Why are people afraid of clowns?

The Fear of a Clown

Most people don't have to search too far to come up with an example of a scary clown. For children of the '80s, Pennywise the clown springs to mind. Pennywise debuted in the 1986 Stephen King novel "It," which was later made into a TV miniseries. The tale depicts a clown who terrorizes and murders children, and famously hides in the city's sewers.

While the story may have spurred a generation of children to dare each other to peek through sewer grates or else refuse to go near them, this isn't where clowns got their scary start.

Clowns entertained pharaohs in ancient Egypt and rulers in imperial China. Native Americans used clowns as comic relief, allowing them to crash serious dance rituals. There are records of an early Roman clown named "Stupidus," as well as of court jesters in medieval Europe. More recently, pantomime clowns roamed France and Great Britain, while in the U.S. they moved from traveling sideshows to full-blown three-ring circus acts.

Some blame Charles Dickens for inspiring the modern iteration of the scary clown that appears in popular culture. He included a drunken clown in his 1836 book "The Pickwick Papers," then reinforced the idea in 1837 when he edited the posthumous biography of Joseph Grimaldi, a clown whose fame cut a wide swatch across London yet whose real life was besieged by depression and loss. Ironically, the clown in "Pickwick" was inspired by Grimaldi's son, a clown who died of alcoholism [source: Rodriguez McRobbie].

Along with the sad clown came the evil clown. A year before Grimaldi's ill-fated existence was immortalized in print, the life of an equally famous clown took a scary turn. In 1836, Jean-Gaspard Deburau -- whose pantomime clown character was famous throughout France -- killed a boy with his walking stick after the boy heckled him in the street. Although later acquitted, the event cemented a fearful connection between the clown known for his white face paint, red lips and black eyebrows, and the idea that the gaiety on the outside could belie a troubled soul [source: Rodriguez McRobbie].

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