, and the vast majority are only interested in throwing custard pies and piling into cars. The sickos are few, and they stand out like a red rubber nose.
Still, as the mother of a 12-year-old, she can relate to skeptical parents.
"If you see a clown at the park or on a street corner folding balloons by himself, don't trust him," Keys-O'Dell says. "He's a stranger."
She says she wouldn't hire any entertainer without rigorously checking out his references and professional associations.
The Krusty Legacy
Popular culture is awash with the image of the evil clown. For many of us, it began with the menacing Joker in Batman comics. Then there's the demonic toy clown in the 1982 movie Poltergeist that wrapped its candy-colored arms around a little boy to choke him to death.
In It, Stephen King gave us the horrifying image of "Pennywise the Clown," who hid in sewers and ate kids.
Cult movie fans point to Killer Klowns From Outer Space. And then there's the dark comedy Shakes the Clown, staring Bobcat Goldthwait as an alcoholic birthday party entertainer. The widespread condemnation of the film once prompted Goldthwait to remark, "Clowns have no sense of humor." That image could only be reinforced by the cynical, hardened Krusty on The Simpsons.
Clowns were once the most revered of entertainers, and they trace their history back to ancient Egypt and China. They were the truth-tellers in Shakespearean theater. There's an old vaudeville joke that even cannibals won't eat clowns … because they taste funny. But now they're easy targets.
About a year ago in Britain, "Coz the Clown" said he was assaulted by a group of 10-year-olds who mangled his magic wand, tore his clothes and popped his balloons as their parents watched in apparent amusement. He's since started a campaign to stop what he calls "Clown Abuse."
On the corporate front, even the Golden Arches' beloved hamburger huckster has been targeted. Last year in Billings, Mont., a Ronald McDonald statue was stolen from a local restaurant and found the next morning, lynched, hanging from a tree.