Clowns, right? Tormenting towns with grins, games and exuberant exertions of fun and frolic; what was Joseph Grimaldi thinking back in eighteen-hundred-and-something, with that white face and all that slapstick? His persona was doomed from the start. For one, the world has always had something against gingers, and then there’s that whole cavort-around-like-a-crazy-person-wearing-a-supersize-grin-and-a-small-planet-for-a-nose thing. It’s weird. Even so, it’s not entirely Grimaldi’s misguided shenanigans that set the world askew. We’ve got to give credit where credit is due; a large chunk of the blame is usurped by nefarious serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who married ‘killer’ and ‘clown’ in a terrifying ceremony officiated by murder and signed by death, destroying the credibility of all innocent by-standing jokesters in the process.
Gacy’s Pogo, the (killer) Clown, paved the way for Pennywise (It), Jigsaw (Saw), Dandy and Twisty (AHS Carnival) and even the likes of Shaun “Clown” Crahan, crazed percussionist from metal band Slipknot. With these smiling sinners prowling the tunnels of popular culture’s labyrinthine mind, it’s no surprise that Coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, is not something relegated to the pages of a really lame joke book.
In real life, Pogo was not Gacy’s murder-persona (he raised funds for charity as an extracurricular to murder) but American Horror Story: Hotel embellishes the fable of Gacy as clownish killer when, on “Devil’s Night,” he dons the war paint that emanates from the chaos of his person (aka his clown face) and, along with his pals, partakes of pudding – dessert à la serial killer. Forget the piquant of a glorious croque-en-bouche or perfect panna cotta, there’s Stab Fest on the menu this night; murder to the soundtrack of hysterical laughter, as Gacy and the gang (Aileen Wuornos, Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard Ramirez and the Zodiac Killer) chortle and whoop while they make massacre. It’s the sound of psychopaths – freaks, as an antiquated, less politically correct society might say – bunched in a lump of lunacy.
A couple of years ago the BBC reported on a study by the University of Sheffield, which revealed that clowns are universally disliked by children (aged 4 to 16), many of whom find them frightening and unknowable. Stephen King said, “When you put on a clown suit and a rubber nose, nobody has any idea what you look like inside.” Much lurks behind the veneer of a smile – not always something sinister but then again; quite possibly something sinister. Who knows? And that’s it, isn’t it – the inscrutability of the mask and intrinsic unpredictability that emanates there from.
In addition to providing easy satire – with their orange hair, bulbous noses and hysterical laughter, making a mockery of society’s aptitude for façade – clowns are erratic and ambiguous, with killer clowns taking the frenzy to new heights. It’s not difficult to place these painted harbingers of death within the context of chaos – the ironic juxtaposition of fun and felony is illogical; disorganized in its application. Killer clowns lack cohesion; human faces, masked by the fraud of paint and plastic, hide intent – juggling balls one minute and slashing throats the next. Sound familiar? It’s exactly what Twisty the clown did in American Horror Story: Freak Show. So did Dandy, Twisty’s successor. OK, he didn’t juggle…but he did befriend a guy in a bar only to lure him away so he could butcher him to a bloody pulp whilst wearing Twisty’s mask.
Of course, not every clown is a Gacy but Horror banged a very firm nail into the coffin of that probability when it puked evil and retched exaggeration all over the proverbial bozo and his satirical smile, turning trope into terror.
Dandy, Twisty and John Wayne Gacy. These guys are scary because they’re killers – it’s pretty obvious, but the killing takes a backseat to the chaos, which is what really strikes fear and threatens sanity. Killing – death; is not an unfamiliar part of life but chaos, as an accompaniment to killing, imposes uncertainty and denotes lack of control – and in a world that lusts for explanation and certitude, the haphazardness of the jolly, masked entertainer at kids’ birthday parties (already bastardized by horror) is made of the stuff that skulks in the shadows, waiting to creep into our nightmares and send us shrieking down passageways or cowering under tables.
So it makes total sense that in a world ‘gone wrong’ Allyson “Ally” Mayfair-Richards from American Horror Story: Cult is stalked by a posse of killer clowns. The latest blood-curdling offering by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk takes place in the aftermath of Trump’s 2016 election win, which serves as catalyst for phobic irrationality. America’s new president brings out the crazy; inspiring Ally’s pre-existing Coulrophobia to new heights (turning her son into a Coulrophobic, too) and giving cult leader Kai Anderson a platform to woo would-be minions into submission. Focused on using fear to release chaos in order to achieve change (or control – it’s perspective dependent), Kai collects a gang of politically incensed individuals intent on seeing society pay for its misdeeds – whether it’s voting Trump or not voting Trump…or any other form of ethical disobedience as seen from the eye of the beholder.
True to form, Horror appropriates ‘killer clown’ in an almighty extravaganza of barbaric bloodlust, splattering hate and rage all over Michigan’s finest (and not so finest) citizens. Twisty would be proud. In fact, the memory of dear Twisty is invoked from the very beginning; in the mind of Ozymandias “Oz” Mayfair-Richards, who spends many a night reading comic “Twisty the Clown” with a torch under the cover of blanket. Yet Cult abandons the supernatural as a means of petrifying its audience and focuses on a psychological type of horror.
Clowns are scary but people are scarier; because they’re real. Cult’s clowns are flesh and blood: masked maniacs motivated by malevolence. Proponents of chaos. The clown façade donned by Kai’s cult is hideous – reflecting a hideous agenda that’s not entirely far-fetched. Murphy and Falchuck have done a clever thing – merging the metaphysical and the material. It takes a good few episodes for the clowns taking over Ally’s mind to emerge from the subconscious into the conscious realm – as the audience (along with Ally) discovers they’re real…as in; not something that can be medicated away with drugs or therapy. They’re Kai’s crew. And they’re hellish. But there’s a greater point than the labyrinthine extremity of Ally Mayfair-Richards’ mind; what if ‘the mask’ is a fake-haired, fake-tanned face with a scowly-smile, rocking the ruling seat of one of the world’s most powerful nations? It’s an obvious political comment. The metaphor of clown is brutally, insanely, fantastically relevant. And it’s Horror that’s brought the word to the people. Naturally.
American Horror Story “Freakshow” (as well as all previous seasons) is currently available on Netflix!