Author: Benjamin Radford
Winner of the Bronze Medal for Popular Culture in the 2017 Independent Publisher (IPPY) Book Awards
Bad clowns—those malicious misfits of the midway who terrorize, haunt, and threaten us—have long been a cultural icon. This book describes the history of bad clowns, why clowns go bad, and why many people fear them. Going beyond familiar clowns such as the Joker, Krusty, John Wayne Gacy, and Stephen King’s Pennywise, it also features bizarre, lesser-known stories of weird clown antics including Bozo obscenity, Ronald McDonald haters, killer clowns, phantom-clown abductors, evil-clown panics, sex clowns, carnival clowns, troll clowns, and much more. Bad Clowns blends humor, investigation, and scholarship to reveal what is behind the clown’s sinister smile.
Chapter One. A Short History of the Earliest Clowns
Chapter Two. The Despicable Rogue Mr. Punch
Chapter Three. The Unnatural Nature of the Evil Clown
Chapter Four. Coulrophobia: Fear of Clowns
Chapter Five. Bad Clowns of the Ink
Chapter Six. Bad Clowns of the Screen
Chapter Seven. Bad Clowns of the Song
Chapter Eight. The Carnal Carnival: Buffoon Boffing and Clown Sex
Chapter Nine. Creepy, Criminal, and Killer Clowns
Chapter Ten. Activist Clowns
Chapter Eleven. Crazed Caged Carny Clowns
Chapter Twelve. The Phantom Clowns
Chapter Thirteen. Trolls and the Future of Bad Clowns
Why a book about bad clowns?
Perhaps a better question is “Why not a book about bad clowns?” They are all around us: on television, in movies, video games, books, and elsewhere. Bad clowns have—much to the irritation of good clowns—over the years become the most recognizable type of clown. Yet there is relatively little (even semi-serious) scholarship about these villainous vagabonds.
This book goes far beyond trotting out the familiar bad clown tropes of John Wayne Gacy and Pennywise. They are included here, of course, but you’ll also find bizarre, lesser-known stories of weird clown antics including S&M clowns; Ronald McDonald protests; Bozo obscenity; clowns in vans abducting children; evil clown scares in England and Staten Island; behind-the-scenes at Marvel Comics with Obnoxio the Clown; Crotchy, the clown who forced the Nebraska Supreme Court to watch him masturbate; troll clowns; and much more.
I myself harbor no particular fear or hatred of clowns, whether bad or good; this book is not an attempt to exorcise demons or resolve some latent childhood phobia. It is instead a mostly-serious blend of academic scholarship, pop culture critique, folklore and urban legend research, psychology, and sociological analysis. I wanted to look at variations of the bad clown theme to understand the phenomenon, just as I did in my 2011 book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore. Bad clowns and chupacabras have more in common than may appear at first glance: they are both mysterious and scary.
I struggled with what to title this book. Titles are often tricky, but this one was devilishly difficult. Evil Clowns was too limiting; while many clowns in this parade of greasepainted malcontents are indeed evil, I wanted to peek behind the tent of the dark circus to explore shades of clown corruption. Bad, then, includes not merely malicious intent but exhibiting boorish, mean-spirited, unpleasant, disagreeable, and insulting behavior. It’s the clown you fear will appear at your birthday party—or over your bed as you sleep. There are countless bad clowns that could be included here; my goal is not to provide a comprehensive listing of all of them (an exhausting effort for me resulting in an unenlightening read for you), but instead to sample the variety of the discomfort that clowns have wrought upon the Earth.
It’s difficult to identify a specific cultural meaning to the bad clown because it is such a malleable archetype. Like any other symbol, the evil clown—unlike the default, ordinary, “good” clown whose meaning is fairly fixed over time as playful, whimsical, and friendly—can be adopted or adapted to mean whatever one wants it to mean, and varies by context. As a trickster symbol the bad clown may represent trickery, deceit, death, malevolence, mischief, chaos, evil, betrayal, humor, power, rebellion, defiance of authority, wisdom, and so on. Though the bad clown archetype is a popular one in America and around the world it is rarely celebrated in its generic form; instead it’s specific, distinctive bad clowns that capture the public’s imagination and percolate through pop culture. Dozens are discussed in this book, from Bozo to Pennywise. The most famous bad clown in the world is the DC comics supervillain the Joker, and thus he appears often.
The clown has played an important role in all societies and cultures, and the bad clown is an inherent part of that. You can no more separate a clown from a bad clown than a clown from his shadow. This is not to say that all clowns are evil, of course—though I was told that was the case in earnest several times while researching this book—but instead that because clowns are human (or at least have human attributes) they have good and bad sides. It is another side of the same coin; if you keep a quarter face up on your desk or shelf, it will always remain face-up every time you look at it. But another, hidden side is there if you choose to look.
Offering an overarching monolithic cultural meaning to the bad clown is a fool’s errand. The folkloric and cultural literature on the trickster archetype is vast and varied, thus far beyond the scope of this book. There are as many nuanced meanings to bad clowns as there are fans of bad clowns. Many are attracted by the ironic, contradictory juxtaposition of the bad clown; for others it’s the appeal of the suave bad boy.
Ignoring bad clowns won’t make them disappear, and like it or not the bad one is the clown we love to hate. From Foo Foo to Frenchy, Punch to Pennywise, Shakes to Sweet Tooth, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of bad clowns keeps coming, bursting out of a tiny car into the media, each more vile than the last. Bad clowns exist mostly in our imaginations as vigilante anti-heroes of the Id. These clowns are gleefully beyond redemption: cruel and comical, vituperative and violent, uncouth and (sometimes) unclothed.
They are bad clowns, and this is their story.