Clowns to the Left of Me: Exit Stage Right

Are we still afraid of clowns?  Really?  People usually don’t like to cop to their phobias.  And if they do end up screaming at the sight of mouse, they’ll have the decency to be embarrassed afterwards.

Yet there is something about hating clowns that renders one cool.  Whether its wearing a tee-shirt that says “Can’t sleep, clowns will eat me,” or begging out of kid’s birthday party by using the “clowns freak me out” excuse.  Everybody doesn’t like something.  Seems nobody likes clowns.

Some say it’s a recent cultural phenomena ignited by the lore of serial killer John Wayne Gacey and pop culture depictions of clowns in the 80’s and 90’s. You can’t go to zombie walk these days without seeing a dozen or so psycho clowns.  Heath Ledger’s final portrayal as the Joker in The Dark Knight did what I thought could never been done.  Bested Tim Curry’s performance in It as the most malevolent creature to ever wear white grease paint.

Many scholars trace our collective aversion to clowns as going back thousands of years.  In Greek mythology there was Hermes the trickster.  In ancient cultures the court jester.  During the great depression it was the seedy tramp.  These characters existed on the fringes of society, eschewed cultural norms and were sexually provocative, if not at times deviant.

I wouldn’t say I suffer from a full-blown case of coulrophobia.  (See, even the official term for fear of clowns has the word “cool” in it).  But there are a few funny looking fellows – why no female clowns? hmmmm – who definitely set off my creep-o-meter.


At some point I plan to write more about my evolution as a Stephen King fan.  While many relationships start out in love and end in hate, my relationship with Stephen went the other way.  And It was definitely a factor during the hating years.  I never read the book or saw much of the mini-series.  Pennywise filled me with so much terror and dread I didn’t want to go anywhere near it.  I also had a small child at the time of the original airing of the mini-series and had a low tolerance for seductive clowns who had a propensity for tearing limbs off of small children.

Red Skelton and Weary Willie

These famous sad sacks were similar in they both came out of vaudeville during the depression.  When I was a kid my parents must have watch the Red Skelton Show because I can remember seeing him on TV and thinking, “I know this is supposed to be funny, but I just don’t get it.”  Maybe it was because he didn’t talk when he played Freddy the Freeloader, something about him made me nervous. The not-talking part reminds me, next on our list of things we’re genetically pre-deposed to hate – mimes.

I only recently came upon the story of Weary Willie, and I can’t help but wonder why a movie hasn’t been made about this iconic clown.  Emmett Kelly’s portrayal of tragic tramp Weary Willie made Red Skelton’s Freddy look like a poster child for Prozac.  Three generations of Kelly’s played the Willie character.  The first two had marriages that ended in divorce because their wives thought Emmett Kelly Senior and Junior were too obsessed with Willie.  The grandson of the original Willie committed double homicide and named Willie as an accomplice.  One wonders if Willie is still out there inhabiting someone, and if he might be running for the GOP nomination.


Killer clown wielding a knife. And he sings. Nuff said.


Long time Springsteen fans and those who grew up on the Jersey Shore are familiar with Tillie.  Technically, Tillie isn’t a clown.  Tillie isn’t even a character.  He’s the face of Palace Amusements, a historic arcade in Asbury Park, New Jersey that was demolished in 2004.  Tillie was so beloved by those with cherished memories of Asbury’s heyday that before the building went down, the wall bearing his face was removed and preserved.

What Tillie has in common with the clown persona is an association with fun houses, games and loud frivolous entertainment.  I love Tillie.  I grew up with him.  But there was something about that smile that always put me on edge.  That maniacal gleam in his eyes that suggested something sinister was lurking underneath.

My suspicions were confirmed when as adult I went to Coney Island.  There grinning on the walls of the arcades was Tillie’s evil alter ego. This incarnation originally appeared on the signage of the Coney Island Steeplechase Park, and was inspired by the park’s owner George Tilyou.  This Brooklyn Tillie looked like he’d just as soon bite your face off than sell you a Steeplechase ticket.  I’m glad I grew up with the friendlier, less cannibalistic looking Tillie.  He creeped me out but never kept me away from the bumper cars.




One thought on “Clowns to the Left of Me: Exit Stage Right

  1. (a) I want to read more.
    (b) you and your spouse were made for each other!

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