It is a hit, befit for legit scary movie fans and misfit box office junkies alike. Well-crafted horror films with mass appeal, critical accolades, and commercial clout come around generationally (Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby), and It has hit all three requirements swiftly. The primary antagonist of the film is Pennywise the Dancing Clown, a demonic entity with ancient origins who takes the form of a common circus performer. (Did you know that the fear of clowns is called Coulrophobia? Here’s are more obscure phobias.)
The name “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” is seemingly innocuous in itself, sterile from the verbal ilk of other horror villains (see: Leatherface, Hellraiser, Ghostface). Outside of the horrific atrocities the villain partakes in, what is it that makes Pennywise, and clowns in general, for that matter, so bone-chilling? Well, there’s an in-depth answer to that question, according to the PBS series Origin of Everything.
The profession has a long and rather sordid history, dating back to the royal court jesters of the middle ages, whose express purpose was to entertain the king or queen, often lampooning the sovereign in the process. The jester was an outsider and this notion is represented well in the works of Shakespeare; the fool is a character separate from the story itself, who often makes insightful commentary on the goings-on of the plot. The fool is wise, but the fool is not always wholesome.
The next evolution of the clown came in the form of the harlequin or zanni, a staple of the Italian theater. The clown was an entertainer, but not a necessarily family-friendly one; he would often be crude and vulgar, being one want to give into vice and mischief. A 2013 Smithsonian article dives a bit into the clown’s immoral role:
“But clowns have always had a dark side, says David Kiser, director of talent for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. After all, these were characters who reflected a funhouse mirror back on society; academics note that their comedy was often derived from their voracious appetites for food, sex, and drink, and their manic behavior.”
The 1800s saw the modern clown concept as we know it takes shape, shifting away from the crude and refining its appeal for kids. Their schtick would be slapstick not sick, but their origins remained. Their mischief began to regain its sinister tone thanks to pop culture staples like Killer Clowns from Outer Space (1988), It (the novel, miniseries, and 2017 film), and Clown (2014).
And real life events play a large part in the tangible fear, even beyond the widespread hysteria about killer clowns in the summer of 2016. Part of the inspiration for Pennywise was serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was given the moniker “Killer Clown” for his use of a clown costume in his murders.
A 2008 University of Sheffield study found that most children aged four to 16 in a study of 250 dislike clowns. “We found that clowns are universally disliked by children,” says Penny Curtis, one of the study’s lead researchers, via BBC, “Some found them quite frightening and unknowable.”
For more info on why these gaudily painted performers are so creepy, check out the full video below. And if you really just can’t handle all the clown horror of It, maybe give one of the 31 scariest movies of all time a go—just make sure every single light in the house is on.
[Source: Mental Floss]