There’s a theory that human beings are repulsed by creatures that appear to be nearly, but not fully, human. Between the things that we love that don’t look at all like humans (e.g. red pandas) and things that we love that look exactly like humans (e.g. our family), there’s a space called the “uncanny valley.” Clowns fit into this uncanny valley of being eerily similar to us. And I think that is the reason people fear clowns.
In pop culture history, there have been nice clowns, like Clarabell from Howdy Doody, and clowns with big personalities, like Krusty. But mostly, clowns have a fearsome reputation, partly because of films like It that comes out on September 8 and stars Pennywise, a truly frightening and shape-shifting force that’s been on a murderous rampage since before the dawn of time.
Certainly Pennywise looks scary, but most of that has to do with his fangs, creepy voice and glowing eyes as well as his insatiable bloodlust and tendency to appear unexpectedly to jarring music cues. Those are more frightening features than his red nose, baggy onesie and receding orange hairline, but those clown-ish features certainly seem to intensify the horror. So let’s investigate the most frightful, red-nosed residents of the uncanny valley.
10. Zombie Clown
9. Clarabell The Clown
8. Real Clowns
7. Killer Klowns From Outer Space
From what? Killer Klowns From Outer Space
Scariest moment? When one sticks his hand inside a murdered police officer and turns him into a puppet.
Why are these clowns scary? After a circus-tent-shaped spaceship crashes to Earth, a photogenic couple investigate its interior. There, they find an invading race of killer clowns that preserve the corpses of slaughtered humans in cocoons of cotton candy. Grotesquely detailed with dirty teeth, grubby makeup and demented expressions, the seven-foot-tall clowns descend on the city, harvesting bodies with cotton candy guns, working a murdered police officer like a hand-puppet and unleashing a Clownzilla—each stunt seamlessly blending horror and campy comedy until the line between the two becomes indistinguishable. Eventually, our heroes realize they can kill the clowns by landing a direct blow to their big red noses, which causes the clowns to spin until they explode. The biological factors on an alien planet that would allow such a species to evolve are unimaginable, but due to their self-aware corniness and dedication to fleshing out the absurd concept, the Killer Klowns from Outer Space stand completely distinct from every other scary clown.
6. Twisty the Clown
5. Captain Spaulding
4. John Wayne Gacy
From what? Gacy
Scariest moment? When he actually existed in real life.
Why’s this clown scary? In between torturing and murdering at least 33 young men, John Wayne Gacy also liked to dress up as Pogo the Clown and show up at children’s birthday parties. Gacy’s real-life exploits certainly intensified the horrific lore surrounding clowns and in the poorly received biopic about his life, he’s half-clad in costume while drowning a handcuffed young man in a bathtub as Gacy’s mother sleeps in the other room. It doesn’t make a ton of sense as a movie scene, but it’s certainly less gobsmacking than the fact that Gacy eluded suspicion for six years, being seen in the community as an upstanding mini-mogul in construction. But this double-life gets at the core of one of the most frightening features about clowns: that underneath the makeup and costume, there’s a strange, middle-aged man who you know nothing about.