Behind a dark fold in the depths of every person’s subconscious, there’s carnival music and a candy-colored clown they call “The Sandman.” This recess harbors a corroded thought: There’s a deeper level to this game. In the old French silent Paris Qui Dort, a mad scientist freezes Paris save for a few denizens who escape the crazy ray and frolic amongst the citizenry in suspended animation. Mais bien sûr, the first thing the gay lot do is fuck with the frozen people. To break the rules, to peer through the cracks in the façade of calcified society, is an irreducible element of the human experience, it seems. The emboldening nature of anonymity and concealment ignites this buried itch; the pills in the social fabric give way to latent desires and their abstracted expression. René Claire’s is a poetic, fizzy vision; the recent clown craze epidemic is the ghoulish inverse of this mindset. The difference: In Claire’s, society loses its luster without the organic bustle; whereas, the impotent malcontents hiding in the woods seek ever-mounting chaos—boiled-over anxiety with a tumultuous internal logic and an erratic arc.
Yet, there’s been no shortage of explication. It seems that the collective unconscious of the nation has so thoroughly ruptured that our worst nightmares are bleeding through, and we are fraught to articulate them. For one: Insane Clown Posse and the World Clown Association are on the same page. Time magazine, for its part, felt compelled to make sense of this by going straight to the Juggalo-laureate source, soliciting a heartfelt op-ed from none other than Violent J. What a horrific time to be alive. With cracked clowns running rampant through the countryside from coast to coast, the questions that everyone seems to be asking are: What’s the deal? What’s the appeal? Why clowns? Why so serious? And, how can movies and TV be blamed?
Contemporary correlatives and psychoanalytic short-hand have been the surest course. Many have been eager to map the incidents, brandishing think-pieces that dive deep into the pop-clowns of yore to root out the misfiring synapse in the collective consciousness. I’ve never had an irrational fear of clowns per se, but I get it: forced childhood carnivalesque, hyperbolic features on the edge of maniacal, the oft-cited unheimlich. For many, this represents the fallout from a generation weaned on killer clowns and violent imagery, finding twisted meaning in the trope and giving it a contemporary viral spin. There are but two sources that have stoked the modern clown fear saturation: Pennywise from TV-movie It and Are You Afraid of the Dark’s Zeebo. Also, Killer Klowns from Outer Space. What’s lost in the fray—and the many experts who’ve weighed in on the nuances of clown-induced discomfort sociology, anthropology, psychology—is a larger conception of how this relates to the parameters of the horror genre proper, of which clowns are a relatively small subset of a larger cognitive plane. What’s particularly interesting about this fright wig contagion, outside of its exaggerated cartoonishness, is the idea of the real-world horror playground—filled with rehearsals of the uncanny, unwitting victims, and wannabe-sadist victimizers jonesing for rippling dread.
Really, one could argue that this rash is emblematic of film proper, especially as people get on the bandwagon—catalyzing the faux-urban legends, pretending to see, participating as fake audience, organizing clown-hunting posses. But screw it, it’s October, dammit—time to give oneself over to the symbolism of human fear in all its forms. As I’m wont to do each year, I’ve kicked into horror month mode. The most recent correlative I’ve watched of late is Wolf Creek 2, a nasty, decade-delayed Australian sequel to a nasty Australian classic—in which an inverted-Mick Dundee picks-off tourists who venture too deep into the unforgiving Outback. In the sequel, McLean’s total disinterest in rooting interest transposes torture porn as dominant, eschewing the brutal elegance of the original—it’s a lopsided beast with only the peril of the playground, and a broken structural template, holding it together.
McLean’s sits in a long line of notables, from the operatic menace of A Clockwork Orange—the archetypal model with a full scope of inquiry—to the cultish likes of Series 7: The Contenders, which attempts to obliterate the viewer-participant barrier into one ugly voyeuristic, sadistic societal urge. Real-world playgrounds, and the victim-victimizer dynamic, reaches a fever pitch in the modern world, with potent, gonzo carbon copies ranging through any number of hollow slasher replicants and high-brow, overt-Kubrickian exercises in austere genre-looping, like American Psycho. A grinning madman provides the requisite kills for pure thrills, a vicarious Id is unleashed. A subset of this subset even acknowledges this ingrown desire as connective-tissue in the human population with sanctioned and systematized transgression frameworks. In the likes of Hostel and Purge, blood-lust is something of an accepted anomaly of the human condition that needs meaningful expression in a controlled environment. The tentacles of this horror trope reach well beyond horror borders, earmarking it as a particularly significant and consuming limb of human consciousness, especially in a constricting modern civilized world.
There are strains of this in the klown konundrum, a sense that the trend itself gives license through dint of its ritual and particular brand of abstraction. Made manifest in monstrous form, Ego masquerades as Id in the form of inverse-Superego—a willful, knowing, winking transgression of morality and social bounds for kicks. The approach: puncture a world that narcotizes, shake people out of ruts through ruthlessness, violently alter perception, even if only by implication or casually squirting fuel on the fire. Of course, every action has its equal and opposite, so there must be an explanation for the irruption. Some credit duo-valent disturbances with giving rise to this phenomenon: otherness and social media. Information now spreads like wildfire which: a) amplifies hysteria, even when there is none, b) provides a democratized platform for roguish attention-seekers, c) splinters opinion and the expression thereof, and d) fragments identity. Paranoia takes hold and seeps into the groundwater. Long- gestating dissociative identities are birthed and seek out transference targets. Anonymity fuels the analog trolling, so does the performative nature of transformation.
All-in irrationality, and blind devotion to its peddlers, looks suspiciously normalized before all-out devolution. The dread of uncertainty in the face of change indorses clinging to regress, however hollow or desperate the promise. Subconscious panic of becoming marginal kindles self-imposed marginality, a desperate grasp at the mechanism through abjection and shock projection. Average and batshit occupy the same space and intertwine, to paraphrase Kurosawa’s Jidaigeki masterpiece. Impotent purveyors bask in costume, and they escape the confines of an unmasked but sedate and uncontrollable routine. A symptomatic, curdled version of the suddenly-inexorable desire to create widespread panic was inevitable—trickle-down myth and erratic behavior. A self-fulfilling, formally incoherent bogeyman threat is given physicality through double-down abstraction. It betrays a desire to import the grotesque into the world, but also, somewhat paradoxically, to do so through a recognizable and silly abject—a figurative form representative of the mounting existential terror of the day-to-day, but in a plainly cliché masquerade. It’s a kamikaze mission to defeat its opposite—as Matthew Teague put it, “something about the arched eyebrows and the garish smile skipped a signal right to the base of people’s brains. They had lost all capacity for critical thought.” There’s an undeniable playfulness in the malevolence, even in its illegibility—a Cheshire grin that mixes delight and visceral danger and clarifies the position of those involved in the transaction: victim and victimizer. For, everything is a power play in this world. Everything, all the time.
To incite fear in another is to control them. To incite fear in them is to attempt to reduce them, to revert them to survival instincts, to dehumanize. To do this for sport is the stuff of psychopathy. Treading the line between garish and dangerous is the name of the game. It happens to tidily summarize the state of personal security in the modern world, too: grey, nebulous, dramaturgical. That which is dormant manifests in wretched caricature as if by some stunted sublimation. This overt feral clown iteration may subside on the other side of the arbitrary dividing line between Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’, but the deeply unnerving correlatives will continue to define modern existence for the foreseeable future. Now that it’s out of the shadows, there’s no obscuring it.
Without fail, subjectivity curdles during the brief autumnal lull in the social contract—in which we collectively abide a vague “nice kind of spooky”—causing tension points, where the very idea of wiggle-room for acceptable social behavior is license to take an inch for a mile—when the rules can bend, so too can they break, and gravity does the rest. Intention achieves its diametrical inverse—fun children’s entertainment uproots dark concerns about the threat that strange, beckoning, costumed harlequins pose to the innocents—making fun out of misery and vice versa. Subconscious fears lurch out of abstraction into a carnivalesque uncanny valley.
Deep-seated fears have been projected from the unconscious into the realm of representation, then extracted from representation into this world, ripe for unhinged, pleasure principle-driven theatrics that aim for soft targets. This waking nightmare is rooted in the zeitgeist now, a malignant celebration of the spiral toward a misguided faux-anarchic hereafter. In this neo-Dickensian hellscape, the tension between exaggerated outward expression and the dull humanity underneath is ever present and irreconcilable. It’s a time when discolored, bewigged, boorishness is normalized. It’s crazy clown time, indeed. Fitting then that a rhetorical impacted abscess would reach for the dim light, and prove viral.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine