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Why clowns became scary (and why they'll inevitably revert to funny again)
Poststructuralism by way of clownage
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I know we’re all supposed to be writing about Barbie and Oppenheimer right now, but I don’t care about either of those things, so let me tell you what I’ve actually been thinking about: in the last few months, both of my daughters have told me, unprompted and independently, that clowns are creepy.
To some of you, that assessment seems completely unremarkable, but consider that things like this used to be everywhere:
Up until a couple of decades ago, everyone took it for granted that clowns were fun, harmless children’s entertainment. In the 1960s, when McDonald’s was looking to hook more kids on burgers and shakes, their go-to move was to introduce a clown. One of the most popular children’s TV characters of all time was Bozo the Clown. For a solid century (1850–1950 or so), the terrifyingly-clown-infested circus was the most popular form of family entertainment in America. Clowns weren’t only appropriate for children, they were the best possible thing for children.
What changed? Well, a lot of things—but also, arguably, nothing at all. I hope you’re prepared to go down this clown-filled rabbit hole with me…
1. The impact of an image or idea is entirely dependent on context
Studies have been done where isolated tribes like the Mbenzele Pygmies were introduced to Western music, and they didn’t have a clue how to interpret it emotionally. You might think the theme from Psycho or “Enter Sandman” is inherently scary, but the Mbenzele Pygmies don’t make the connection—it’s all just random sounds to them. In the same way, most modern, Western listeners associate major keys with “happy” songs and minor keys with “sad” songs, but non-Western listeners just…don’t. Nor did Western listeners, until a century or three ago. It’s an association that evolved over time, not one that’s inherent to the human psyche.
Clowns are, of course, no different—there’s nothing inherently funny or scary about a guy in makeup and big pants. You find someone who’s had zero contact with Western culture and show him a picture of a clown, and he’ll have no idea how he’s supposed to react—just as the average American will have no idea what vibe an African tribal mask is intended to convey. Nothing means anything without the requisite cultural context.
But then, context is always changing…
2. Some (inevitable) guy always thinks he’s being super clever by “subverting” the context
It’s not terribly hard to pinpoint the moment when clowns reversed polarity from “funny” to “scary”—namely the eighties. Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film Poltergeist features a scene where a clown doll becomes possessed and attacks a child, but the floodgates (obviously) opened with Stephen King’s 1986 novel It and its 1990 TV adaptation. You almost definitely know the plot of It, but if you don’t: its primary antagonist is a supernatural entity that feeds on children’s fear—and attracts them by disguising itself as a clown (a fanged clown who lives in the sewer…y’know, for kids!).
What’s interesting about Poltergeist and It, though, is that their scary clowns only work because their intended audiences assumed clowns were appropriate for children. That scene in Poltergeist doesn’t work unless you think a clown doll is a normal thing to have in a child’s bedroom, and nothing about the plot of It makes sense if you don’t take it for granted that children like clowns.
That reinforces my point about how dramatic and recent the shift in our perception of clowns was, but more interestingly, it suggests that the shift was inevitable: Clowns are now scary because clowns were once funny. Without the cultural context of “Kids love clowns!” there would have been nothing for Hooper or King to subvert.
Just as interestingly, though, this inevitable cute-to-scary flip works both ways. In the 1930s, there were reports of mass faintings at screenings of Dracula; these days, you’re about a thousand percent more likely to see a vampire on a box of children’s cereal than you are a clown.
3. Does everything child-appropriate eventually reverse polarity and turn creepy? Maybe!
I’ve been thinking for years about this podcast where comedian Larry Wilmore interviews science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson, who tells him that the reason Victorian-era dolls look so creepy to modern eyes is that their heads are so small in proportion to their bodies. That’s true as far as it goes, but Tyson’s further explanation is insane: nobody, according to him, had noticed that babies have relatively large heads until the twentieth century.
Granted, Tyson tends toward scientism, a worldview that leads him to believe that everyone on earth was a drooling idiot until 1960 or so, but it really seems like he’s skipping over the more obvious explanation: that Victorian dollmakers simply chose to exaggerate features differently from how modern dollmakers do. Or does he think that the designers behind Bratz dolls really think teen girls have eyes the size of dinner plates?
Now—Tyson could have made a good point here, namely that how things are culturally depicted does tend to influence how we subconsciously visualize them. The fact that we’re all swimming in a cultural milieu of giant-eyed female dolls (and female cartoon characters, etc.) does lead us to conceive of the human female form as having larger-than-life eyes, which in turn leads a lot of women to wear makeup designed to make their eyes appear larger, which leads dollmakers to make dolls with even larger eyes, and the feedback loop continues (until Stephen King or whoever disrupts it).
And so, since we’re all used to a beauty ideal that includes huge eyes, Bratz dolls look fairly normal to most of us, while Victorian dolls look weird and creepy…even though both are equally distant from reality. But give it a century, and everyone will think Bratz are creepy.
4. Yes, this is all just a roundabout way of saying that ideas are contagious
A few years ago, my then-six-year-old daughter came home from school and loudly announced, “I love the Packers!”
Oh really, daughter? Who are the Packers?
What do the Packers do?
Why do you love them?
The answer to that last question, of course, is that she lives in Wisconsin, and therefore simply absorbed the idea that the Packers are to be loved from her classmates at school, even though she’s never watched an NFL game in her life. And there is a one hundred percent chance that she finds clowns creepy for the exact same reason: she’s absorbed the aesthetics she’s swimming around in, likely without ever being consciously aware of them.
If it were the 1960s and we lived in Minnesota, she’d love the Vikings and beg me to take her to the circus.
5. …because ultimately, almost all of this is just signaling
When I first moved to this town, I was a little put off by the number of homes decked out in ostentatious amounts of Packers gear—like, bro…you live in Wisconsin. Your love for the Packers is assumed. But of course, anyone hanging a Packers flag outside their home isn’t only saying, “FYI, I greatly enjoy watching the Packers play the sportsball.” They’re announcing, “Hey! I belong here! Please don’t pelt my home with old cheese and stale sausages!”
The clown thing may seem a bit more impenetrable, until you consider how generational it is—when my daughters announce that they find clowns creepy, what they’re really advertising is that they’re not one of those gross old people who think clowns are funny entertainment for children. That, by the way, explains why things like clowns, vampires, and doll head sizes always eventually reverse polarity: there’s always an appetite among the young to pretend that they invented youth.
And yes, the upshot here is that, at some inevitable point in the future, clowns will become funny again. Which means that if you want to be on the cutting edge of cool, you should deck your house out with mountains of clown decorations, unironically, right now. 🕹🌙🧸
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece implied that the Minnesota Vikings existed in the 1950s, when in fact the team was founded in 1960. The New York Times regrets the error. Seriously, I called them about it, and they were pretty broken up.
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(Two years ago:) I’m about to sign with a literary agent. Here are 10 things I learned
I’ve been writing this newsletter for more than two years now, so I’ve decided to try a new section out, where I’ll spotlight a piece I wrote two years ago, for new subscribers and nostalgic types alike.
When I started this blog, I thought it would be one of those “writer newsletters,” where I tell you guys about the exciting news in my writing career, but so far I’ve had exciting news exactly once: two years ago, when I signed with my agent, Stacey Kondla. Since then, the publishing industry has slowed to a crawl, and we have yet to sell a book together, but maybe someday! If you want to see it happen, tell your friends about me and this newsletter, or something. (I mean, it couldn’t hurt, anyway.) But here’s a piece about what I learned from it:
After more than eight years writing “seriously,” after two books published, after working on this new book — on and off — for about six years, after three (-ish?) separate rounds of pitching the thing … I finally have an offer. I haven’t signed any contracts yet, so it feels a little bit like being engaged — and it feels nerve-wracking in the exact same ways — but it also feels like the culmination of a decade of work. Let me tell you how it happened — and what I learned in the process.… Read more here! 🕹🌙🧸
Stuff I’ve been enjoying lately
I feel like this newsletter is slowly giving away how extremely #basic my musical taste is. There was a time when I was an aspiring musician, and also one of those hipster types who had hundreds of obscure albums in all sorts of genres, but then…I guess I got old and boring? I don’t know. I discarded my CDs—since I had everything ripped into iTunes—and then iTunes ate my entire MP3 collection, and I just sort of gave up. These days, I pretty much just have the taste of a PSL-drinking white woman in her late twenties—it’s all female singer-songwriters, all the time.
That probably makes it sound like I’m excited for that big Taylor Swift tour, but I’m still enough of a hipster that I stop caring about an artist once she gets as big as Taylor. So instead, let me introduce you to Maisie Peters, who just might be the British Taylor Swift (in the sense that she mostly writes laugh-out-loud-funny songs about angry breakups).
Maisie first caught my attention with her 2021 debut album, which opens with the unforgettable introduction, “I am twenty and probably upset right now / I still haven’t got my driver’s license / And I am sorry to make this about myself again, but you / You signed up for this.” From that moment, I was sold. I had indeed signed up for whatever this was.
As you might expect from an artist who got her start busking, Maisie originally did mostly acoustic, folksy stuff, but lately she’s succumbed to the siren song of rock ’n roll, and is no worse off for it. Her new album, The Good Witch, draws mainly on the new wave tradition, balancing synths and clever production with a thundering punk attack provided mainly by her touring band. Not surprisingly, the album highlight is called “The Band and I,” which chronicles her 2022 trek across the venues of North America. I know that touring songs are quite literally the “What’s the deal with airplane peanuts?” of rock music, but just listen to this song and tell me you didn’t feel like you were right there on the bus with Maisie:
It’s a great album with a lot of funny lyrics and very few dull moments. You should check it out. 🕹🌙🧸
It’s hard to know whether these were exaggerated or invented for marketing purposes, but the fact that they existed at all is evidence of how seriously people took their vampire scares.
Confession: Every time I write about junk food, I end up falling down an internet rabbit hole where I can’t stop reading about the stuff. I have no desire to put this glorified cattle feed in my body, but it’s fascinating to me how much time and effort is spent on convincing people to do just that. Did you know that General Mills just introduced their first new monster cereal mascot in 35 years? Her name is Carmella Creeper, and she’s a zombie deejay with a caramel apple–flavored cereal! I will absolutely never eat it, but I’m so excited it exists!