In finding new appreciation for the 1988 classic, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, I decided to take a look at the idea of clowns in horror, society, and cinema. And if no one has seen the movie, the clowns are actually terrifying. There is something to be said for cotton candy cocoons, and a balloon dog that barks while sniffing out and hunting down teenagers that just happened to come across a spaceship resembling a circus tent, belonging to a high-tech race of clowns that mastered space travel.
Elements of horror and sci-fi, as well as humor, makes the movie work, it would probably be totally ridiculous otherwise.
After being shot at with a popcorn gun, the girlfriend asks her boyfriend while falling to the ground:
“Popcorn, why popcorn?”
“Because they’re clowns, that’s why?”
Yes, that makes total sense.
The clowns are monstrous, possessing inordinately large heads and limbs, obviously not human, carnivorous teeth, giving us the impression that they would undoubtedly consume human flesh if they got the chance. Walking slowly, casually, speaking strange clown gibberish, as if insane, on a galactic mission to take over the world, and seemingly enjoying doing it with a sadistic frenzy.
A head gets knocked off; a child is eerily lured away from her parents at a diner and nearly gets killed with a mallet; vicious worm like creature with clown heads attack a girl in a bathroom, digging their sharp teeth into her shoulders. It really gets evil when the asshole cop of the town is killed and his body is used as a hand puppet, and announces to the protagonist that “all we want to do is kill you.”
Towards the end of the movie it is clear, they are here to devour the humans by sticking long twisty straws into the cotton candy cocoons that they have encased most of the town’s people in to suck the fluids out of them.
Nothing creepier than vampiric clowns.
But why clowns?
“It’s those clowns you got to worry about,” the girlfriend says, warning her boyfriend.
Clowns have their history in the grotesque and macabre.
Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns.
A quick Wikipedia search will find that the term: grotesque “has come to be used as a general adjective for the strange, mysterious, magnificent, fantastic, hideous, ugly, incongruous, unpleasant, or disgusting, and thus is often used to describe weird shapes and distorted forms such as Halloween masks.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the young Michael Myers is in a clown costume when he commits his first murders, thus setting him off as one of the greatest of killers in movie history. And when he returns to complete the murderous rampage he started as a child, he’s again shrouded in a mask and coveralls, clown-like with exaggerated features that distinguishes him not as human, but as a monster hiding out among all the other humans on that one day of the year when obscenities, such as the celebration of death and demons are sanctioned.
This exaggeration is even more prominent in Rob Zombie’s remake, as the Michael Myers character becomes exorbitantly large and hulking, much like the character of ‘Leather Face’ in the 2013 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Where the use of the masks dehumanizes the killer further, making them the obvious monsters we already know them to be, instead of just the crazed killers that could not be reasoned with no matter how much their victims begged.
WHAT’S A MATTER KID? DON’T YOU LIKE CLOWNS? WHY? DON’T WE MAKE YOU LAUGH? AREN’T WE FUCKING FUNNY? YOU BEST COME UP WITH AN ANSWER, CAUSE I’M GOING TO COME BACK HERE AND CHECK UP ON YOU AND YOUR MAMA. YOU IF YOU DON’T GOT A REASON WHY YOU HATE CLOWNS, I’M GOING TO KILL YOU AND YOUR WHOLE FUCKING FAMILY.
This line from perhaps one of the most well-known murderous and memorable clowns of recent cinema, Captain Spaulding, himself, played by no other than the legendary Sid Haig, AKA ‘Ralph’ in the ‘67 classic, Spider Baby. The continual reference to freak shows and the carnivalesque are undoubtedly part of Rob Zombie’s aesthetic, as there is constant reference to the grotesque as unfortunate travelers soon find out on a rainy night, becoming themselves part of the freak show exhibits, alongside Mary the Monkey Girl from the wilds of Borneo, and ‘Fishboy,’ created by Otis Firefly himself, lit by garish red lighting, the whole nightmarish House of 1000 Corpses is a cabinet of curiosities.
It can be said that the carnivalesque allows for eccentric behavior, as Russian philosopher and literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin had claimed, and that unacceptable behavior is welcomed and accepted in carnivals, and one’s natural behavior can be revealed without the consequences. For Bakhtin, “carnival” (the totality of popular festivities, rituals and other carnival forms) is deeply rooted in the human psyche on both the collective and individual level.
Clowns hide among us, the killers are let out in public, or hidden in normal society as something that is supposed to be funny, but also otherworldly, even sinister.
Real-life clown, John Wayne Gacy, hid in the suburban neighborhoods of Chicago when in 1980 he was convicted of 33 murders, 26 of his victims he had buried in the crawlspace of his house. And while he never did any killing as a clown, he became immortalized in makeup and hat, with a balloon in his hand, playing with children in the same Chicago suburbs that he had lured his teenage victims. An unsuspected child rapist and murderer, hiding as a clown, a spectacle. We are fascinated by them, they are magical beings, demonish at times.
This image of the demon clown is part of what makes Terrifier, well, terrifying. ‘Art the Clown’ is undoubtedly a bizarre sight from the beginning, with “his” or “its” long face and black gaping mouth, accentuated with a large grin, the teeth stained a rust color, just the sight of him is otherworldly, and indeed, that’s where the movie heads.
It seems to start off as a fairly standard slasher film until the murderous clown eviscerates its victim in half in a scene cringe worthy of any ultra-violent gratuitous horror film, similar to scenes in Italian exploitation movies such as Cannibal Holocaust or Anthropophageous.
The movie quickly takes a turn into the surreal and psychological. The clown transforms itself with body parts taken from its female victim, prancing through dark industrial hallways, preening and awing at itself like Buffalo Bill’s memorable dancing sequence in Silence of the Lambs.
This carnivalesque, over the top horror is reminiscent of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and the House of 1,000 Corpses. The use of props and gore go back to religious ceremonies, then transferred to the stage, with the history of theatre rising out of funerary rites for the dead. Developing stagecraft used in illusion and magic shows, carnivals and freak shows, then transferred again to early gothic horror films.
Art the Clown finds more and more creative ways to kill, to torture and maim his/its victims in the most shocking of ways, entertaining or disgusting us. In one scene, a dead victim is bound to a chair in Christmas lights with a sign that reads, CIRCUS, attached to the body. The clown with its oversize shoe stomps on a head of a would-be savior, shattering the cranium wide open, scenes that hark back to Killer Klowns. What further complicates an already over the top graphic and bloody movie is its supernatural ending, where the clown cannot die, leaving us with not only a possible sequel, but we now know that Art the Clown is indeed not human.
The image and history of the clown is something that speaks against the mundane, it is enduring and predates the horror genre, the clown is perfect for this. Even in the movie, Hellraiser, Pinhead and the Cenobites take on a carnivalesque and certainly a grotesque appearance. Their over-exaggerated features and clothes, the Cenobites could very well be freaks in a carnival sideshow, be it from an alternate dimension, connected by demonology and the occult.
Clowns are a symbol, something primal and ancient, as old as humanity itself, and still to this day play a strong role in society and customs around the world, long before the rise of P.T. Barnum, freakery, and the traveling carney. Clowns test the social norms, not only in ancient and medieval Europe, Asia, and Africa, but also in the Americas and the people of the First Nations. For the Pueblo culture, “clowning included acts of gluttony, including eating the inedible; simulating sexual activities; begging; joking; burlesquing ritual and ceremony; performing skits which satirize individuals or elements of their own society; performing skits which satirize other societies, acting and speaking in opposites; inverse or backwards behavior; and doing virtually anything to make people laugh.”
The Cochití clowns often exhibited obscenities. One non-Indian observer in 1880 described one incident this way:
“Sodomy, coitus, masturbation, etc., was performed to greatest perfection, men accoupling with each other on the ground or standing, and to the great delight of the spectators (certainly over one hundred), men, women, girls and boys, Mexicans and Indians looking on with the greatest ingenuity and innocence, not the slightest indecent look on the part of the women, and applauding the vilest motions.” 
Clowns play an essential role in our society, something innate in the species, therefore, clowns should terrify us, they are represented in myths and legends. They incarnate the world, and not only provide humor, but fear, representing something or someone from another world. They represent a break in social norms, and we need that to be human, for who could imagine a world without clowns.
“What’s a matter kid? Don’t you like clowns?”
 Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 122–23, 130.
 Native American Netroots, “Pueblo Clowns,” 2011, http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/861
 Native American Netroots, “Pueblo Clowns,” 2011, http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/861
Rudolfo A. Serna was born under the nuclear shadow of Los Alamos National Laboratories and raised in the orchards, mountains, and fields of northern New Mexico. Occupations have included carpenter, landscaper, wildland firefighter, creative writing coordinator, and adjunct professor. With a penchant for ‘70s horror B-movies, psychedelic doom metal, permaculture, and nature worship, he lives with his wife and daughter in Albuquerque, NM, writing dark fantasy sci-fi. A regular contributor to Brick Moon Fiction, his stories can also be seen in Bewildering Stories, Aphotic Realm, and Augur Magazine. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico, and serves as the digital steward of the Mutantroot Art Collective. His novel, Snow Over Utopia, is out with Apex Publications.
Lilyn G is the founder of Sci-Fi & Scary, and leader of the Coolthulhu Crew. She does book and film reviews for both genres the site focuses on. Her tastes run towards creature features, hard science fiction, and lots and lots of action. She also has a soft spot for middle-grade fiction that rears its head frequently.
Though no longer involved with Ladies of Horror Fiction due to other responsibilities and a too-full plate, she was one of the original 4 co-founders.
Feel free to chat her up on Twitter as long as you aren’t hitting her up to review your book.
Great post, Lilyn! And I loved the Killer Clowns movie! LOL
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