Hate them or love them, clowns are everywhere. They appear all over popular culture, movies, television, and, unfortunately, at children’s birthday parties across the globe.
The word “clown” is first believed to have appeared in English around 1560, but the concept is based on even earlier characters from ancient Greek theatre and an early form of Italian theatre known as commedia dell’arte.
Of course, clowns were originally meant to be laughed at and to make people smile. But, a long series of events has resulted in clowns getting the creepy connotation they have today.
Maybe it all started with John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer dubbed the “Killer Clown” after he used his position as a clown to entice people into his home and then kill them and stuff their corpses into a crawl space below his home.
Perhaps it was the result of Stephen King’s novel It and later film adaption in which the main villain often takes the form of an evil clown that feasts on children. And, of course, there was that whole clown scare in 2016 that resulted in people around Penn State University hunting evil clowns.
In hopes of getting to the bottom of the mystery of whether clowns should be considered creepy or cool, let’s take a look at some of the most famous clowns throughout history. We’ll look at where all of these clowns got their renown, what made them so famous, and whether they are cool or creepy.
Trigger warning: if you suffer from coulrophobia (the fear of clowns), this is definitely not the article for you.
In terms of instantly recognizable clowns, there’s no topping Ronald McDonald. Even vegans and health freaks know the McDonald’s mascot immediately when they see him. In fact, in a poll conducted by The Wall Street Journal in 2011, they found that Ronald McDonald was the fourth most recognizable celebrity out of the pool of 2,800 that they selected.
However, the same poll found that Ronald was also one of the least likable celebrities in that pool. It was this that led to consumer groups asking the fast food chain to retire their clown mascot.
McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner, however, stood by his red-and-white-faced friend, saying, “Ronald McDonald is going nowhere.” It’s hard to argue with that much brand recognition.
So, is the McDonald’s mascot cool or creepy?
I would say that he falls somewhere in the middle. I certainly wouldn’t say there’s anything intimidating about Ronald McDonald. In fact, I would say that most depictions of Ronald are fairly comforting compared to many other clowns.
Still, there are some old-timey versions of Ronald McDonald that will definitely give you the heebie-jeebies. But, even if you think the food at McDonald’s is trash or strongly disagree with the horrifying livestock farming practices they propagate, you have to admit that their clown mascot has some serious star power.
Bozo the Clown
Another one of the most recognizable clowns in the history of pop culture is definitely Bozo the Clown. If you’ve never heard of Bozo, it’s probably because he was before your time. But, ask your parents or grandparents and they’ll almost surely know about Bozo.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, children all over the United States tuned in to watch Bozo’s Circus (or his subsequent show The Bozo Show). And while it’s hard to imagine a clown being so beloved in today’s world, Bozo the Clown stayed on television for decades, proving his mass appeal.
Bozo was pretty much your typical clown. He sported bright red hair in a horseshoe style. He had red and white face paint. He also wore a red, bulbous nose and had shoes that were ridiculously big.
However, while Bozo was adored by children and adults throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, watching reruns of Bozo’s Circus has left me seriously disturbed. If you ask me, this is one creepy clown. I certainly would not have let my children watch Bozo’s Circus if only to save myself from having nightmares.
Now, Grock is a clown that you almost certainly have not heard of. And that’s because he performed from 1894 until 1954. Yes, Charles Adrien Wettach, who later took on the stage name Grock, performed as a clown for an entire 60 years of his life.
And would you believe me if I said that he was the highest-paid performer in the world at one point in his career? It’s true. He was not only the highest-paid clown, but the highest-paid performer of any kind in the world during the height of his career.
Grock’s career really took flight around 1913 and, with the onset of World War I, he decided to make Great Britain his home. After the war was over, he would return to continental Europe and eventually establish his very own circus in 1951.
Grock’s final performance was given in 1954 and, by that time, he had made so much money that he was able to retire to a 50-room villa in Imperia, Italy. You can still visit Villa Grock today.
Being that Grock made fat stacks from clowning around and retired to a mansion in Italy, I would definitely classify him as cool over creepy. Actually, wait, after seeing his face all painted up, he might be the creepiest clown on this list.
Krusty the Clown
Let’s move on to the animated clown portion of this article and discuss Krusty the Clown, one of the best characters in, arguably, the best cartoon of all time. I’m talking, of course, about the booze-soaked, cigarette-smoking, raspy-voiced clown from The Simpsons, the longest-running American animated series of all time.
Everything about Krusty is amazing. He’s got a pacemaker. He drinks like a fish. He’s jaded and cynical and usually pretty pissed off. And despite being a generally terrible person, Bart and Lisa are still devoted fans.
Born Sir Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofsky, Krusty the Clown grew up under the supervision of Jewish parents who did not approve of his career path as a comedian. In fact, his father even showed up to one of his performances once and sprayed the makeup off his face. After this, Krusty and his father were not in communication for many years until Bart and Lisa united them.
I probably wouldn’t consider Krusty to be creepy. However, he is rather promiscuous considering he’s been married 15 times and has had countless one-night stands. Still, there is a lovable quality about Krusty that’s undeniable. And it’s pretty cool that he’s a character of what just may be the greatest cartoon ever.
Perhaps the most recent addition to the list of world-famous clowns is Pennywise, the main villain from the 1986 Stephen King novel It. Major readers of Stephen King already knew about Pennywise’s dastardly deeds from the book. However, the clown’s clout exploded recently with the release of the 2017 movie that set numerous box-office records and grossed over $701 million worldwide.
We don’t even need to discuss whether Pennywise is creepy or not. He’s meant to be creepy. In fact, he’s terrifying. He hangs out in sewers and abducts children. He can shift shapes. He’s even got rows on rows of teeth like some sort of deranged shark.
While other movies about evil clowns fail to be actually scary, It made me jump and squirm the way a good horror movie should.