The best of horror usually involves exploiting some type of phobia. Thus, movies like Arachnophobia and Eight-Legged Freaks proved particularly effective against those who have a deep-seeded fear of spiders. One of the most potent but lesser-known phobias is called coulrophobia, which is the fear of clowns. Horror filmmakers have taken advantage of this phobia in various movies, using clowns either as red herrings or as the actual antagonists.
Not helping matters is the fact that one of America’s most successful serial killers used clown makeup to attract children. This serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, Jr., was convicted of the serial assault and murder of at last 33 teenage boys and young men. These murders took place between 1972 and 1978. Gacy called his clown persona “Pogo the Clown.” The media, quick to capitalize on this, called the serial killer the “Killer Clown.”
The following is a top-five list of the clowns in horror movies. Although some of the movies themselves may not be all that great, it is their clowns and their distinctive makeup that make them ideal for disturbing even those who claim they do not have coulrophobia.
It (Pennywise the Clown)
Made in 1990, It the movie was based on the Stephen King novel. The creature that is named “It” by a group collectively calling themselves “The Losers Club” is a hideous creature that in its “true” from looks like a giant insect from which emanates hypnotizing lights (called “deadlights”).
The creature calls itself “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” and appears as a clown to entice children, which it feeds upon. In the novel, it is up to the members of The Losers Club to overcome Pennywise, both as children and later as adults.
In the novel, Pennywise taunts the kids while concurrently explaining what kind of creature he is:
“I’ll kill you all! Ha-ha! I’ll drive you crazy and then I’ll kill you all! I’m every nightmare you ever had! I am your worst dream come true! I’m everything you ever were afraid of!”
Killer Klowns from Outer Space
First screened in 1988, Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a horror-comedy made by the Chiodo Brothers. The killer klowns are actually a race of alien beings to land on Earth—their goal is to capture and “harvest” humans, which they consider food.
There are plenty of evil-looking clowns on display throughout the movie, thus ensuring that even those with resolves coulrophobia begin to feel it nagging to come back into their lives. The fact that the movie is darkly funny and horrifying at the same time has made it a cult classic in the horror genre.
In the movie, Officer Curtis Mooney (John Vernon) utters one of the movie’s signature lines:
“Killer clowns, from outer space. Holy sh#t!”
The Chiodo Brothers are supposedly working on a sequel (in 3D, no less).
House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects
Appearing in Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, Captain Spaulding (played to the hilt by the great Sid Haig) is that patriarch of the Firefly family, a group of sadistic killers who enjoy inflicting pain on people simply for their own amusement. In the second film, Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) refers to Captain Spaulding as “Cutter,” hinting at this clown’s preferred method of torture.
The name “Captain Spaulding” comes from a character played by Groucho Marks for the play and subsequent film Animal Crackers. Like the Spaulding in both Rob Zombie films, Groucho’s Spaulding is all talk and deep down inside is really just a coward.
In both movies, Sid Haig manages to deliver some filthy dialogue in a way that simply makes it hilarious. Despite the menace given to the character, Haig manages to make his clown quite lovable. Here is just one sample of dialogue, best experienced by listening to Haig deliver the lines:
“What’s the matter kid, don’t you like clowns? Why? Don’t we make you laugh, aren’t we f#ckin’ funny? You best come up with an answer because I’m going be checking up on you and your mama. And if you don’t have a reason why you hate clowns, I’m going kill your whole f#ckin’ family.”
Originally released in 2008, Amusement borrows elements from previous horror films to create its plot, which details the lives of three attractive and intelligent girls (Tabitha, Shelby, and Lisa), as well as a psychologically scarred boy to grows up to become a psychopathic stalker who is known only as “The Laugh.” Directed by John Simpson, Amusement is not a particularly scary (or gory) movie, but the clown elements may terrify those with such a phobia.
One particularly cool scene involves an upstairs bedroom where Tabitha (Katheryn Winnick) sees that the entire room is now filled with clown toys. Of course, The Laugh is among the toys, as a life-sized doll sitting in a rocking chair.
The Laugh even gets a signature line throughout the movie:
“It’s funny, right?”
The Laugh’s clown face mixes silliness with horrifying quite well.
Originally released direct-to-video in 2007, Drive-Thru is a horror-comedy in which Horny the Clown—the demonic mascot of the restaurant chain “Hella-Burger”—begins to kill teenagers. The clown’s signature weapon: a meat cleaver, of course.
The movie serves up plenty of puns. For example, the movie takes place in Blanca Carne, California (“blanca carne” means “white meat”). The movies main protagonist is 17-year-old Mackenzie Carpenter, whose friends are being systematically murdered by the killer clown. Mackenzie is to be the clown’s final kill, as the serial murderer has a score to settle with Mackenzie’s mom, Marcia.
In one of the movie’s scenes, Horny the Clown rips a page out of The Shining and borrows some of Jack Nicolson’s dialogue (with just a little twist):
“Hurt you? I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m just gonna bash your brains in. I'm gonna bash ‘em right the f#ck in!”