Clown King

Like many people, I enjoy a Stephen King novel from time to time. King has a talent for drawing you into his tales, and whether or not they’re scary you feel a kind of relief when they’re over. A few years back I read IT. I was prepared to be scared because many people talked about fears of bathrooms after reading it, and, of course, of the terrifying clown. Not being a fan of serialized television movies, I never saw the 1990 movie adaptation. Besides, reading a novel that long is a serious investment of time, and since I like to hear lots of different voices in my reading, I spread out the wealth. In any case, the novel didn’t scare me beyond the neighborhood bullies (who’ve since moved to Washington DC) and I moved on to other things. The new film adaptation has people talking about IT again, and clowns, and clowns always remind me of college.

During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it was fashionable for Christians to clown around. Taking cues from Paul’s one-liner about being fools for Christ, evangelicals began to experiment with clowns as a means of witnessing. I got involved my freshman year at Grove City College. I researched clowns. Where had they come from? What was the proper way to do it? Was there a deeper meaning? A friend recently sent me a video from Origin of Everything on the subject. I see a lot has been added to the history that I once studied. The idea of the circus clown is one of the more recent innovations of a character that was, in origin, a bit frightening. In classic horror movie style, heavy makeup functions like a mask and we rely on faces to know if someone is friend or foe.

We were taught, in our rudimentary training, that clowns do not talk. To express yourself you had to exaggerate gestures. I learned that makeup did indeed free you from social constraints. The Christian clown, however, had to be good. We weren’t meant to scare anyone into heaven. As nights are growing longer and people’s thoughts are coming to grips with the end of summer, clowns make good companions in the dark. IT may not be King’s scariest novel, but he did understand that bullies and clowns are fears that never go away. And when you combine the two, and move them into the White House, vaunting white faces and corrosive social values, well, maybe it’s time to go to the movies and try to have artificial fears for a while.

Such a Happy Place

I fear anyone named Ronald. Being named’s something a kid can’t help, I know, but associations run deep and irrational fears are the flavor of the day. When a friend sent me a link to the original Ronald McDonald clown concept, I had to look. Now, I’m not one of those people who’s afraid of clowns. I know that perhaps puts me in the minority. In college I was introduced to, and even rebooted a club for, Christian clowns. Back in the days of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, many were exegeting Paul’s phrase “fool for Christ” in a new way—the way of the clown. I’ve never been a particularly smiley guy, but I do research things before getting involved. Not only did I read about Christian clowns, I read about the history of clowning itself. It helped that this was before people started dressing up like clowns to assault others in imitation of cheap horror.

Clowns, it should come as no surprise, were originally peasants. The name itself means “rustic,” or “laborer,” even in classical languages, just as it does in English. The affluent have, it seems, always liked to laugh at the poor. The clods could be expected to goof up time and again and their brainless antics would humor the bored, but entitled classes. Buffoons becoming missionaries took a somewhat tortured path through a culture that cast religion in a rather stern, harsh tone. Children of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were trying to say “lighten up,” laugh about your beliefs. Isn’t that what Paul said? Tertullian wrote, “prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est”—believe by all means because it’s absurd— didn’t he?

In my greasepaint and mismatched clothes I joined a troop of unspeaking clowns, acting out stories of kindness and good will. We were, after all, made from dirt (the laborer tills the soil, and the word clown comes from the same root at “clod”). We like to think things might’ve evolved since then, but when we turn on the news we see that although it’s no longer Ronald, the antics of the plutocrats haven’t changed since my college days. What d’ya think of that Star Wars defense initiative? After all, we call “Mutually Assured Destruction” a doctrine, and doctrines have their origins in church councils. Ronald McDonald is recognized by his painted face. Beneath the makeup, however, he’s just a man. A clown has no business being leader of the free world. And yes, I’ll take fries with that. Supersize it, will ya?

Loving It

Given my remarks on occasion, some readers may conclude I dislike science. Nothing could be further from fact. Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by science and secretly—or not so secretly—wanted to be a scientist. Complex mathematics, however, has always been beyond me. My brain simply doesn’t think that way. My gray matter is more inclined towards literature and abstracts, ideas. I am, it is true, distressed by a type of science that starts making philosophical claims as dogma: materialism. Those who make this claim have no scientific basis for doing so—it is a belief. They are entitled to their beliefs, of course, but to belittle those who suggest that maybe we don’t know everything there is to know about the unseen world seems poor sportsmanship to me. Case in point: IFL Science is a fun website. I enjoy the articles I read and it is refreshing to have those who stand up to creationists and other posers get such limelight. Interestingly, a recent article strayed into the uncanny valley.

Clown

Leading with the questions “Why Are So Many People Afraid of Clowns?” the article is categorized The Brain. Or psychology. This is one of those fields where we’re really out of our depth. We don’t understand the way that we think, and even raising the question of clown phobias seems a little odd. History can help to answer some of the questions, but IFL Science does a nice job of suggesting a scientific approach. Historically clowns were outcasts. They are liminal figures who create unease by their very existence. Those who didn’t feel accepted came to do what those who don’t feel accepted often do: try to get others to laugh at you. Sad comedians are more than a stereotype. Those who’ve clowned already know that.

Since I was a clown in college, I’ve read quite a bit about the history of the craft. Clowns were a way of laughing at misery, but also of gaining some sympathy. By exaggerating human features, they become caricatures. We aren’t allowed to discriminate against those who are different, but clowns exist to be excoriated. And deep inside, I think we all know, that those who are ill treated will eventually demand payback. It is a lesson that the world could stand to learn even today. Of course, we don’t want to be told that those who are different share something as personal and important as human feelings. Clowns make natural targets for our fears because they represent something that we know shouldn’t exist—inequality. If you can’t get accolades through hard work, making others laugh provides its own reward. The phobia may arise, I suggest, because we know that every laugh comes with a price.

Fears of a Clown

A few weeks back, over on EsoterX, I was reading about circus oddities. Perceptive as always, EsoterX notes that the carnival or circus used to be disturbing. Before being commercialized and sanitized, otherwise civilized folk crept out of town to gaze at the bizarre and troubling aspects so effectively hidden from 9 to 5. Among the most disconcerting of the carnies was the clown. Horror writers and film makers have long focused on the ambiguity of the clown—faces are our clues to the intentions of another person. A face painted is opaque and we feel as vulnerable as in the presence of the false evangelical smile that hides a spiritual deadness in hardened eyes. You are about to be victimized. It is no wonder that small children—and not a few adults—are freaked out by clowns. At times they make us laugh, but mostly they make us tremble.

ClownThose who know or read me may have a difficult time believing that I once was a clown. Not a professional one, of course—it is even more difficult to believe I’ve ever been a profession anything—but part of a campus clown ministry. Beyond simple titillation, I state this fact because, like most things in my life, I researched clowning before I became a part of it. Those books are, of course, packed away with other forgotten bits of personal marginalia but I remember bits and pieces. The origins of the clown are religious. In fact, in the most ancient of societies clowns were most often played by priests. Their early bungling, which may go back to the third millennium BCE, was perhaps a way to indicate that even the somber role of the cleric could be taken too seriously. Like modern concepts such as Mardi Gras or Carnival, that which is sacred builds such pressure that normal people become a little unhinged. We erupt into frivolity while the divine turns a blind eye. Or secretly smiles.

Clowns for Christ was a Grove City College organization that I revived in my Junior year, serving as president and acquiring a campus charter. Based on 1 Corinthians 4.10, we declared ourselves “fools for Christ,” reprising, unknowingly, an ancient pagan custom. We visited nursing homes and mental hospitals and other campus events, bringing the good news in the form of silent skits. The clown traditionally does not talk. Even today when I hear a clown in makeup speak I give him or her a glare—clowning is physical, not audible. As I left college I left behind my childish ways (at least some of them). And the years since have taught me to be afraid of clowns, as any reasonable person should be.