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A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Real clowns see nothing funny about their depiction in American Horror Story: Freak Show. The FX series from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk revolves around Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch), a serial killer who stalks couples with scissors and imprisons children in an old school bus.
“Hollywood makes money sensationalizing the norm,” bemoans Glenn Kohlberger, president of Clowns of America International, the nation’s biggest clown club. “They can take any situation no matter how good or pure and turn it into a nightmare.”
With membership in the organization dwindling — its aging base is made up of 2,500 clowns, down from 3,500 in 2004 — Kohlberger, whose big-shoed alter ego is Clyde D. Scope, takes a hard-line stance against characters like Twisty.
“We do not support in any way, shape or form any medium that sensationalizes or adds to coulrophobia or ‘clown fear,’ ” Kohlberger says.
Clowns’ enduring image problem reaches back centuries. In “Hop-Frog,” an 1849 short story by Edgar Allen Poe, the title character, a vengeful dwarf jester, dresses up the king and members of the royal court in flammable orangutan costumes, them sets them ablaze during a costume parade. In the 1892 opera Pagliacci, a jealous clown murders his wife and her lover with a knife.
But the modern archetype of the psychopathic clown begins with the Joker. With his green hair, white face, distorted grin and menacing laugh, the character debuted in the pages of the first Batman comic on April 25, 1940. Meant to last just two issues, the supervillain — based in part on a 1928 silent film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, about a man mutilated into a permanent smile — proved immensely popular and became the Caped Crusader’s most iconic archenemy.
The 1978 arrest of John Wayne Gacy, an Ohio man who raped and murdered at least 33 boys while simultaneously performing as Pogo the Clown, manifested coulrophobia into a real-world and almost unimaginably evil character. The profession would never recover from the Killer Clown, as Gacy was dubbed by the press.
A scene involving a possessed clown doll in 1982’s Poltergeist would keep an entire generation of children awake at night. And four years later, Stephen King published It, about a demonic child killer who took the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Tim Curry would bring Pennywise to terrifying life in a 1990 TV miniseries adaptation, and the razor-toothed figure instantly became the definitive scary clown.
While clowning in its purest form lives on in traveling circuses like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and the nearly 20 productions of Cirque du Soleil spanning the globe, its evil counterpart thrives in popular culture.
Killer-clown mazes are mainstays at Halloween attractions like Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, where visitors this year will be assaulted by chainsaw-wielding Bozos in “Clowns 3D.” (Slash provides the guitar-driven carnival soundtrack.)
But coulrophobia — and those who would exploit it — spills over into the outside world, too. In recent weeks, in the California towns of Bakersfield, Wasco and Delano, sightings have poured in of menacing clowns lurking after dark, some holding weapons like machetes, baseball bats and, according to one report, a firearm.
An Instagram and Twitter user going by the name “Wasco Clown” claims to be behind the pranks, which have gained national attention. But local police won’t confirm any connections and warn that copycats abound. “There’s a natural phobia of clowns,” Sgt. Joe Grubbs of the Bakersfield Police Department said.
Culprit or not, count the Wasco Clown among the 10 million viewers who tuned in for last week’s Freak Show premiere, a ratings record-breaker for FX. “I’ve never once seen Walking Dead, but I do watch American Horror Story!” he tweeted on Friday, no doubt delighting in Lynch’s demented portrayal of Twisty.
“The audience should make sure they never meet him,” Lynch told The Hollywood Reporter at Freak Show‘s Los Angeles premiere. “They should make sure they never meet Twisty. I would say that’s really good advice.”
Lynch — a bulky, 6-foot-3 character actor who cut his teeth in the genre playing the killer in David Fincher’s Zodiac — learned how to make real balloon animals for the part, and would silently introduce himself to castmates by handing them out in full costume.
“He would just walk around and hand you a poodle, this really scary-looking guy who is big and quiet. That was freaky to me,” recalled Christopher Neiman, who plays the sideshow’s resident pinhead, Salty.
Series co-creator Ryan Murphy told THR he fears home invasions over clowns. “I’m much more afraid of Bloody Face [from Asylum] and Rubber Man [from Murder House],” Murphy said, adding that the origin of Twisty, whose frightful mask resembles an exposed skull, will be revealed in the fourth episode.
Read more Complete Guide to TV Premiere Dates 2014
“There’s a big story that explains the clown and what he’s doing that’s based on an urban myth we uncovered,” Murphy said. “Our take is very unusual.”
None of that is particularly comforting to Kohlberger, who can’t quite figure out how something so sweet and well-meaning as clowning could have gone so wrong. “Clowns to killers,” he says. “I choose not to play into any of it. The more attention we give it just gives it more fuel.”
But hold the bicycle horn: Also on the horizon is a big-screen adaptation of It from True Detective helmer Cary Fukunaga, ensuring that clowns’ Hollywood image problem is going nowhere soon.
Additional reporting for this story by Lesley Goldberg and Bryn Elise Sandberg.
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