Beginning last August, a wave of creepy clowns swept the collective consciousness. The first few examples were but a trickle: mysterious sightings in Green Bay, Wisconsin, that ended up being a marketing ploy, an incident in Greenville, South Carolina, where clowns tried to lure children and adults into the woods. Perhaps these events inspired others to cash in on the phenomenon, and some folks donned the makeup or mask in order to spread mayhem, commit illegal acts, or merely walk around town in a vaguely menacing manner. The local news reports built up until the Clown Craze exploded into the national awareness in the last couple weeks. But what does it mean, and why is it worth noticing?
At first glance, it’s just fifteen minutes of fame, something new for the news cycle to grab onto and ride hard until the next weird thing comes along, or until Trump picks up his phone and looses another repugnant Tweet. Creepy clowns, despite spreading unease, committing robberies, and even causing one death, are not usually considered high on the list of priorities when we have other problems like poverty, war, and a Presidential election (between two clowns, you might say) to grapple with. I suspect, however, that these are exactly the reasons that the Clown has become a focus for the collective unease so many of us are feeling.
Before clowns were whitewashed and remade into entertainers for children’s parties, they occupied a powerful place in the psyche. The “Uncanny Valley” is a metaphor for that place where a certain revulsion forms within us at the sight of something that is almost, but not quite, human. This is a powerful well of emotion, evoking something primal within us. The first recognizably “modern” clown, Grimaldi, was a troubled character with a tragic history, who amused audiences with physical antics that brought him pain and eventually disability. He would quip, “I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you laugh at night.”
Traditionally, the clown figure is also a representation of the Trickster. The Trickster is a figure found in mythologies and pantheons throughout place and time. He (because it’s almost always perceived as male, even if he switches that around from time to time for effect) embodies the culture jammer, the magician, the one who breaks the rules or speaks truth to power. He is the joker who teaches a hard lesson and then disappears, he is the pot-stirrer and chaos-maker, and he is the Bugs Bunny who leaves us grappling, Elmer-Fuddlike, with what just happened to us.
Joseph Campbell: Mythology of the Trickster, by campbellfoundation
In these turbulent times, the events of the world spinning around us, we have little power as individuals to change what we think needs to be put right. Our ability to affect climate change is minimal. We can’t personally control the greater economic forces that affect our lives. People are shot in the street for little or no reason by those who are supposed to protect us. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. It is perhaps no surprise that the eternal mythos of the Trickster would find some way to re-emerge into a society desperately in need of a way to integrate the chaos and find new ways to live. We need a Trickster hero to speak to power for us, to break the rules in a culture that seems filled with rules designed to disadvantage us. It’s a shame that instead, we get Donald Trump and creeps in clown masks.