Clowning around isn’t that funny
There’s something strangely unnerving about clowns… The reason lies buried deep in our brains.
WARNING: contains some strong language.
The medical term for the fear of clowns is Coulrophobia, and it ranks in the top ten most common phobias. A surprising number of people find clowns creepy – some even suffer from a pathological fear of them.
Personally, I’ve always thought of clowns as abnormal creatures. I know that hiding behind the industrial strength greasepaint are men who lead an itinerant and poorly paid life, living from one circus tour to another, bemoaning the decreasing attendance figures and secretly worrying about the day they will have nowhere to live.
Aside from their traditional role in the Greatest Show On Earth, travelling circuses employ clowns for manual labour – clowns spend more time putting up and taking down the Big Top, selling shite souvenirs, sweeping up after the show and carrying buckets of elephant shit than actually performing. It’s a hard life in the circus, make no mistake.
I never saw a clown who was the slightest bit amusing, but then circuses have always left me cold. I have always found the whole concept outdated, cruel, irritating and pointless. The smell of the greasepaint – and circus animals – is something I can live without. Even as a kid I viewed circus clowns – throwing custard pies at each other and squirting water from buttonhole flowers – antisocial and unruly. Even the traditional Pierrot clown – the smart one with the pointy hat, the one that’s never on the receiving end of a custard pie in the face and never gets soaked by a bucket of water, represents an understated menace. Clowns are like violent thugs after a few too many drinks – unpredictable, yet entirely predictable.
There’s something not quite human about clowns that goes beyond not normal. I have met a few in my show-business life so you can trust me on this. The red nose, the death-mask cold make-up, the garish baggy clothes, the huge shoes – it’s as if we are being encouraged to laugh at someone with deformities or serious mental problems.
Most people are comfortable with robots – robots serve us, they’re programmed by us and they’re predictable, even if they don’t always work properly or even look like us. If they look exactly human, we can accept them without fear – unless they have some slightly exaggerated feature or unusual behaviour, such as a permanently fixed and pointless smile. The human brain recognises a smile as something healthy, something safe and pleasant, but you can’t smile all the time, because if you’re smiling all the time, something’s not right in your head. [I knew someone like that at college, and he used to creep me out. He is now a principal player in a well-known opera orchestra based in the north of England – always went round smiling at nothing and picking his nose.]
Whichever way you look at it, clowns look unnatural and not only because the makeup exaggerates expressions that would otherwise be natural. There is a disturbing ambiguity about face with a vivid painted smile and puzzled eyes, or worse, a sad downturned mouth with laughing eyes. Along with the recent craze of ‘killer clowns,’ some of which have been seen hanging around schools carrying large knives, clowns are thought of as belonging to the creepiest sections of society, along with funeral directors, taxidermists, taxi drivers, hypnotists, people who collect human body parts, individuals who watch or touch other people too frequently and those who continually try to steer the conversation round to sex.
Historically, the purpose of jesters and clowns was to poke fun at those in power, a welcome satirical relief in times where matters of life and death were less certain. Clown’s contradictory makeup gives the observer the feeling they have something to hide.
Clowns aren’t like us – their paint job tells us they to belong a different tribe, from somewhere we probably wouldn’t like, here to steal our food, do unspeakable things to our women and possibly eat our children. We often have the same problem with humans who are only slightly different from us – they are often mistrusted, hence our distrust of people who have a different colour skin or different cultural systems. This inborn and inherited mistrust is one gene away from, and often the cause of, prejudice and racism.
When we look at human faces, certain very specific parts of our brain process the information. When we look at not quite human faces, different parts of the brain get activated. When we see faces that look almost but not quite human, the brain becomes confused as to how to process this information and has difficulty in deciding which part should be believed. This is also the reason we don’t trust aliens with large black emotionless almond eyes – they look almost like us, but not enough to be like us. The same unconscious processes confuse us when we meet humans who have a different accent or dress very differently, or have unusual hairstyles or aggressive tattoos.
If something doesn’t quite move in the way we would normally expect, this too creates disquiet in the part of the brain where normal, fluid, human movement is identified and processed, so a clown’s silly walk is bound to compound the problem. This also explains one of the reasons we don’t like snakes – their slithering mobility is unlike any other animal – fish and birds we understand, but snakes… eugh!
At Johannesburg Zoo, somewhere I spent many happy Sunday afternoons with my son, animals were used to the sight of humans wandering around – humans, I should point out, of every colour and dress style. One afternoon I noticed that a lot of the animals – even those in groups – became visibly spooked when a clown, on his way to a kiddie’s party, walked by the pens. The zoo no longer allows clowns to wander around in their make-up, although their outlandish clothes seem to have no effect. I can assure you this story is absolutely true.
Freud identified one aspect of [entertainment] horror that he called the uncanny. This is when something appears familiar enough to be recognizable but weird enough to give you the shivers. The uncanny explains why we look at something and are immediately able to perceive that it’s not quite right, such as a partially decomposed human face – it’s recognizable, but far enough away from normal to scare you. Clowns are the epitome of the uncanny.
By definition, clowns are supposed to make us laugh, but deep in the unconscious lurks an undefined fear that they won’t. We all suspect that if we’re not able to do the very thing that we’re supposed to do, it will embarrass and hurt us.
They are a product of the Middle Ages – if they didn’t make the king laugh, they were expelled from Court and consigned to the dung heap of an even shittier life. A lot of court jesters were mutilated to make them smile all the time – the muscles that make the mouth frown were cut, which left them with an unnatural and permanent smile.
Clowns copyright their individual make-up by painting it on an egg and sending it off to Clown Central. No two clown faces are supposed to be the same, although the odds are they will be, but this pretentious record adds to the mythology that they are somehow engaged in some kind of high art. If they are, then it’s a dying art because the number of registered clowns in Europe has fallen from ten thousand in 1975 to less than a thousand in 2016.
The Arts Council funded arty-farty brigade may occasionally persuade us that clowning is akin to comic genius and that clowns present a wide range of emotional qualities that have educational value for groups of young children [they don’t] and that their chicanery is highly skilled when obviously it isn’t – it’s inane, unfunny shit.
I distrust clowns because they can be a total fucking nuisance. As mentioned earlier, having had some experience in show business I can assure you they all have one thing in common – they just can’t turn it off – they can’t stop clowning around and pulling lame practical jokes, a personality disorder they share with circus dwarves – they’re even worse because they have more energy and are forever cracking jokes about the size of their penises. [Apparently they are particularly blessed in that respect – when I was on summer season in Scarborough in 1984, I met seven of them. They spent most of their spare time shagging everything in sight.]
I feel the same about people who are perpetually full of bonhomie – they’re even more irritating. They should all just fuck off. They’re not funny.