Recently, lack of sleep conspired with a late night editing project and I read the word ‘clowns’ instead of ‘clones’ in an essay about the monstrousness of hermaphroditic clones, and all was lost. I began reading ‘clowns’ throughout, and by the end of the essay was convinced, indeed, of the monstrousness of clowns.
It wasn’t what the author intended, of course, but it did set me on a path I can’t seem to step off of, and I can’t stop thinking about clowns. And as it turns out, they’re relatively monstrous, indeed.
Clowns, and their cousins the court jesters (the subject, soon, of another musing), fools, and those unfortunates who found themselves on display in Freak Shows (yet another upcoming post), have been an essential part of society for centuries. Their history extends back more than 4500 years, and they have danced, somersaulted, ridden, fallen… clowned their way through time. (It’s tempting to believe that fear of clowns is just as time-honored but it seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. That fact won’t deter me, however, and for the record, the fear of clowns has a name: Coulrophobia).
One thing is certain. Clowns in any guise function in ways that are layered, nuanced, and ultimately… dare I say it… unnerving.
On the surface, clowns are silly. Yet their exaggerated features – big red nose, huge floppy feet, oversized clothing, big hair, painted-on expressions – make us uncomfortable. We encounter them in liminal spaces – a circus, a tent – and, out of our element, they force us to respond. With their foolish actions and funny clothes, they taunt us, they disarm us, they make us laugh, and we forget that their true function is to undermine the seriousness of what we (think we) know and believe.
Unnerved. Uncomfortable. Self-reflective. In fact, what makes clowns so monstrous is their ability to make us feel these things, and our own inability to know how to respond. And when they invite us to join them in their antics, they tap into an even deeper fear – that of appearing to be a fool… which is full circle, really. For the fact is that we ARE the fools. Clowns are simply reflecting back to each of us our own sense of uncertainty.
Monsters as a whole tend to stay outside the boundaries of our neat little worlds; they intrude only when invited, or when the edges between us and them blur just enough to allow them entry during times of social upheaval, general ennui, or looming change. Generally we fight them back, and they disappear into the shadows leaving us free to forget their warnings until they burst upon us again.
But clowns are different. As monsters dressed in polka-dotted trousers and animated ties, they force us to engage, to step outside ourselves. To come face to face with not just our fears, but the overdrawn, brightly-colored smiles – or frowns – that, like our own, like our lives, might mean nothing at all.
Besides, they’re just creepy. I wonder if there’s a club around here for coulrophobics…?