Why clowns are scary and how Pennywise and the Joker play on that fear

Chris Markham, Copy Editor

If you go to any haunted houses this year, you’re likely to run into an evil clown or two. Chalk-white skin, dyed hair, red nose, colorful outfit, maybe a knife in hand and some blood splatter. In the past two months, you may have seen “It Chapter Two” or “Joker” in theaters, and if not, you’re probably already familiar with the evil clown characters in those stories. 

Clowns and fools have been around forever. The trickster is an important archetypal figure in all sorts of mythologies, including Greek, Norse and Native American. Many kings of old had court jesters to serve as entertainment before the days of Netflix. Popular circuses often include clowns as performers. Clowns are staples at children’s birthday parties. For centuries, clowns have provided humanity with fun, entertainment and laughs, all things that humans crave. 

But today, clowns are known to evoke more fear and unease than joy. Clowns scare, frighten, and generally creep out all sorts of people, both young and old. Why? What makes clowns scary? 

When Stephen King wrote the novel “It,” he asked himself what frightened children the most. The answer he came up with was clowns, and it would lead to the cosmic horror It, who descends upon the town of Derry to frighten and prey on its children, as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Comic writers and artists Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson created the Joker in 1940 to serve as a contrasting enemy for Batman. With his bleached white face, red lips, big smile, green hair and purple suit, the Joker’s bright appearance provided a foil to Batman’s dark costume back then, and continues to do so today. 

Pennywise looks like the average clown you might see at a child’s birthday party. The Joker looks like the playing card of the same name. The two characters represent classic images of humor and fun, but they upset the expectations of their appearances. 

A clown is supposed to bring joy, so when Pennywise rips off a child’s arm and drags him into the sewer, or when the Joker beats Batman’s sidekick to death with a crowbar, we are met with both the unspeakable horrors of the act and the bright appearance of the perpetrator, creating an unsettling cognitive dissonance in our heads.

Furthermore, the characters’ outward appearances, though in-line with classic clown aesthetics, represent something deeper. What lies beneath their unnaturally white skin? What happened to their hair? What are they smiling at? What went through their minds when they put on their bright outfits?

They appear to be human, but not entirely. The features that we often define individuals by—their skin, their hair, their smile—with Pennywise and the Joker, these features are abnormal and disturbing. There’s something twisted about them. They don’t feel human. 

The greatest and most terrifying monsters are not complete and unrecognizable alien beasts, but are humanoid. Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, zombies, werewolves, the Minotaur, they’re all almost human, but not quite. We recognize a shade of ourselves in them, but we also see the monster. The case is the same with Pennywise and the Joker. 

An evil clown in a movie draws its power and fear from the sense of disconnect that it evokes in the audience. Blood splattered onto a bleached white face. Demonic laughter heard over the screams of victims. These things don’t go together, and they don’t belong on screen together. Pennywise and The Joker take the disconnect even further in their respective stories. Pennywise preys on children. Interactions between clowns and children should be fun and lighthearted, like when a clown performs at a child’s birthday party. So when the audience sees Pennywise stalk and murder children in “It,” it creates an even more upsetting moment than if he murdered adults. 

That’s part of why viewers and critics alike have said that “It Chapter Two” is not as good as its 2017 predecessor. The sequel features the children from the first movie as adults, so the audience is not treated with the first film’s images of the clown preying on young children. 

The Joker captures attention from the contrast between him and Batman. In appearance, the Joker is the light to Batman’s dark. The Joker has a bright white face and wears a green and purple outfit. Batman has a black mask and a black costume.

Beyond that, the Joker’s taste for murder and nihilism spit directly in the face of Batman’s moral code. Where the Joker seeks to destroy life, Batman seeks to protect it. The Joker does what he does because it’s fun. Batman does what he does because he has to. 

The Joker represents everything that Batman fights against, and that contrast makes the Joker such a compelling villain (and is the reason why I’m skeptical of Todd Phillips’ movie about the Joker, with no Batman).

These characters, Pennywise and the Joker, undermine the classic associations with the clown figure. They are funny to themselves, but not to their audiences. Pennywise finds amusement in the terror he inflicts on children, and the Joker finds the murders he commits to be absolutely hilarious.

This laughter these characters find in the most inappropriate moments is disturbing to us as viewers. To the average person, murder is not funny. To see a clown laugh at such atrocities is deeply unsettling, as it upsets social norms and conventions. Appropriate reactions to violence would be disgust or sadness, not joy and laughter. 

Yet, who among us has never laughed at someone else’s misfortune? Who among us loves watching horror movies where people scream as they’re tortured or murdered? Who among us can’t get enough of internet videos where people wipe out and injure themselves? Who among us enjoys watching an MMA match end with a bloody knockout? 

Maybe, deep down, we aren’t so different from Pennywise or the Joker, and that’s what scares us and resonates with us. Maybe they’re just the ones who do what we want to, but won’t. 

Pennywise and the Joker have redefined clowns for our contemporary society. Clowns are no longer something for people to laugh at, but something to fear. In 2016, there was a spree of clown sightings in the U.S. that had people scared to go out at night. Just this year, we had “It Chapter Two” and “Joker” come out in theaters. There’s no going back. Clowns are no joke, anymore.