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100 Wonders: Clown Motel

Clowns have it tough these days. 

In the last 60 years, clowns have undergone a fundamental cultural shift: from goofy, sometimes troublesome characters, to portraits of pure evil. What’s behind this relatively new but deeply felt fear of clowns? These days, many people cannot hear the word “clown” invoked without a shudder, or a knee-jerk response of ”Clowns freak me out.” 

The roots of this go back to two of the earliest modern clowns. Joseph Grimaldi in London and Jean-Gaspard Deburau in France. The pair were contemporaries in the early 1800s and invented much of what we think of as clowning today. Both were also troubled men.

Grimaldi’s father died when he was nine and his brother left shortly thereafter, leaving the young Grimaldi in charge of earning the household wage. Perhaps as a result of these early life traumas, Grimaldi was a depressive and an alcoholic. The intense physical comedian had a favorite pun on his name, and often declared, ”I’m GRIM-ALL-DAY so you can laugh all night.” Grimaldi’s first wife and child died in childbirth and though Grimaldi remarried, and had another son, he too died young, succumbing to alcoholism at the age of 30. 

While Grimaldi’s life was tragic, Jean-Gaspard Deburau may actually have been an evil clown of sorts. As France’s most famous clown, his real life self was sometimes confused with his clown creation. Once, when taunted by a child in the street as if he were the clown, Deburau clubbed the child with his cane, killing him. 

So the makings of the killer clown may have been there all along. But clowns were supposed to be troubled men. Wild, manic, drunks. It wasn’t until the clown image was cleaned up and the underlying sadness and tragedy of clowns was swept under the rug in 1950s America, with Bozo and Ronald McDonald, that the truly evil face of clowning could really emerge. Real life killer clown John Wayne Gacy used his Pogo the Clown image as both a cover and lure for the 33 victims he killed. When caught, Gacy told detectives, “You know… clowns can get away with murder.”

This would mark a turning point from which clowns have never recovered. It is a shame. Despite the horror and fear of Gacy, the vast majority of clowns are good people and wonderful performers hoping to bring some genuine joy into the world. 

There is, however, a silver lining to this newfound fear of clowns. While the world seems to have lost the character of the troubled and humorous clown, we have gained a new archetype of classic monster. Up there with the zombie, vampire, and Frankenstein’s monster, the killer clown has been added to the pantheon. It seems he is there to stay.

Watch the video above for the story of a remote motel with an all-encompassing clown theme.