Have clowns always had a dark side?
Clown-like characters have been around for thousands of years.
Pygmy clowns entertained Egyptian pharaohs in 2500 BCE. In ancient imperial China, a court clown called Yu Sze or Twisty Pole famously saved thousands of lives by joking the emperor out of coating the Great Wall with lacquer.
Many Native American tribes had a tradition of clowns. Since laughter opens you up to the spirits, the clowns had to get everyone laughing before serious ceremonies. A visitor from another tribe might try to prevent the ceremony from taking place by refusing to laugh! The clowns also laid down the law. If somebody behaved inappropriately, for example getting drunk, they would perform a skit satirising that person’s behaviour. The public ridicule was often enough.
One Ancient Roman clown was stupidus (hence our word stupid) which was Latin for mimic fool. He was usually bald-headed or wore a long pointed hat and a multi-coloured outfit. He made fun of the more serious actor. He was famed for his innuendo and riddles and the ability to batter other performers in spoof fights in true slapstick fashion.
“The medieval fool was continually reminding us of our mortality, our animal nature, of how unreasonable and ridiculous and petty we can be.”
Dwarf jesters, in particular, were so popular that the practice of artificially stunting children became common to keep up with demand. According to documents from 1670, dwarfs could be artificially made by “anointing babies’ spines with the grease of bats, moles, and dormice.”
Well into the 18th and 19th century, the prevailing clown figure of Western Europe and Britain was the pantomime clown, who was a sort of bumbling buffoon.
first creepy clowns
So how did we get from mischievous clowns to scary murderous clowns?
As Benjamin Radford, author of the recent book “Bad Clowns,” points out:
“It’s misleading to ask when clowns turned bad, for they were never really good.”
While most clowns aren’t hiding anything(maybe a balloon animal or fake flowers), the first two modern clowns covered dark secrets with their face paint.
first creepy clowns – Grim All Day
Joseph Grimaldi is the missing link between historic clowns and modern clowns. He overhauled the Clown’s appearance from the rustic oaf to the heavily made-up and colourful clowns that we’re familiar with. He’s also the reason why clowns are still sometimes called “Joeys”.
In his day, he was a superstar: It’s claimed that a full eighth of London’s population had seen Grimaldi on stage. Grimaldi’s real life was hardly LOL.
His father, Giuseppe, was a cruel and eccentric dancing master known as the “Signor.” His teaching methods were gruelling, included locking children into stocks, or throwing them into a cage and hoisting it into the flytower to leave them dangling precariously over the stage. At home, the Signor was horribly morbid, living in perpetual fear of death, and especially of being buried alive. When he finally died in 1788, his will directed that his eldest daughter cut his head from his corpse just to be certain.
Tragically, Grimaldi’s first wife died of childbirth and his son drank himself to death by age 31. The king of clowns was only 45 when he gave his last regular performance. His health worsened with each passing season until he had to be carried to his dressing room and revived after each performance. The physical gyrations, the leaps and tumbles and violent slapstick that had made him famous, left him in constant pain and prematurely disabled.
No wonder that Grimaldi was prone to fits of depression. A famous anecdote dates from the 1820s and involves a visit to the surgeon, John Abertheny. Grimaldi, hoping to find a cure for his depression, asks Abertheny for advice, and unaware of his client’s identity, the surgeon prescribes the diversions of “relaxation and amusement”:
“But where shall I find what you require?” said the patient. “In genial companionship,” was the reply; “perhaps sometimes at the theatre; – go and see Grimaldi.” “Alas!” replied the patient, “that is of no avail to me; I am Grimaldi.”
As Grimaldi himself joked, “I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you laugh at night”.
After Grimaldi died penniless and an alcoholic in 1837 (the coroner’s wonderful verdict was : “Died by the visitation of God”), Charles Dickens edited Grimaldi’s memoirs.
According to Andrew Stott, Dickens invented the scary clown — by creating a figure who is literally destroying himself to make his audiences laugh.
first creepy clowns – The Sinister Clown
Image source : Séverin as Pierrot, c. 1896, in Séverin, L’Homme Blanc (Paris, 1929)
The major clown figure on the Continent was Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s Pierrot, a clown with white face paint underscored by red lips and black eyebrows whose mime delighted French audiences. Deburau was as well known on the streets of Paris as Grimaldi was in London, recognized even without his make-up.
Where Grimaldi was tragic, Deburau was sinister. Rumoured to indulge in laudanum and alcohol, he had a volatile temper. In 1836, Deburau killed a boy with a blow from his walking stick after the youth shouted insults on the street, calling him “dummy” and “scarecrow”.
As to why such a talented man should kill a child, Deburau’s biographer Tristan Rémy conjectured that his subject’s persona had something to do with it. “When he powdered his face, his nature, in fact, took the upper hand,” Rémy observed. “He stood then at the measure of his life — bitter, vindictive, unhappy.”
He was acquitted after a month in prison, when normally a trial would take a year. He’d a member of the National Guard and the officers and men of his company wrote of his unfailing good cheer. In fact, whatever he was on stage, he was moody and uncommunicative during the day. It was said of him that he only smiled at night.
Crowds thronged at the courthouse, if only to finally hear him speak. The composer Michel Chion coined the Deburau effect after this curiosity about a voice. The idea of a Deburau effect has been extended to any drawing of the listener’s attention to an inaudible sound—which, once heard, loses its interest.
After the trial, he refused to play the Pierrot in Cot d’Arlan’s pantomine Chand d’habits because it contained a murder.
Click here for the fascinating story of the first Dr. Frankenstein
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.