Yeah, sure, serial killer John Wayne Gacy sullied the whole occupation in the public eye, but the vast majority of clowns are – as near as we can tell – decent human beings who just want to entertain people. But the horror writers, filmmakers, illustrators and even video game designers have become so enamored with warping children’s imagery for nightmarish ends that nowadays, most people hardly ever see a benign clown in popular culture anymore.
Meanwhile, scary clowns are everywhere. They drive demolition derby cars on PlayStation, they keep Bart Simpsons from sleeping, they ruin Batman’s life and in all of the various versions of Stephen King’s It, they represent the embodiment of terror itself.
That’s extremely disproportionate, in case you hadn’t noticed. Imagine if most people’s exposure to hockey was Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th movies. Perspectives are bound to be skewed.
So with that in mind we want to confront you with some of the most memorable, traumatizing and quite frankly scariest clowns in popular culture. That way you’ll get some sense of just how ubiquitous this trope really is and, hopefully, be able to confront your own coulrophobia (a.k.a. the fear of clowns).
Or, if you simply think scary clowns are cool, here’s a whole bunch of them for you to enjoy!
Poor, poor Twisty, the creepy clown from American Horror Story: Freak Show. All he wanted to do was entertain children and, when that failed, to protect them from their mean ol' parents. Not that we approve of his serial killer methods, of course...
No, sure, go ahead, The Brave Little Toaster... just throw a horrifying dream sequence with a laughing clown who can only say "Run" into your charming little kids movie about anthropomorphic knick-knacks. That won't scar little kids for life or nothin'.
According to Clown, the circus performers we know today were originally inspired by a real-life monster that ate children. When a desperate father puts on the skin of the beast to entertain at a kids' birthday party he becomes possessed by that evil in this early film from Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts.
Proving that scary clowns can pop up anywhere, even when you least suspect them, there's a childlike assassin named Pierrot in the ultra-cool anime Cowboy Bebop who turns out to be one of Spike the bounty hunter's most overwhelmingly dangerous, deadly and disturbing nemeses.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, a scary-ass clown with a chainsaw. Thanks, Dead Rising. Your ultraviolent video game about dispatching zombies at a shopping mall clearly wasn't freaky enough, so you made this deadly and demented circus performer into a boss fight, just for funsies.
Cult movie legend Sid Haig dons clown makeup and embarks upon a tale of brutality as Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses and its sequel The Devil's Rejects. Haig spends more time as a clown in the first film, but engages in more acts of violence in the second. It evens out.
The clowns in Disney's Dumbo aren't deadly, like many of the other clowns on our list, but they are abusive bastards who endanger the animals at their circus to the extent that little elephants like Dumbo are given hallucinatory nightmares. What a bunch of despicable jerks.
One of the more disturbing adventures in the video game Fallout 3 finds you suddenly inside a black-and-white 1950s suburb, and given the choice to "free" the residents from a virtual reality purgatory by becoming a pre-pubescent serial killer called "The Pint-Sized Slasher." Depend on your ethics, that either makes you a monster, or a hero. But whatever you choose, it's a creepy-ass option to have.
Before Michael Myers donned his signature white Captain Kirk mask, the first Halloween shows him killed his sister and her boyfriend whilst wearing a clown outfit. And since the opening scene takes place from a first-person perspective, it's as if we're killing them too. (Oh god, that means WE'RE ALL scary clowns!)
Joe Dante's underseen horror film for children The Hole is about two brothers who find a gateway to Hell in their basement, and let out their worst nightmares. One of them is, of course, an evil clown doll. Though somewhat derivative of It and The Gate, Dante's film has some surprises up its sleeve and is ideal for spooky slumber parties.
The majority of Inside Out takes place inside of a little girl's head, and that means we see her hopes, her dreams, and eventually her worst nightmare: Jangles the Clown. Pixar doesn't want to terrify children in the audience too much but they do make it abundantly clear that the film's hero, Riley, and the emotions that live inside of her are all appropriately wigged out by this giant circus performer.
Whether you read the book, saw the TV mini-series or are only just introduced to the embodiment of terror Pennywise the Clown in the latest movie adaptation of Stephen King's IT, we can all agree that this supernatural resident of Derry, Maine is ABSOLUTELY FREAKING HORRIFYING. Yikes. Can we move on, please?
There are many different versions of Batman's arch-nemesis, the Clown Prince of Crime. Many of them are funny, a lot of them are threatening, and although the most iconic versions of the character problem stem from Tim Burton's Batman, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight or Batman: The Animated Series, none of those interpretations are anywhere near as freaky as the supervillain sometimes gets in the comic books. Whether he's paralyzing Batgirl in The Killing Joke or pushing the boundaries of sanity in Arkham Asylum, these are the interpretations of The Joker that make this scary clown officially "scary."
Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a film about clowns, who are killers, from outer space. It would warrant a mention based on that simple fact alone, but this ghoulish little comic nightmare from The Chiodo Brothers features disturbingly ugly creature effects and genuinely eery set pieces, like shadow puppets that eat people, and clowns who reach into your spinal column to use you like a ventriloquist's puppet. It's freaky as hell.
Michael Dougherty's exceptional horror comedy Krampus is, ostensibly, all about Christmas, but he managed to sneak a scary clown in there too, in the form of a giant carnivorous Jack in the Box. It's the gift that keeps on giving... you nightmares.
Tim Burton's twisted family movie Pee-wee's Big Adventure has a lot of traumatic scenes for children, like the ghostly "Large Marge" and a dream sequence with demented doctor clowns. But the creepiest clown here, we think, is the seemingly innocuous statue that inexplicably turns evil when Pee-wee's bike gets stolen. What the heck does that even MEAN?!
You knew this was coming. Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist is easily the most terrifying PG-rated movie ever made, thanks to scenes with people ripping their own faces off and the most notorious sequence, with a little boy fighting a toy doll who is angrily trying to murder him. Clowns were already scary by the time Poltergeist came along, but this scene nearly ruined toys, in general, for a whole generation of children.
Almost every episode of the beloved and influential anime series Sailor Moon featured the teenaged heroes fighting a new and imaginative monster. But in the Sailor Moon Super S series, the heroes tackled a whole new species of villains, each of them inspired by carnivals, many of them looking like clowns, and almost all of them performing unspeakable acts on helpless women. This whole season was completely messed up in almost every conceivable way. The clown thing is only the capper.
In a flashback episode of The Simpsons entitled "Lisa's First Word," Bart doesn't want to give up his baby crib so Homer builds him a clown bed to sleep in, unwittingly creating one of the most horrifying things ever to emerge from on this planet. Bart's ongoing chant of "Can't sleep, clown will eat me" is well-known to people all over the world now, and eventually became the title of a pretty cool Alice Cooper song.
Jigsaw, the mechanically inclined supervillain behind the twisty-turny Saw movies, never dresses up like a creepy clown. But he does let an unnerving clown puppet star in his various video projects, telling potential victims the rules of his deadly games. And thus, Billy the Puppet took his place in horror movie history.
The best-selling supernatural comic book Spawn features a mercenary who makes a deal with the devil and returns to Earth with superpowers and, in tow, a diminutive murder clown named... well, The Clown. Or at least, that's what people call him when he hasn't transformed into the giant deadly demon called The Violator. John Leguizamo played the character pretty well in the otherwise horrible Spawn movie, but the version from the comics is better, and scarier.
The Irish horror comedy Stitches stars Ross Noble as a birthday party clown who dies as a result of mean little kids, and rises from the grave to take his revenge. You don't need much more than that to sell an audience on a horror movie, so it's a little surprising that the well-received Stitches hasn't found a bigger audience.
Rob Zombie isn't being subtle with his Halloween horror thriller 31. The film is about a bunch of carnies who are kidnapped and forced to fight absurdly psychopathic, homicidal clowns for their survival. Gruesomely exaggerated, and exaggeratedly gruesome, Zombie's film isn't for the faint of heart. And if you're scared of clowns, seriously, stay the hell away.
Okay, so you're going to make a video game about demolition derby cars called Twisted Metal and you want to give each car its own personality. That makes sense. So you make one car an ice cream truck and say the driver is a serial killer whose head is on fire. And then you put that character's face on pretty much every piece of marketing imaginable. And then you realize that you've just made scary clowns all the more ubiquitous. Hope you're happy with yourself.
The world has been overrun with zombies, and somehow clowns are still the thing that scares Jesse Eisenberg in the popular horror comedy Zombieland. And we guess you'd be scared too if it turned out that zombie clowns are a very real problem that you will have to eventually deal with at the end of the film. So overcome your fears! Stop those evil clowns! (But only the evil ones. Remember: many clowns are nice!)
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.