In the history of genre films, clowns have constituted some of the most recognizable and malevolent antagonists in the horror pantheon. It’s hard to believe that a figure that was once synonymous with joy and laughter is now instantly recognized as a character to fear. Everything from no-budget indie horror to mainstream Hollywood blockbusters have used clown imagery to terrify their audiences.
2017 brought us the megahit IT, which turned out to be the highest grossing horror film in history. On September 6th, filmgoers everywhere will be treated to the conclusion of story of the Losers Club and their battle against Pennywise the dancing clown and the evil that he represents in IT: CHAPTER II.
The excitement surrounding IT: CHAPTER II got me wondering what it is about clowns in genre films that started the sensation that is clown-themed fright flicks. Horror fans have seen clowns portrayed as aliens, demons, ghosts, psychopaths, and everything in between. To get to the bottom of this question, I reached out to various creative professionals to find out what their favorite clown-themed horror films are, and why. Here are their answers.
ADAM KRAUSE (director, GAGS THE CLOWN)
I was only seven years old when I first saw CLOWNHOUSE. I crashed my big sister’s slumber party and for some reason wasn’t asked to leave when the horror movies started. Probably because the idea of scaring the shit out of the annoying little brother sounded appealing to a bunch of middle-school girls. And it terrified me. Like, gave me legit nightmares. And as I got older, I’d revisit the film frequently by renting it from Bet’s Video in Oconto Falls, WI. And every time, it’s lived up to my initial hype.
As far as a plot goes, CLOWNHOUSE doesn’t really have a lot of meat on its bones. Three patients at an insane asylum escape and crash a circus, murder three clowns, steal their costumes and then randomly target a house to wreak havoc. Essentially a home invasion movie… but with murderous clowns doing the home invading, leaving three brothers who must fend them off in order to survive the night.
The controversy surrounding this film is absolutely appalling, and there’s a good reason it will be forever out-of-print. But when I first fell in love with the film, I wasn’t aware of the controversy. I just fell in love with a simple, well-executed horror film that showed me how horrifying clowns can be. Upon hearing of what happened behind-the-scenes, I’ve learned to separate the art from the artist when it comes to CLOWNHOUSE, because I can’t simply fall out of love with the movie. It meant too much to me as a young child watching an R-rated film that I shouldn’t be watching.
JOHN PATA (writer/producer, GAGS THE CLOWN)
While it’s not my favorite clown-related horror film, the 1990 mini-series of IT stands out to me — as I know it does for many, if not most, of us. I was six years old when it aired on TV, and because my parents were lax about what I watched, I had already begun watching horror. So, naturally, I was excited for the mini-series. However, my mom, who was a Stephen King fan and read the book, said she didn’t want me watching IT because I was too young. Too young?!? Come on! In her eyes, IT was different than the other films I’d seen at that point because the kids weren’t too much older than me and they were the victims of the horror. She didn’t think I would handle it well. This was not acceptable to my six-year-old self, I had to watch it. So, like a model son, I annoyed the shit out of her, begging to let me watch it. I wouldn’t take no for an answer. After all, my parents were already going to watch it so they might as well let me sit in the room, as well, right?
She eventually caved, and even though she was still hesitant about it, I got to watch IT with them. However, there was one very important stipulation I had to agree to. When I have nightmares (not IF but WHEN, was how my mom worded it), I couldn’t wake my parents up. I had to deal with them all on my own. No exceptions, no buts. Yeah, sure, Mom. I don’t care, I’ll do whatever, just let me watch IT!
Well, let me tell you this, I sure fucked that one up. For months, I had nightmare after nightmare about Pennywise and I just laid in my bed, crying, and had to deal with them all by my damn self because that’s what I agreed to. And it really sucked.
ANTHONY BROWNLEE (producer, FREDHEADS: THE DOCUMENTARY)
Clowns… they say the whole world loves a clown. They make you laugh, they do tricks, and they are the epitome of silly. So what is there to be afraid of?
My fear of clowns, or the technical term, coulrophobia, began for me when I saw the original TV version of Stephen King’s IT. Tim Curry’s performance of Pennywise was so terrifying and spot on it gave me nightmares. I had seen clowns before in films, but there was something about this film that triggered a fear I never knew I had. To watch a clown that’s usually jovial and full of life be able to be the thing that you’re most afraid of was so visceral, it attacked me on another level and birthed a phobia. And yet, still I’m fascinated by clowns.
In my early twenties I became aware of a film called CLOWNHOUSE and like Stephen King’s IT the story captured me and thrilled me; watching ordinary people apply makeup and turn themselves into monsters, even though, clowns are supposed to be fun. What grabbed me about the film was that it was practically bloodless and it was the way they were portrayed, their body language of slowly moving, dancing, their childlike manner because of their mental capacity. You watched them play and it turn murderous all the while with painted on smile.
In 2016, the film CLOWN was released, and that was a whole other level of horror. To turn into a clown just because you put on the costume, and you become part of it or it takes over you, [that idea terrified me]. The idea of transforming into the thing that scares me the most is incomprehensible, that a beast was building within you and emerging in the worst way and making you lose total control, which is another fear I have: lack of control over my mind and body.
Another film that should be mentioned is 1998’s THE CLOWN AT MIDNIGHT, a film that’s a bit obscure, but should not be overlooked. The film has a lot of raw scares that’s based on lust and vengeance, sort of a deeper play on Pogo the Clown who, behind the makeup, was a notorious serial killer, with a smile as fraudulent as the soul. This isn’t the monster hiding in the closet; this is a monster walking beside you on the street, sitting at the table next to you in the coffee shop, eating next to you in a restaurant, the one you say would never hurt a fly.
JT HABERSAAT (stand-up comedian, ALTERCATON PUNK COMEDY TOUR)
The obvious go-to for me is KILLER CLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE, mainly because the soundtrack was done by the Dickies and the Klown effects look awesome. That cotton candy gun? C’mon man, I loved that shit! Everyone will say Tim Curry in IT for good reason, but let us not forget the OG of clown nightmares – that creep-ass toy in POLTERGEIST. That thing wrapping its hands around the kiddo’s neck freaked me out for years. Currently speaking, the lead performance in TERRIFIER was pretty impressive, even if the gore was a bit over the top for my taste. I’m excited to see what they do with the sequel.
ADAM MARCUS (director, JASON GOES TO HELL)
I’m gonna go for a deep dive on this. My favorite horror movie that features a clown is the movie that ruined Tod Browning’s career… FREAKS. This movie completely terrified me as a kid. They played it on PBS in New York so my dad let me watch it and it destroyed me. I was like nine or ten when I saw it. Later, I became obsessed with the movie. I found out that at the time the film caused so much controversy that it all but killed the career of the most important genre filmmaker of the era. Now, the clown is not the sole “killer” of the movie but he is in many ways the match that lights the fuse that explodes in what ends up being one the scariest scenes ever shot. To this day, it is still a film that challenges our preconceptions in a myriad of ways. Browning was way ahead of his time in taking the side of the downtrodden and of course the small-minded audience of the day fled when they didn’t get what he was really up to. This film heavily inspired AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW, which also had a pretty amazing killer clown: One of the most terrifying to grace the small screen.
One more bit of clown horror that tortured me as a kid, Steven Spielberg… uh, I mean… Tobe Hooper’s POLTERGEIST. The clown doll that tries to strangle Robbie Freeling made me look under my bed and around my dark bedroom every night for years! Why, you ask? Because my parents bought me that same freakin’ clown! What the hell was in the heads of parents of the ’70s? Letting us watch terrifying arty stuff and the insanely creepy toys they bought us. Yikes!
JOSHUA R. PANGBORN (director, SKELETON CREW)
Fear and humor offer a great opportunity for catharsis, and that is what draws us time and again to the clown. The clown embodies the ultimate in body horror – his outsides an often grotesque exaggeration of an emotional experience (typically sadness or amusement). The clown’s actions are centered around making others feel something, often joy, but in horror, these actions are taken to the extreme, and to the detriment of the recipient of the clown’s attentions. The clown also touches our inner child as modern audiences, perhaps incorrectly, associate the character with childhood and childish pursuits. Therefore, the clown as villain perverts and corrupts the innocence of childhood, taking what should be a source of good memories and turning it upside down. These are what I love about clowns in horror – the potential for body horror, the corruption of innocence, the perversion of comedy. That’s what draws me to IT, STITCHES, CLOWN, and TERRIFIER. Each of those films corrupts and distorts a figure meant to amuse, to delight. The tears of a sad clown become the tears (and screams) of the clown’s audience.
BILLY “BLOODY BILL” PON (director, CIRCUS OF THE DEAD)
First of all, I’m not quite sure why I was chosen or someone thought I might be qualified to talk about clown movies? With that said, I haven’t seen CLOWNHOUSE yet, so I’ll just throw that out there first. I’ll list a handful of clown movies that I’ve seen or kinda dug somewhat. In the brutal category I’d mention 100 TEARS and TERRIFIER… The best things about both of those were the clowns themselves. Gordy and Art were some bad bad boys. Short on talk and big on blood. The next category is “WTF” and for that, I’d like to induct BLOOD HARVEST with singer Tiny Tim. I loved watching this one and had a giant confusing smile on my face the entire time. Old school weirdness. Next category is “classic goodness” and I’ll induct the original IT and KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE… both have ’80s campiness in two different ways. Tim Curry is a GD master, nuff said! KILLER KLOWNS is one of those films I’ve watched over a hundred times. I even introduced a younger generation of family on it and they love it too. Timeless cheesiness! My favorite actor/performance in it is John Vernon aka Officer Mooney. That guy rules! People assume I’m a huge clown fanatic because I made CIRCUS OF THE DEAD. Honestly, I made it because I was curious what if I made a clown movie minus the cheese and played them like deranged serial killers whose day job just so happened to be clowns. That concept, of course was inspired by Sid Haig as Capt. Spaulding in HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES.
JASON ZINK (director, STRAIGHT EDGE KEGGER)
I’ve spent the majority of my life arguing with people over what I swear are cinematic treasures, while John Q Public tells me that I’m a moron. KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE is probably the title that has caused more of those conversations than I can count. For years, I would tell people that it’s my favorite movie of all time. Partially because it’s somewhat true but mostly, it’s how I would quickly let folks know that there was no winning me over if their favorite film was more traditional fare (i.e. THE NOTEBOOK, AVATAR, etc.). You can’t win a fight with an elitist and I sat comfortably upon my throne of judgement, dishing out insults at the limited who couldn’t appreciate my precious. Luckily, I’ve almost entirely outgrown this phase of film snobbery… but I still haven’t outgrown the Chiodo Bros’ masterpiece.
As both a young budding cineaste and a punk, KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE hit me profoundly as The Dickies theme song blasted my eardrums and the madness began to unfurl itself. The flick is witty, dark, confusing and oftentimes sentimental. It had everything that I wanted but more than anything, it struck me as “different.” I had never seen anything quite like it and it may have been the first time that I realized that people somewhere were responsible for creating this thing that I was watching. I started to pay close attention to the special and visual FX. I was listening closely to sound design and laughing hysterically at Officer Mooney’s shitty attitude. Finding a gem like this, the movie helped turn me onto a lot of other cult flicks… a gateway film if you will.
So, flash forward fifteen years or so. We’re going to see a screening of the 35mm print of KLOWNS at The Music Box in Chicago (best theater in the world). I’m not the type of guy to get excited about an autograph but for some reason, I felt compelled to bring my Shorty mask with me. As soon as I walked in, someone yelled at me and flagged me down. I was quickly ushered backstage, where I stood and waited with none other than the Chiodos. We chatted for a few minutes, and they told me to keep making movies, just before they took my mask on stage. It was only a few minutes, but it left a lasting impression, and I still haven’t stopped making movies. So, say what you will about KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you tell me it’s garbage, I may still fight you on it.
NICHOLAS BURMAN-VINCE (actor, HELLRAISER)
I’m choosing Kate Shenton’s SEND IN THE CLOWNS. This is a comedy short with a twist on the clown in horror. It’s made with Kate Shenton’s mix of horror, humanity and humor. (And if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend her EGOMANIAC.)
David has one ambition in life. To dress up as a scary clown and terrorize local pedestrians. We follow him through the highs and lows of his daily life, dealing with adversary from his father, crazy flat mate and stalker, as he tries to pursue his dream.
ANGUS MAPLE (adult film star, SWINEY’S PRO-AM)
Try and picture the mid-1980s, the early days of home video. Also try and picture living in a small city in Western Mass., where up until VHS, you only got the (at best) top seven movies in release. Home video changed all that. Almost overnight, I had access to movies that I couldn’t have imagined existed just a year previously. I mean, who could’ve imagined something like KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE being a real thing? I didn’t find clowns scary myself, but I understood why other people did. I didn’t find them really funny either, but KILLER KLOWNS looked to be a bit of both things. More importantly I was down with what KILLER KLOWNS represented. KILLER KLOWNS, in my estimation, personified what home video was all about. Yeah, sure you could watch PRITZZI’S HONOR, classic Mickey Mouse cartoons, or buy TOP GUN for $20, but fuck me; where else are you going to see some ape-shit crazy work of art like KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE in Pittsfield Massa-fucking-chusettes!
Working at a video store I championed the movie, trading on my rep with customers. It wasn’t a big reach. Hell, the concept itself was enough to make the vast majority of renters drop a few bucks just to see what the hell was going on. The fact that the movie was nutso fun; steering into the skid of the concept to a complete bat-shit spin out helped after the fact.
The Killer Klowns have stuck with me over the years because this odd, hysterical little piece of cinema showed me, at a young age, what was possible with this medium I was so in love with. Which is to say that if you could make a movie about man eating clowns from space and make it work… and work brilliantly. What was possible was pretty much ANYTHING!
DANIEL EMERY TAYLOR (director, IT’S JUST A GAME)
I love a good creepy or murderous clown. In fact, I’ve included killer lady clowns in two of my films (I may have a slight case of coulrophilia, I’m not sure). Clowns are a staple of horror and we all have our favorites. Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding is probably my favorite horror icon of the modern era. I will always have a soft spot for 100 TEARS‘ frightening Gurdy.
However, nothing in cinema has ever been as horrifying as Tiny Tim’s Marvelous Mervo in 1987’s BLOOD HARVEST. Why is Mervo so scary? I think it comes down to why clowns are scary: they take what is natural and amplifies it beyond what is acceptable. Huge eyes, huge smiles, wild movements, and loud laughter. It’s humanity turned up. And when you take someone like Tiny Tim, who truthfully was pretty creepy by himself, and turn him into a clown, it exponentially multiplies the creep factor. This is the stuff of nightmares.
ELLIE CHURCH (actress, SPACE BABES FROM OUTER SPACE)
My absolute favorite is KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE, no contest. I saw it when I was pretty young, and found it absolutely fascinating. I had never seen anything like it. Still haven’t. To be fair, I’ve never had a real fear of clowns, but after doing a movie called THE BAD MAN, involving a clown, sex trafficking, and home invasions, they make me feel a LOT more uneasy than they used to.
JOHN BOROWSKI (director, SERIAL KILLER CULTURE)
It is no wonder that Stephen King’s IT was released in the ’80s following the arrest of John Wayne Gacy, the original killer clown, in Chicago in 1978. Just like King’s Pennywise, Gacy’s clown name starts with the letter “P.” He called himself Pogo The Clown because he was Polish and on the go. He was very busy burying the bodies of 28 young men in his crawlspace.
Huge thanks to all of our distinguished participants!
Tags: Adam Krause, Adam Marcus, Amgus Maple, Angus Maple, Anthony Brownlee, Billy Pon, clowns, Daniel Emory Taylor, Ellie Church, Jason Zink, John Borowski, John Pata, Joshua Pangborn, JT Habersaat, Nicholas Burman-Vince