For a certain generation of kids, growing up in the 80s and 90s, you may be able to trace the exact moment clowns stopped being mildly discomforting and became downright terrifying to the publication of Stephen King's IT. The demonic Pennywise is the ultimate scary clown, and Tim Curry somehow managed to make the novel's character even creepier in the 1990 television adaptation. But if you think about it, clowns had to be creeping people out long before Stephen King wrote IT; after all, the character is meant to embody and exploit the deepest, darkest fears of its victims.
When, then, did we begin to associate clowns with creepiness? Kids and adults alike find the face-painted comedians upsetting. And according to Smithsonian Mag's history of coulrophobia, the excessive fear of clowns, it may have always been that way. Clowns as we think of them today, with bright multicolored clothing, red noses and white faces, are the ancestors of court jesters and clown-like characters who have been around for centuries. Those characters were associated with mischief, but not terror. At some point, something changed.
English professor Andrew McConnell Stott, who wrote a biography of legendary British clown Joseph Grimaldi, lays the blame on Charles Dickens. Grimaldi was famous for his clown performances, but also known for his dark personal life. Grimaldi died a poor alcoholic, and Dickens edited his memoirs.
"Stott credits Dickens with watering the seeds in popular imagination of the scary clown—he’d even go so far as to say Dickens invented the scary clown—by creating a figure who is literally destroying himself to make his audiences laugh," writes Smithsonian Mag. "What Dickens did was to make it difficult to look at a clown without wondering what was going on underneath the make-up: Says Stott, 'It becomes impossible to disassociate the character from the actor.' That Dickens’s version of Grimaldi’s memoirs was massively popular meant that this perception, of something dark and troubled masked by humor, would stick."
France's most famous clown in the early 1800s, the same time Grimaldi was performing, killed a boy by hitting him with his walking stick. As clowns eventually grew in popularity in the United States in the 1900s, they gradually became more child-oriented. That may have been the final straw.
Smithsonian Mag writes: "Before the early 20th century, there was little expectation that clowns had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime clowns, for example, were characters who had more adult-oriented story lines. But clowns were now almost solely children’s entertainment. Once their made-up persona became more associated with children, and therefore an expectation of innocence, it made whatever the make-up might conceal all the more frightening—creating a tremendous mine for artists, filmmakers, writers and creators of popular culture to gleefully exploit to terrifying effect. Says Stott, 'Where there is mystery, it’s supposed there must be evil, so we think, ‘What are you hiding?' "
The rest of the article delves into pop cultural exploitation of innocent clowns and their real counterparts, like "Killer Clown" John Wayne Gacy. Give it a read, especially if you've always been afraid of clowns--maybe their history will help you realize why you're scared of them.