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Stephen King has ticked off the clowns.
Last April, the horror author — currently in the midst of a Hollywood renaissance that includes adaptations of The Dark Tower and, out Sept. 8, New Line’s It — tweeted that the big-shoed performers were “pissed at me. Sorry, most are great. BUT,” he continued, “kids have always been scared of clowns. Don’t kill the messengers for the message.”
King was referring to the hits being inflicted upon the legitimate clowning industry thanks to Pennywise the killer clown — just one of many forms taken by the evil entity referenced in the book’s title.
At other points “it” is a mummy, a werewolf and a fountain of blood. But it’s Pennywise, described by King as “a cross between Bozo and Clarabell” with “funny tufts of red hair on either side of his bald head” that has remained the most indelible incarnation — thanks in no small part to Tim Curry’s skin-crawling portrayal of the character in the 1990 ABC miniseries adaptation.
So effectively chilling was Curry’s depiction of Pennywise, who could turn on a dime from lovable ham to razor-toothed child-eater, that many believe that he is to blame for the current epidemic of clown phobia (also known as coulrophobia) that has bubbled up in everything from FX’s American Horror Story to reports in 2016 of menacing clown sightings across the country.
“For my generation, It launched untold cases of coulrophobia,” says film blogger and Stephen King fanatic Scott Wampler, who like millions of ‘80s kids will never forget his first viewing. “It was the first exposure that a lot of kids my age had to horror movies. Parents weren’t taking their kids to see scary movies, but they let them watch It on TV because it aired in primetime.”
With the current remake tracking toward blockbuster business — Pennywise this time around is played by 27-year-old Bill Skarsgard in a costume inspired by “medieval, renaissance, Elizabethan and Victorian eras,” according to costume designer Janie Bryant — legitimate clowns are battening down the hatches for another spate of bad press.
“Last year we were really blindsided,” says World Clown Association president Pam Moody of the evil clown sightings — typically pranksters in store-bought clown masks who lurked near schools and in residential neighborhoods, sometime with weapons in hand. “We’ve since created a press kit to prepare clowns for the movie coming out.”
That guide, “WCA Stand on Scary Clowns !!,” reminds the WCA membership that the “art of clown is something to be treasured and enjoyed” and that “just because someone wears a rubber Halloween mask, that does not make one a clown!” It also recommends “that young children not be exposed to horror movies” such as It.
Moody, who as Sparky the Firefighter Clown teaches safety practices to thousands of grade schoolers in Des Moines, Iowa, says children by instinct are leery of clowns, just as they are leery of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
“They’re different from regular people — they’re costumed characters. But no one is picking on the Santa Clauses, because that would ruin the retail business,” she says. “It would ruin Christmas for everybody.”
She lays some of the blame on parents, who frequently thrust their kids into her arms without any consideration of their kids’ apprehensions. “I’m trying to motion to them, ‘No, no, stop!’ but they keep coming at me,” she says.
Count Moody as one of those irked clowns King references in his tweet. “It all started with the original It,” she notes. “That introduced the concept of this character. It’s a science-fiction character. It’s not a clown and has nothing to do with pro clowning.”
The industry has taken a hit thanks to all this “scary clown” business. “People had school shows and library shows that were canceled,” says Moody. “That’s very unfortunate. The very public we’re trying to deliver positive and important messages to aren’t getting them.”
And the backlash has affected the legit clowning world in other ways. One WCA member arrived early for a children’s birthday party recently and waited outside in her parked car.
“She looks up and there are four police officers surrounding her,” Moody says. “Someone in the neighborhood called in a clown sighting.”
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