Clowns are a repeated character type in horror movies and television shows, showing up in titles such as American Horror Story: Freakshow, Wrinkles the Clown, Poltergeist, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and It. Even without the context of a horror movie with chilling music sequences and scenarios of suspense, fear of clowns is not uncommon in young children. While clowns are associated with jokes, fun makeup, and general lighthearted attitudes, they have taken on a darker side through fictional stories.
The question here is: How did clowns find their role in horror and thriller, and what makes them able to be twisted into a character much darker than they started out as?
Thinking generally about common themes in the horror genre, childhood items and people turned “dark” is one of them. Similarly to possessed dolls or a return to a haunted childhood home, clowns are able to be eerily twisted from an innocent, trusted figure to one that is capable of torment. Rewriting seemingly harmless ideas from when you were young into malicious villains has a horror potential that clowns take on so well.
Clowns also have a wild, almost outlandish aesthetic that is also able to be easily twisted into something creepy and unsettling. This is likely a reason for children’s fear of clowns from an early age; the large painted smile and unfamiliar outfits have a startling effect. For the purpose of horror, simple additions of blood, fake teeth, and a gory weapon can further push a clown from a friendly face to a devilish creature.
It may seem like clowns would make ineffective horror movie villains. After all, they are typically clumsy, loud, and very large. These aren’t the qualities one would expect in a character that needs to be stealthy, sly, and tricky. But, these traits can help play into what makes clowns so scary in movies and television shows. Their large physique can add to the dread main characters feel when being chased or hunted, and their unnerving appearance make jump scares all the more frightening.
With simple twists to an iconic childhood figure, clowns have taken on a dominant role in horror movies and shows. They are unlikely to leave the screen as a repeated horror character, and their qualities that bring out screams in audiences won’t lose their effect anytime soon.
Why are clowns so scary?