Another Google alert in my mailbox, links to all the articles that contain the word clown. That word is my nemesis. The prevailing mainstream perception of that word, at least according to the amalgamation of newspaper articles in the anglophone world, is overwhelmingly negative. If the word isn’t being used as an insult for politicians or football club managers, the clown is being portrayed as either evil or scary or most likely both. Yet, it wasn’t so long ago, according to the beloved folksinger Utah Phillips (r.i.p. 1935-2008), that using the word “clowning” was a compliment, and meant the person was being funny.
This past week, there has been a proliferation of articles about scary clown sightings in South Carolina—as many as 8 separate sightings—people dressed up as scary clowns—not just scaring kids, but supposedly the clowns have been trying to lure kids to a house in the woods, even offering them money to follow them. There was a rash of scary clown sightings in England a few years back, and it now perhaps even qualifies as a fad (in anglophone countries.)
In today’s alert listing, there is a link to an article in the Guardian, no less, with the headline: “South Carolina sightings could be part of film marketing device.” What surprised me more than the revelations was the caption under the photo of a multicolored painted evil clown: “Police have warned that South Carolina law prohibits anyone over age 18 from dressing up as a clown.” Dang! How twisted is that (no balloon animal puns intended)?
In complete contrast, a further down the listings, is an article in the Jerusalem Post, no less, about how the medical clown at the Kaplan medical center, Anat, helped an 11 year girl, Naama, get over her coulrophobia, fear of clowns. Yes, the medical clown! In Israel, most of the hospitals have their team of medical doctors. In Argentina, they passed a law requiring hospital to hire clowns. In Germany, I think they may have 1000 professionals…. Imagine minimal make-up, maximum humor, lightness and laughter. Back to the story, which is the story of how Anat demystifies the process by asking her to watch him put on make-up, put on his costume, and go out into the children’s wards in the hospital to interact with all the kids and families. She was cured in one day.
Oh, the twists and turns of the modern world. One can generalize a bit about coulrophobia: how circus make-up, created for the bad lighting and great distances of early circus, viewed close up by an impressionable 3 year old kid might appear scary and grotesque despite the well meaning, perhaps inexperienced clown’s intentions. If you are interested in the history and psychology of scary clowns, the Smithsonian, no less, has a very well written and researched article by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie.
One thing that marked my understanding of the scary aspect was in a workshop with eighth graders at a performing arts school. I asked why the clown scared some of them. Several girls answered “because you can’t see who’s hiding behind the make-up.”
Makes total sense to me, yet I haven’t given up on my quest to rehabilitate the word, to somehow steer the general conversation in another direction, to where the discussion is how humor can be a positive force in the world. Of course it would help a whole bunch if the people dressing up as clowns were trying to make people laugh instead of trying to scare them.