Where Scary Clowns Come From

Aug 10 2013 @ 9:04am

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We can credit Dickens with the “scary clown” meme. In 1837, the young writer was tasked with editing the memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, “the Homo erectus of clown evolution”:

Dickens had already hit upon the dissipated, drunken clown theme in his 1836 The Pickwick Papers. In the serialized novel, he describes an off-duty clown—reportedly inspired by Grimaldi’s son—whose inebriation and ghastly, wasted body contrasted with his white face paint and clown costume. Unsurprisingly, Dickens’ version of Grimadli’s life was, well, Dickensian, and, [scholar Andrew McConnell] Stott says, imposed a “strict economy”: For every laugh he wrought from his audiences, Grimaldi suffered commensurate pain.

Stott credits Dickens with watering the seeds in popular imagination of the scary clown—he’d even go so far as to say Dickens invented the scary clown—by creating a figure who is literally destroying himself to make his audiences laugh. What Dickens did was to make it difficult to look at a clown without wondering what was going on underneath the make-up: Says Stott, “It becomes impossible to disassociate the character from the actor.” That Dickens’s version of Grimaldi’s memoirs was massively popular meant that this perception, of something dark and troubled masked by humor, would stick.

(Photo by Flickr user joiseyshowaa)