Ok, I'm semi-successfully all grown-up now, so I can admit it—clowns scare the shit outta me. From the /msgs I've been getting lately, ever since dannye splashed that jocular manic-depressive on his homenode, it would appear that I am not alone. What IS the deal with clowns anyway?
Well, they've been around forever, that's for sure. Literature and classic drama (particularly King Lear) use the concept of the clown as the inversion of the king. Primitive societies ritualistically assassinated the king, the possessor of supreme power, by tormenting the clown. In The Golden Bough Sir James George Frazer mentions the folkloric custom, in celebration of Spring, where youths would race on horseback up to the tallest tree or mast erected in the town square (yes, much symbolism is at play in these matters). The boy/man who got to the phallic symbol first was crowned Easter King. The last to arrive was made a clown. And beaten.
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable notes
The clown of circus and pantomime, in his baggy costume, whitened face, grotesque red lips, and odd little tuft of hair, is probably a relic of the Devil as he appeared in medieval miracle plays.
Coulrophobia, it seems, has been around a while too.
He called himself "Blanky" and he made my skin crawl. The predominant color in his makeup palette—after the obligatory clown white of course—was BLACK. Black lines in his forehead. Black lips. Black whiskers as I remember them, hanging somehow three-dimensionally from his cheeks. They say no two clowns have the same makeup; it's a matter of pride and tradition. Customary. They told me he had once worked for Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey. The Greatest Show on Earth. Oh kaaaay…
Beware clowns who used to work anywhere I say. Heed the tale of Blanky the Clown.
He had the big BLACK rubber clown feet which slapped the sidewalk as he walked, and you could see where the feet were beginning to wear out, and you had the feeling he didn't wash his socks that often.
He had the clown nose, red of course, but I was always aware of his non-clown nosehairs poking out of the big rough holes on the bottom. I didn't even want to know how he kept that nose stuck on. I couldn't have been more than seven or eight.
He had a damned-scary clown horn that he used to blow all the time. He kept it in one of the baggy pockets in his grimy baggy pants. Adults, I guess, would laugh when he snuck up behind a young woman or a kid like me and let it fly—braapp! braapp!—but it was always creepy to me. I can't explain it.
In the old family album there's a picture of Blanky the Clown holding my hand at the Soap Box Derby. I am pulling myself away from him as hard as I possibly can. Like I said, creepy.
Now the thing is, I come from a very small town, one of those places where everybody knows everybody. Everybody I knew—every kid I knew—knew Blanky when he wasn't being a clown. He was the fat fortyish guy leaning back in his chair in front of the firehouse, chomping a cheap cigar and pulling on a Rheingold. He had a penchant for dirty jokes and his choice of adjectives was limited. I always thought it was weird that Blanky the Clown could TALK, just by taking off his clown suit. Somehow I got it into my head that he'd seen unspeakable things during the war. It may have been my dad, or my Grandpa, who were always quiet about that sort of thing. I'd look into Blanky's eyes when he was just Blanky the Fireman, when I could stand to do that cause he wasn't Blanky the Clown, and they had a…look…that you just don't see every day.
I got out of that town as soon as I possibly could, and I never gave Blanky the Clown another thought till I got back from Vietnam and had cut a couple of movies. It had been at least twenty years since I'd even been near a clown (in the sense of which I'm writing here of course) and an old Army buddy moved to L.A.. Not only had we been in the army together briefly, but he was from my home town. We lived on opposite sides of the tracks and he'd stayed there quite a while after I'd left.
One night, after a couple of beers, Chuck told me all about Blanky:
His entire platoon had been chopped to pieces at Anzio. He'd held his best friend's brains in his hand while he watched his own guts spill onto the Italian cobblestones. He was the most decorated World War II soldier in our little town and he was, at that moment, doing twenty years in Sing Sing for pedophilia.
And yes, once upon a time Blanky the Clown had worked for Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, The Greatest Show On Earth, but sometimes even the circus is not enough.