You Aren’t Afraid of Clowns

For thirty years, a culture war has waged. It’s victim-sacrifice: the circus clown.

I know, you watched It as a kid. Then you went to the movies a couple years ago and watched it again. You grew up with Freddie Kruger, Hellraiser, Beetlejuice. You think the Joker is cool because he’s so unpredictable, wacky, and totally nihilistic. You’ve learned to associate bright colors, white face paint, a big smiles with the sort of dated, cringe-gothic sad girl aesthetic of 2004 nu-metal cover art. You watched Invader Zim, listened to The Golden Age of Grotesque and Iowa, and you consider David Lynch an artistic genius but for all the wrong reasons.

“Clowns,” you tell your friends at parties, “are terrifying.”

They agree. Clowns are so scary. Creepy, even. One of your friends offers the helpful remark: “The way they’re a staple of children’s entertainment is so gross.” She’s college educated, like you, and probably the token Asian of the group. None of you are married, but several people in your circle cohabitate. All of you are bummed that you can’t go see the new Marvel movies in the theaters because of this completely legitimate, definitely-not-a-scam virus that’s going around. When the whole gang is together, you guys like to play Cards Against Humanity, drink IPAs and bourbon, and your slightly-gay (not judging, bro!) diminutive brown friend of unidentifiable South Asian complexion likes to sheepishly use anti-Semitic epithets under his breath—ohh you can’t say that bro, haha wow did you just say that, no way! It’s a joke, though. Eli’s fine with it.

You all think you’re saying smart things, because that’s what smart people like yourselves do at your age. You sit around with friends, play games, drink, sometimes do drugs, and talk about smart stuff, like how astrology is for women, or whether Thanos was right, or what the latest popular science article on string theory had to say about temporal cloning. Periodically, your friend Josh (who secretly goes by the name SEPTIMIVS_SEVERVS on Twitter and stopped playing World of Warcraft only about six years ago) will get really drunk and talk about Hegel for an hour. You’re a smart guy and you run with smart people.

Which is why, when you say “clowns are terrifying,” you know that what you’re saying is smart. It’s the intelligent position on such a quirky subject. The nods of agreement—except for Josh, who you’ve low-key noticed has had a more and more bewildered expression on his face each time he attends these parties—just reinforce the fact that you are, indeed, smart. “Clowns are terrifying,” you continue, “because they’re supposed to be this source of joy for kids, right, but they’re garish you know? Total sensory overload, they act crazy. There’s just something off-putting about it all, you get what I mean?”

Everybody gets what you mean. Everyone knows already. You have had this conversation ten thousand times. Everyone pretends to care, be interested, invent their own rehashed theories about why clowns are so spooky. You’ll all go back to your homes, feed your cats or dogs, put Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix, open a last beer for a nightcap, and fall asleep with blue light against your eyelids. A month from now, you’ll repeat the same conversation about clowns with the same group of friends, but this time at a different member of the circle’s house, and the cycle will repeat. Because this is what you do in your thirties. This is what you have to look forward to. Drinking. Children’s games. Comic book entertainment. Your last thought as you slip into a hop-induced drunken slumber: it’s liberating being child-free.  Commander Riker never had any kids.

Clowns are evil now. Clowns are bad. Clowns = scary. Remember this, this is important. Clowns are no good! Very scary!

But wait a second, what the hell is a clown to begin with?

Take a step back for a second.

There are some kids who just don’t like clowns, just like there are some kids who don’t like Oreos, or spaghetti, or Tonka trucks. It happens. But most kids don’t fall into that category. Most kids, when you show them a guy in a brightly-colored costume with funny shoes peddling a unicycle and juggling bowling pins, are going to watch in an amused combination of wonder, trepidation, and confusion. The birthday party clown-for-hire that shows up to tell bad jokes and make balloon animals is usually pretty lame, but the guys that taunt the bulls at the rodeo and the dudes that run slapstick routines with tiny cars at the circus are always a sight to see.

But the clowns can’t be jovial, fun-loving, energetic. They can’t be sorrowful or morose, either. They are denied their pathos because they’ve been denied their entire persona. Clowns now have to be menacing, violent abstractions from the disturbed psyches of abused Gen-Xers, or they have to be lame, mediocre impersonations of a generic era long gone. Proper clowns are dead.

But it’s worse than that. Not to rehash a tired, four-year-old meme, but the clown has been denied more than his joviality; he’s been denied his circus as well. The culture’s full-scale embrace of the sexual revolution’s third offensive has turned the circus tent inside-out; the performance is now real life. The clowns, who are supposed to be frivolous, talented entertainers full of whimsy, are child-grooming sex perverts who dress up as demons in order to read storybooks to your kids. Transsexuals co-opted the drag performance and pushed it into overdrive in an effort to legitimize their mental illness. It worked. They turned drag into a clown show performance, but only by cross-pollinating drag with the grotesque, fetishized psycho-clown aesthetic that our infantalized culture is already conditioned to accept. Like drag, they took something in which the whole point of the show was that it was an act, and they turned it into a show of self-validation. Authenticity is the performance, is the facade. Fitting, given their morality.

This is of course all to say that the clown world meme is real. But it’s one thing to use it as a casual remark whenever something absurd shows up in the media, and quite another to recognize how specific the metaphor’s explanatory power really is. The absurdity of the clown world requires clowns to be erased, because if people actually believed in a clown’s sincerity, the pretenses of our hyperreal, thought-policed social hierarchy would completely collapse. It takes a jester to temper the various egos of the court, and the first thing our particular brand of revolutionaries did when they stormed the palace was to kill the jester. Worse, the king now wears his skin like a costume.

So what do we have with all of this? Society is inverted; rather than a mature society that values strong men, specific leadership, big families, and is child-friendly, we have a society that values thought-policing, two-income households, sloth, and is utterly toxic to children. The clown’s inversion reflects this inversion of our culture. The inversion of our culture was the direct result of social engineering. People didn’t just naturally begin to hate a symbol of childish innocence and joy sometime in the 1980s; they were conditioned to by films and stories, by entertainment. Fearing clowns as a grown man, hating them, joining in with the quirky bit that your friends do—it’s all participation in this psyop. You don’t actually hate clowns. You aren’t actually afraid of them. It’s all a big meme. You’ve been conditioned to get along to go along. Hating clowns is just part of the rite.

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