Pity the clown. While you’re at it, consider balloons and dragons | Moment's Notice

By Maria Montalvo | Oct 15, 2016

Creepy clown sightings are being reported across Washington.

Social media and TV stations are rife with warnings of clowns from Lake Stevens to Puyallup out to terrorize, or at least disturb. A video of a clown strangely swaying and crouching outside a gas station in Lynnwood has gone viral.

The transformation of clowns from silly to menacing has intensified in the last few decades, and sociologists and psychologists point to the fact that we are living in a time of increased social anxiety.

Grimaldi, one of the first clowns in 1800s England, updated several hundred years of harlequins and peasant fools with his whiteface and costumes, both strange and entertaining. Circus clowns and silent film stars, like Charlie Chaplain, added physical comedy and tricks.

By the 1960s and ‘70s, kids everywhere wanted a dog made from a balloon, as birthday clowns became the thing and Ronald McDonald made fast food fun. But many scientists say coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, is normal, because they are lifelike enough to be disturbing but not realistic enough to be pleasant.

So, have clowns always been scary, or did we change them?

Only a few negative clown characters existed alongside the cheer-making ones for centuries, like the murderous clown from “Pagliacci” in the late 1800s opera and Edgar Allan Poe’s character from a masquerade ball in “The Masque of the Red Death.”

“Batman’s” Joker, introduced as brilliant and bizarre in the 1940s, has become more and more disturbing since 1960. Stephen King then took the John Wayne Gacy-inspired fear of clowns to new heights in “It” in 1986.

I have not seen a positive depiction of a clown since the 1980s, and the modern 24-hour news cycle and social media certainly makes priming more effective (i.e., influencing our response to things by repeating certain words, imagery, or concepts).

As late as 2014, McDonald’s insisted it was bringing back Ronald McDonald with a new, appealing clown look, but he is still absent from the company’s marketing.

Similarly, dragons of mythology actually started out as revered and protective creatures, but almost immediately became representations of evil or challenges to human supremacy. Dragons were wise, powerful and magical, and thus threatening, dangerous and unknown.

While a few stories for children still present dragons as allies in finding courage over fear, like “Pete’s Dragon,” most myths and tales talk of gaining power or even sainthood by slaying a dragon. Some dragons are good and some are bad, like the silver and red dragons of the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons. (I know this because my brother played it way too often.)

Clowns may have lost the battle to be liked in American society, and I can think of a few clowns I would happily see disappear from our national narrative, but I digress.

Dragons are putting up a fight to represent something we do not understand, but are still OK. Even balloons, which always connote celebration (and make the best animal shapes), are taking a public relations hit because of potential environmental impacts.

Luckily, the NABAS (National Association of Balloon Artists and Suppliers) is out to protect the balloon’s name and come up with safety guidelines. So we can keep balloons in the “good” category.

Will we keep seeing those creepy clowns, and if yes, can we potentially ignore them instead of showcasing them in the media?

Even if we cannot save circus or party clowns, getting in the habit of changing the amount of attention we give to the bad elements might keep us from ruining what they represent.


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