Coulrophobia: The Fear Of Clowns

From IT to TERRIFIER, clowns on screen have a certain je ne sais quoi.

By Angel Melanson · @HorrorGirlProbs · October 10, 2022, 4:26 PM EDT
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Who needs a foam nose when you can use a paper cup?

As October is officially underway and spookiness spreads across the land, seeping from our dark little niche into the mainstream of acceptable pop culture, we've been ruminating on a certain question marinating in our haunted heads — what scares you? The list of phobias is long and varied, but of course, we've got the greatest hits that tend to come up in conversation (and horror movies) over and over through time immortal. First up, we're settling in and teeing up with a list of some of the scariest clowns. What is it about clowns that gives us the creeps? Some folks on Twitter cite the pseudo-smile permanently plastered across the face juxtaposed against the sinister behavior. The visually saccharine meets sinister in action, sure, that checks.

May we present, What Scares You: Clowns Edition, fueled by Twitter.

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Robbie's Clown Doll: Poltergeist

The clown doll from Poltergeist may not have a ton of screen time, but it seems to have left a lasting impression on our collective consciousness. That jingling bell affixed to his cap's end. The sinking in the gut when the creepy little guy is missing from his chair. The terror when he's not lurking beneath the bed, but perched atop the bed, waiting to choke out little Robbie! (I jumped at this clip again just now, even though I knew damn well what was coming. Cinema!) Revisit the clown doll and his anaconda-like antics in the clip below. You can find more Poltergeist in our archives, it was on the cover of FANGORIA Volume 1 #19, which you can read for free right now. Bonus: Poltergeist was also just released on 4k, so you can get that sweet, sweet detail on that clown doll's makeup.

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Pennywise: It

We've got multiple iterations of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, and while Skarsgård made for a fantastically ominous saber-toothed clown, Curry is cemented in many of our minds as a core memory. For some reason, there are a shit ton of kids who saw this way too young, whether or not you caught it during its original run, there's something about this one that finds its audience in many cases before they're ready for it, and latches on for life. It's true, Pennywise can morph into our worst fears, but Curry embodying the unassuming clown form before going all drooly and toothy on us is simply something that never leaves your mind. If you're hungry for more, you can check out the new It documentary.

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Art the Clown: Terrifier

Yes, a girl gets clean torn in half vertically (spoiler?) in the first installment, and yes, the gore retains that level of madness pretty much throughout, but what I remember most from the first Terrifier is Art the Clown sitting in a pizza joint, toying with some female customers across the way. The absurdity of the scene and the classic style of his movements create something truly chilling. David Howard Thornton brings an old-school vaudeville mime-like movement to the performance, and it's something that made me laugh and also... gave me the absolute creeps. Lots of Terrifier 2 goodness in the latest issue if you're looking for more Art The Clown to haunt your dreams.

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Zeebo: Are You Afraid of the Dark

The '90s enjoyed a run of "gateway horror" shows and movies made for kids with a horror slant. Now, made-for-kid horror sounds innocent enough, but every so often, these things would venture into total bonkers territory and set out to scar some kiddos for life. Zeebo, from the inaugural season's second episode entitled "The Tale of the Laughing in the Dark," was cited multiple times as a clown that has lived in the collective consciousness. If you're unfamiliar, the episode focuses on a local amusement park with an urban legend of a clown called Zeebo who had sticky fingers and a penchant for cigars.

After stealing from the circus, Zeebo hides out from the law in the titular Laughing in the Dark spook house, where he drops his cigar and burns to death. Naturally, the amusement park features a dummy of Zeebo the clown, and a wise-ass kid decides to steal Zeebo's nose to prove himself the most bad-assiest of the local boys. Zeebo doesn't like this and makes the kid's life hell until the nose is returned, forever changing the way a sudden whiff of cigar smoke is perceived and a cautionary tale against thievery, general boastfulness, and dare-devilry.

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Captain Spaulding: House of 1000 Corpses

Sid Haig gave us Captain Spaulding's debut in 2003's House of 1000 Corpses as the proprietor of Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madmen. This foul-mouthed, violent clown went on to appear in Rob Zombie's sequels The Devil's Rejects and 3 from Hell. Captain Spaulding's Murder Ride serves as the catalyst that sends the protagonists to their (doomed) fates after they decide to investigate Dr. Satan. Haig's initial turn as Spaulding may not have racked up a ton of screen time, but it was infamous and gave us more Spaulding in the subsequent stories featuring the Firefly Family. Take a look at Michael Gingold's original House of 1000 Corpses review from the archives.

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Other answers included Lon Chaney from Laugh, Clown, Laugh (which is not a horror movie per say, but just look at it!), Wrinkles the Clown, vintage circus clowns in general, and also the vintage iteration of Ronald McDonald. All good choices, and there's just something about vintage clown imagery that is extra unsettling. They don't even need to be doing anything particularly heinous to feel "just a little off." Whether or not you find clowns scary, you've gotta admit there's an unsettling element to them and these movies are a hell of a lot of fun.

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