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A Rough Taxonomy of Evil Clowns (Part One)

Friday marked the release of It Chapter Two, the second half of the most recent adaptation of Stephen King’s epic, genre-defining 1986 novel. As I’ve frequently mentioned here, I’m a King fanatic from way back; I first read It when I was younger than the kids portrayed in it, and while the Dark Tower series is best considered King’s magnum opus, It is on my short list of all-time favorite horror novels and ranks higher in my affections than any of the Dark Tower books considered individually.

I mention the book advisedly, because Chapter Two is both the best standalone It movie to date and in many ways the closest adaptation to King’s original vision. It’s also very long: two hours and forty-nine minutes long, to be exact. The film clips along at a remarkable pace for such a long outing, and is far scarier than 2016’s It. Chapter Two has more of everything that made the first part so excellent: more character development, more perfect Derry atmosphere, more Pennywise. Much more Pennywise – at least twice the original film’s screen time, by my wildly unscientific estimation – and truly, while Tim Curry’s killer clown was quite good, there has never been a Pennywise as terrifying as Bill Skarsgård’s version.

Pennywise is a high-profile and beloved specimen of the evil clown species, but there are enough of them capering (and butchering) their way through horror fiction that they can hardly be considered endangered. Indeed, they even started appearing in real life a few years ago, trespassing a fact-fiction threshold that most people – even horror fans – were not exactly overjoyed to see crossed.

Thus far, the 21st century has been clown-heavy in both fact and fiction. This year It Chapter Two is only one of two big-budget, big-studio releases about murderous clowns – and while Joker, due out October 6, isn’t a horror movie per se, early reviews and trailers make it clear that it’s a dark, gritty character study, more like Heath Ledger’s 2008 Dark Knight Joker than the DCEU clown prince given to us by Jared Leto. They are different in many ways, but all three portrayals – and Jack Nicholson’s 1989 version as well – capture the qualities that make the comic book character so compelling (Cesar Romero, on the other hand, just plain sucked, and I’m not crazy about the Lego Batman version either). The clown as embodied by the Joker is a sadistic prankster, unpredictable and volatile, a crafty player of cruel (and often lethal) tricks. “An agent,” as Heath Ledger hissed through his ripped, be-rouged lips, “of chaos.”

What all these portrayals of the Joker also have in common are his lean physique; it was Grant Morrison who famously adapted one of David Bowie’s sobriquets and dubbed Mr. J “the Thin White Duke of Death.” Personally, I identify more with the physique of the Violator:

The Violator, of course, is a major antagonist in Todd MacFarlane’s beloved comic book series Spawn. In his human guise, Violator is a member of another subtype of evil clown distinct from – but related to – the manic prankster; the unkempt, leering, drunken clown, chewing a decaying cigar as he skulks about. This is the type of clown featured in 2012’s Stitches and in the 1989 Dave Louapre and Dan Sweetman comic book Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children (Issue 1: “A Cotton Candy Autopsy”):

Then there’s the exaggeratedly grotesque clown-as-monster, a mutated subspecies that runs the gamut from wacky (Killer Klowns from Outer Space) to genuinely nightmare-inducing (Clown, Twisty from American Horror Story) to the, shall we say, more gross than scary (the incomprehensible All Hallows Eve spinoff Terrifier). This is also the category home to our friend Pennywise, who – while capable of a friendly demeanor – often appears in a truly monstrous form.

I’ve even made my own modest contribution to the oeuvre. Deadman Humour: 13 Fears of a Clown will be out on Friday the 13th of September, 2019. An anthology of clown-based horror stories, Deadman Humour features my short story “auguste” – follow me on Twitter for links to order your copy once it’s available.  These are far, far from the only examples of this terrifying and diverse class of villain: the malevolent clown. I’ll be back next week with a breakdown of the evil clown in literature.

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