madeleine steiner, University of South Carolina
The creepy clown has become a horror staple.
Starring Art the Clown as the main villain, Damien Leone’s new film Terrifier 2 is so gruesome that there have been reports of viewers vomiting and passing out at the cinema. And every Halloween you’ll see evil clowns chasing haunted houses or trick-or-treating disguised as Pennywise, the evil clown from Stephen King’s It.
It’s hard to imagine that clowns were regularly invited to children’s birthday parties and hospital wards – not to terrorize, but to delight and entertain. For much of the 20th century, this was the clown’s standard role.
However, clowns have always had a dark side. Prior to the 20th century, clowns in American circuses were largely considered a form of adult entertainment.
In my own research into the history of the 19th-century circus, I spend a lot of time in archives, where I regularly come across vintage photos of clowns.
Well, I don’t think I’m scared of clowns. In fact, I always try to remind people that today’s clowns are serious artists with a tremendous amount of training in their craft. But even I have to admit that the clowns I meet from old circuses make me cry.
Drunk, lewd clowns in drag
For most of the 19th century, circuses were relatively small, single-ring events where the audience could hear performers speak.
These shows were rowdy affairs in which the audience felt free to yell, boo, and hiss at the performers. Typically, clowns conversed with the stoic ringmaster, who was often the target of the clowns’ pranks. Borrowing from comedic traditions of the blackface minstrel show, circus clowns used puns, non-sequiturs, and over-the-top burlesque humor.
A very popular clown act portrayed by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn involved a performer dressed as a drunken circus guest who shocked the audience by entering the ring and clumsily attempting to ride one of the show’s horses , before he dramatically revealed himself to be part of the show. The famous 19th-century clown, Dan Rice, was known for infusing local gossip and political commentary into his performances, and for posing as prominent figures in every city he visited.
The jokes they told were often misogynist and full of sexual double entenders, which wasn’t a problem since the circus audience at the time was mostly adults and men. At the time, circuses in the US were a stigmatized form of entertainment, considered objectionable for their association with gambling, cheating, scantily clad female performers, profanity and alcohol. Church leaders regularly warned their congregations against attending the circus. Some states even had laws banning circuses altogether.
Clowns contributed to the circus’ shabby reputation.
Showman PT Barnum noted that part of the circus’s appeal “consisted of the clown’s vulgar jokes, punctuated by even more vulgar and lewd gestures”. Clowns also subverted gender norms, with many appearing in drag and often exaggerating the female figure with cartoonishly large fake breasts.
In the early 19th century, some circuses also had a separate tent where a ‘cook show’ was held. Male patrons were invited for a fee to watch women dance and strip.
Circus historian Janet Davis notes that some of these performances included clowns in drag “playing gender pranks on dumbfounded men who expected to see naked women”. In a shocking revelation, Davis also notes that on some Cooch Show appearances, gay clowns have had sexual encounters with male viewers “during and after anonymously crowded scenes.”
Suffice it to say that these clowns were not for children.
Clowns clean up their number
It wasn’t until the 1880s and 1890s, when entertainment impresarios like Barnum sought to “clean up” the circus to attract larger audiences, that clowns were truly associated with children.
After circuses began to travel by rail, they were able to carry more equipment, allowing them to expand from one ring to three. The audience could no longer hear the performers, so the clown became a pantomime comedian, eliminating any potentially vulgar or lewd language.
Circus owners, aiming to make as much money as possible, attempted to woo a wider audience, including women and children. This required the elimination of all scandalous actions and strict monitoring of the behavior of their employees.
The shows with the greatest staying power, like Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth, were known as “Sunday School” shows, free from objectionable content. They successfully portrayed themselves as purveyors of good, clean fun.
Clowns played a role in this transformation. Because the now-silent acts focused on physical comedy, their performances were easy for children to understand. Clowns remained tricksters, but their slapstick comedy was considered very funny.
This had a lasting effect. Clowns entertained families in the circus, and as entertainment shifted to film and television, kid-friendly clowns followed there too. Clowns became a staple of children’s entertainment in the 20th century. A popular TV show starring Bozo the Clown ran for 40 years, from 1960 to 2001. Clowns have regularly visited children’s hospitals to cheer up young patients since the 1980s. And companies like McDonald’s used clowns as mascots to make their brands appealing to children.
But in the 21st century there has been a sharp turn. A 2008 study concluded that “Clowns are generally disliked by children today.” Some point to serial killer-turned-clown John Wayne Gacy as the turning point, while others might blame Stephen King’s “It” for causing clowns to tremble with horror.
Looking at the history of the American circus, it almost seems as if the 20th century era when clowns were loved by children was a departure from the norm. Today’s spooky clowns are not a departure from tradition, but a return to it.
Madeline Steiner, postdoctoral researcher in history, University of South Carolina
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.