When I was twelve years old, sleepovers were a giddy affair of crumpled clothing, whispered secrets and superhuman effort forcing sleeping bags back into their cases. Then came a run of horror movies and it seemed no adults really had oversight over what we watched. I expect we were very sneaky. In quick succession, we watched Candyman, Child’s Play and It.
What were we thinking? I scare easily, and I still get flashbacks to scenes from those movies. When in the bathroom, if I catch sight of my own reflection, sometimes my pulse increases and I catch myself thinking, ‘don’t say Candyman three times. Just don’t. Get out of here!’
I read somewhere that humans like horror movies for the thrill of fear, and because we subconsciously know we’re in a safe place. To be fair, I’m not sure I enjoyed a second of those movies. Damn bravado.
Pennywise the clown in It
Of the three, for me It was by far the worst. Even now, most of my exposure to Stephen King stories is through the screen, not books. And It stuck fast in my psyche. It left such an imprint on me that I’ll forever see the title in capital letters in my mind’s eye, like on the original book covers. To me, the muscular upper case, terror-inducing IT suits the story, not It, like a deflated balloon.
After I watched It, I’d find myself checking drains furtively to make sure a clown wasn’t hiding there. It made me hate Ronald McDonald and anything clown-like. It’s a fear that stretched into adulthood, and a phobia many people share. A few years back a clown craze swept across a number of countries, where creepy clowns frightened or attacked passersby. For the love of God, what is wrong with people?
Why are clown phobias so common?
A big red nose, a white-painted face, windsail trousers, giant shoes: why are clowns so scary? Jesters don’t inspire the same fear, after all. We’re likely to associate jesters with tomfoolery, music and truth-telling. Any history buff or Shakespeare geek knows that. Charlie Chaplin understood and mastered the genre. He was brilliant, not sinister.
Photo by Fabio Di Lupo
Modern clowns fare less well, influenced by huge characters in pop culture such as It’s Pennywise and the Joker in Batman, who are murderous rather than funny. Heath Ledger’s awe-inspiring Joker in The Dark Knight is not a man you’d like to run into, even in daylight. They are not good-humoured buffoons performing slapstick and tricks; they are maniacs.
Clown phobias are more than a hangover from iconic characters though. The exaggerated facial and body movements of clowns mean that they occupy a space that is human but also other-worldly. They are unnaturally larger than life, distorted versions of themselves. Their thick make-up is such that their real expressions are not known. Even in a circus environment, they are unpredictable. They are disrupters by nature.
The Clown of Aleppo
Towards the end of 2016, I read the story of a Syrian man called Anas al-Basha, who worked for a civil society group called Space of Hope. He’d become a clown in Aleppo, which was besieged by fighting, to bring a smile to children there. He’d refused to leave the city and was killed by a strike at the age of twenty-four. He’d only been married two months. His story stayed with me.
It also made me aware of the humanitarian aspect of clowning. And somewhere, though I was still working on my first novel at the time, I filed away the concept of a character based on the Clown of Aleppo.
Researching Hidden Colours
Fast forward a year and a half, and I’ll soon be handing over my second novel, Hidden Colours, to my editor. In it, I imagine the Clown of Aleppo lived, and that he fled to Germany where he works at Berlin’s immigrant circus. He’s a minor character, and one of my hero’s best friends. Writing Zul’s clowning scenes at the circus were such fun, and what I found was that my fear of clowns fell away. Someday I’ll make him the hero of his own novel. The more I understood about clowning, the more I admired them.
Photo by joneser005
Clowns are compassionate and clever. They are artists, outliers and risk-takers. They aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. They remind us not to take ourselves seriously, to pick ourselves up when something goes wrong. The more I researched, the more I was struck by their empathy.
In Australia, clown doctors cheer up sick children in hospitals. Organisations such as Clown Me In, Clowns Without Borders and Humanitarian Clowns make me want to go to clown school to develop a clown identity of my own. I spent an afternoon reading about their travels and watching videos: the dark places they have filled with light; outreach work where they are embedded with communities and take the time to learn people’s stories and to bring joy. Their work is wonderful.
Today, clown conventions are less likely to make me jump. The phrase ‘send in the clowns’ has taken on a whole new meaning.
With love for your week ahead,
Nillu’s novel All the Tomorrows is available at retailers here. Her second novel, Hidden Colours, featuring Zul the Clown, will be published in late 2018. For book news, sign up to my newsletter.