The history of clowns: from hilarious to horrifying | Sunday Observer

The history of clowns: from hilarious to horrifying

28 May, 2023

Clowns are a type of performer characterized by their colorful outfits, distinctive face makeup and the use of physical comedy to entertain.

While they are generally associated with circuses, birthday parties and carnivals today, clowns have been quite ubiquitous throughout history, being an essential part of human culture for centuries. However, their role and public perception has changed dramatically over time. What began as a form of entertainment and humour has become a source of fear and anxiety for many people.

Though the term clown would not be coined until the 16th century, references to clowns, or rather entertainers, who largely fit the definition of clown, date back to ancient Egypt around 2400 BC. Clowns in ancient Egypt were African Pygmy people called Dangas who entertained the royal court with dances, masks and costumes, acting out stories of Egyptian Gods.

Socio-religious role

These clowns also played a socio-religious role, and it is believed that priests and clowns held the same role. Similar roles, likened to that of a jester or fool have existed in many monarchical societies throughout history. Anthropology and Sociology have recognized such societies that have a formal position for clowns as ‘clown societies’, and if those clowns also are employed in a religious capacity, they are recognized as ‘ritual clowns’.

The modern idea of clowns originated from the rustic fool characters of the Commedia dell’arte, an early form of Italian theater, which in turn was directly inspired by ancient Greek and Roman theatre.

In ancient Greece, the rustic fools were known as sklêro-paiktês and were often bald headed, and wore padded clothing to appear chubbier. During plays, these characters would play the comic relief, mocking the serious actors and pelting the audience with peanuts.

Ancient Rome had many different kinds of clowns, who each specialized in a specific style of comedy, such as those who excelled at exaggerated facial expressions, those that used their physical deformities to pull laughs, and others who used slapstick, innuendo and riddles for jokes.

The most popular iteration of the clown came about in medieval Europe, where clowns or “jesters” were employed by royal courts and wealthy households to entertain guests with their antics.

They wore elaborate costumes, painted their faces, and had a myriad of talents, such as singing, playing musical instruments, acrobatics, juggling, and other tricks to amuse audiences. However, their role was not solely to entertain but also to provide commentary on society and politics. They were allowed to criticize the ruling class and point out flaws in the system, something that other members of society could not do without fear of punishment. The Jester’s crown and scepter being a mirror of the king’s regalia served as symbols of that privilege.

They would also occasionally be used in warfare, where they would raise morale, provoke the enemy and even serve as messengers.

Circus clowns

The clown as we know it today first emerged in the 19th century in the United States. The first circus clown was a man named Joseph Grimaldi, the “father of modern clowning”, who performed in London in the late 1700s.

His painted white face, red triangles around his eyes, red mouth, and colorful, baggy outfit would quickly become iconic and many would take up this style around the country. In the early 20th century, these clowns would become a staple of circuses, carnivals and other traveling shows.

However, their public perception began to shift during the late 20th century, due to the very widely reported crimes of serial killer and rapist John Wayne Gacy in 1978. Gacy was a professional clown known as Pogo the Clown, but did not perform his crimes in costume. Despite this, he was popularized as the Killer Clown, the story becoming huge news around the country. The media around clowns would quickly change to match that shift in public perception.


The fear of clowns, or “coulrophobia”, began to grow in the 1980s and 1990s. Stephen King’s novel “It” and the subsequent movie adaptation, which featured a demonic clown, named Pennywise, played a significant role in shaping this perception. Other horror films and TV shows followed suit, portraying clowns as sinister and malevolent figures.

Though they were popular children’s entertainment just decades before, the shift in pop culture had affected public perception to the point that studies in the 2000s concluded that children now universally hated clowns, some even finding them scary.

The rise of social media and viral videos has also contributed to the negative perception of clowns. In 2016, a series of “creepy clown” sightings were reported across the United States, with people dressing up in clown costumes and attempting to scare or intimidate others.

The trend quickly spread across the world, with similar incidents reported in Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world. The trend was dubbed the “clown epidemic,” and it fueled public anxiety and fear. This clown epidemic resulted in any remaining positive associations with clowns to disappear, with even the McDonald’s Ronald McDonald mascot being largely removed from marketing.