I’m in Old Mexico. Monterrey. I’m in a town square. I’m running for my life. Behind me is a clown. In his right hand is a plastic Clown Club, raised in the air, ready to inflict pain, physical pain, psychological pain. I’m afraid of this clown who shouts in a foreign tongue, Spanish presumably. Because I’m in Old Mexico, being chased by a clown.
Pop culture is littered with clowns, from the scary in Stephen King’s It up to current clown shows like Rob Corddry’s “Children’s Hospital” and Zach Galifianakis’ “Baskets.” It got me thinking about the staying power of clowns, why this fascination persists throughout culture and why, well into adulthood, clowns make me uneasy.
I had never known exactly how real my phobia was until the Mexican clown. If the actions of a clown are absurd and frightening in English, they’re even more so in Spanish, especially when in Mexico, where whacky clown shenanigans fail to resonate on a tourist like me. It was a street performance and my friends urged me to master my fear by depositing a couple of pesos in his Clown Sack. I hatched a strategy: Drop my donation and get the hell out while the clown’s back was turned. As I ran away, for some reason – some Clown Reason – he gave chase.
Before this incident I knew of three running speeds: “jog,” “hustle” and “sprint.” Being chased by the Mexican clown, I discovered a fourth speed, which I now refer to as “Clown.” As I skedaddled for my life, I wondered: Did he think I was trying to steal from his sack while his back was turned? Or was this all just Clown Schtick?
When people ask why I am afraid of clowns, I tell them that story as it captures what makes clowns unsettling at best and frightening at worst: They are unpredictable and do not operate under the same rules as the rest of us. They might squeak together a balloon animal while maintaining a wacky grin or they could pull down your pants. Both are just as likely to happen, and you never know which it will be. Most people are what I refer to as Clown-Ambivalent. To them a clown is just some fella whose idea of fun is wearing white makeup, a honking rubber nose and enormous shoes while juggling atop an 8-foot unicycle. Nothing scary there.
But go to the primitive recesses of my mind, the part beyond the scope of reason. It is not makeup: His actual skin is stark white. It is not a prop: His nose is naturally red and bulbous. And it is not a man wearing oversized shoes: He actually has size 24 feet shaped like lightbulbs. This is not a children’s entertainer. It is a different species altogether.
It is irrational but my fear of clowns is real. What about the rest of my brain, the rational part? I am still uneasy, as the very actions that define a clown make me apprehensive: excessive excitability, hokey practical jokes and an obsession with happiness. A clown, for instance, is never going to not be happy, as his smile is quite literally painted on.
All this begs the question: Why clowns? At worst, clowns invoke heart-stopping fear; at best, ambivalence. No one ever says, “Boy, I’d really like to see me a good clown.” Clowns just appear at places you happen to be: art fairs, carnivals, oysterfests, Mexico.
But that’s not enough. We go further, giving them TV shows, inviting them to children’s birthday parties and buying hamburgers from them by the billions.
Slowly, clowns become an accepted part of life, where you pass a Dodge Neon on the highway full of balloons, driven by a man wearing a pointed hat, white makeup and multicolored clothing and you just shrug your shoulders and change the radio station, letting the absurdity pass unquestioned.