Just about the time I thought mass hysteria was a thing of the past, they had to come up with the Evil Clown Scare. Now... (I hardly know where to begin on this)... on the plus side, it's the first time in, probably, decades, that clowns, or anything related to clowns, has been the least bit funny. So let's start with that idea. A recent newspaper article offers the following insight: “... an English professor at the University of Buffalo... sees [scary clown reports] as a symptom of clowns' shifting role from makers of mirth to symbols of fear. 'It's just further evidence of the fact that clowns as figures of fun and childhood are an exhausted phenomenon now. It's far more current to think of them as part of the pantheon of monsters and ghouls'.”
OK, fair enough, as far as it goes. But why the shift? I mean, who decided that it was time for clowns to morph from merry-makers to bogeymen? Some will blame it, at least partially, on Stephen King, and, no doubt, he is a master at making what was once comforting into something frightening. But the movies are full of evil clowns as well, and this goes back a ways, although I'm not enough of a movie buff to identify the first case. (I also note that the European clown tradition, going back to court jesters, presents a far more ambivalent picture, one of an at once comic and tragic figure, a combination of fool, wit, and wise man who can get away with saying (or doing) pretty much anything because he's considered a fool and thus not responsible for his own actions.)
But the term “exhausted phenomenon” strikes a chord. Why is it exhausted? There is certainly just as much “clown-able” material available today as there ever was – or so one would assume. But think back – you “boomers” out there – to the clowns of our childhood and youth (my personal favorite being Clarabelle on Howdy Doody, who was genderless to boot). What did they represent, in the “up tight”, buttoned-down, character-armored 1950s? Aside from appearance – insane outfits, bright colors, huge shoes, tiny hats, makeup, all sorts of props, etc. -- they represented more than simple fun; there are all sorts of ways to represent that. They also represented rebellion... puncturing bourgeois pretense and dignity... getting up in the face of The Man (to use slightly later terminology). They were disruptive... hyperactive... noisy (or eerily quiet)... had bad manners... were vandals in a minor way... and, to sum it up, anarchists. And yes, it's possible to be a social anarchist without being a political one, although the two are nearly always found in the same person, as with many characters out of Dostoevsky. Think of the Marx Brothers: One bonafide clown (Harpo), but they were all social anarchists of the first order – but I don't recall their work as having any particular political message other than broad satire, which could apply to pretty much any political system.
And, quite frankly, the 1950s and much of what the post-war era was, or represented, was badly in need of clowning... of court jesters... of the popping of balloons (real or metaphorical). But then along came the Sixties, and it didn't take long for clowns to become obsolete... or, more precisely, redundant. When you can't tell the difference between a professional clown and half the people you encounter on the street (or at Wal-Mart), it tells you that clowns have taken over, so who needs to hire them any longer? And notice that I said “the Sixties”, and that's 50 years ago, folks – and yet the normalization of clown-ness is still going on. We now have tattoos rather than (or in addition to) “psychedelic” clothing... crazier makeup than anything the hippie chicks ever sported... an entertainment industry overflowing with comedy, semi-comedy, tragicomedy, black comedy, “irony”, satire, and all species of foolishness and acting out. So again, who needs clowns? Or more precisely, who needs traditional clowns, if we're all clowns now?
But that's just part of the issue. What we'd really like to know is why clowns turned evil, and why do they seem to be haunting us today, popping out from behind every fence, wall, and tree? And this, I believe, relates to what is termed “the return of the repressed”. When society, through laws, customs, and – yes – political correctness represses not just certain behaviors but certain ideas and insights, those things can come back in a different form if they are powerful enough. They are not allowed to be seen or heard in public, and the brainwashing can even render people incapable of thinking about them, but that doesn't make them go away. They come out in odd ways, the way dreams can represent, in distorted, exaggerated, or symbolic form, thoughts and feelings that we “successfully” repress during waking hours. This happens with individuals, but it happens for societies as well. It's been pointed out by one writer, for example, that the legalization of abortion was followed very closely by a spate of “monster baby” (or even “monster fetus”) movies, implying that there's a connection. Not only is abortion permitted, but the realization of what it actually is is repressed to the point where it can only come back to the surface in an altered, alien form – a frightening alien, but still more acceptable than the reality. If it's truly an alien, that enables us to maintain emotional distance while at the same time releasing some of the tension caused by what is an intolerable situation (I would identify it as a blatant violation of Natural Law).
So if the cultural revolution of the Sixties sucked all the oxygen out of the funny clown tradition, why were we left with evil clowns, and why are they seemingly making a comeback in our time? Another way of putting it is: What is being repressed, and why is it coming back in this form? I think in the most general sense it's based on a combination of absurdity, helplessness, and infantilization. The absurdity part... well, let's get philosophical for a moment and reflect that, according to some writers of old, especially those of an existential bent, life without purpose is absurd, i.e. pointless. And for much of the human race in former times, their purpose, or the ultimate meaning of their lives, was a religious or spiritual matter much more than a material one. And yet we are often described as living in a “post-Christian era”, which really means a “post-religious era”. This is not to say that spiritual needs no longer exist, but they are no longer focused on structured, internally-consistent and coherent religious systems. You have, on the one side, the somewhat vaporous spiritual leanings of the New Age, in which (to borrow a phrase originally applied to liberals by G. K. Chesterton) the problem is not that they believe in nothing, but that they believe in everything. And on the other side, you have the vast portion of the populace that has “given up all that religion stuff” and resigned itself to pure secularism.
Ah, but if only it were that simple! If the religious urge truly is, as Freud contended, a form of mental illness, than setting it aside ought to be liberating – and it seems to be, at least on the surface. And yet no sooner does an individual, or society, disavow religion than it finds a substitute – communism, fascism... psychiatry... economics... evolution... global warming... and so on. And those substitutes have a way of not quite filling the bill; they are, let's say, failure-prone, they don't satisfy, and their idols have feet of clay. But this is not to say that the adherents realize this; if anything, they tend to double down on their philosophical errors, which only compounds the problem and, by the way, makes them even less tolerant of those with differing opinions. (Jail terms for people who “don't believe in global warming”? It's been seriously proposed.)
So if the religious urge is distorted, and we start to worship that which should not be worshiped – which is not worthy of worship – we are laying a seriously absurd groundwork (or anti-groundwork) for our existence. And at times, despite our best efforts, absurdity takes over; we get "outed" by our own unconscious. And it takes many forms – witness the epidemic of depression in our society, and the epidemic of drug abuse (particularly of prescription drugs, many of which are intended to treat depression). And of course there's nothing new about “games and circuses” -- those perennial distractors from unpleasant truths.
There will be some who are painfully aware of all of this (existential philosophers and certain artists, writers, and movie makers), but most people are not – and yet they are living with it, and it's causing them serious harm. So what bubbles up out of the murk but a symbol of the absurd that is also dangerous – namely the evil clown? Another way of putting it is that we see, on every side, evil disguised as good. So what better symbol to arise from the unconscious as good and evil combined in a grotesque way?
But we also have to deal with helplessness; this is a political, sociological, and psychological phenomenon of our time, and its symbol is big government. If our basic, if unstated (and unconscious), premise is that we are powerless and helpless, and that our only salvation is an all-encompassing government (AKA totalitarianism), this makes us, in my opinion, less than fully human. And one of the things that most "history" totally neglects is how things got to be this way. I suspect that the traditional American notion of “rugged individualism” is a bit of a myth, but its opposite – the totalitarian ideal of a great, gray, faceless mass ruled by unseen powers – is way more dangerous, not to mention dehumanizing. And yet that is precisely the direction in which we are headed, if painfully slowly compared to some more obviously revolutionary societies (the Soviet Union, Mao's China, etc.).
This process, for us, seems to have started quite openly, and commendably, even – with the government providing a “safety net” for the poorest of the poor... the most needy... and the truly deserving. But guess what -- when something is free the demand for that thing will rise precipitously. People who might have been self-sufficient before, but who feel overworked, are going to get interested... and people who are resentful or just plain lazy will beat a path to the door of whichever government agency is handing out the goodies that day. The result, in the long run, is a system in which the government is intimately involved with every aspect of life, down to the tiniest detail – and a citizenry that can't imagine things being any other way. (This, by the way, is the biggest single problem the libertarians have in convincing people of the merits of their position. Because the political/social/economic model they propose is so remote from the way things are, it sounds wildly unrealistic, the notion being that “you can't get there from here” or some variation like “you can't unscramble eggs” or “you can't turn back the clock”.) (Although it bears mentioning that society did turn back the clock on communism -- at least of the hard-core Soviet or Maoist variety.)
And yet nothing is free, because the system – the Regime, if you will – extracts a price, and it is likely to include self-respect, self-worth, charity, independent thought, and much else... and that will, in turn, lead to denial (no one wants to fully admit to themselves how helpless they are, or feel). Now you have a contrast, on some level ranging from conscious to buried deep, between how your life is and how it ought to be, and that can, in turn, lead to hopelessness, despair, and, yes, a feeling of absurdity.
Finally, closely related to the helplessness problem is the infantilization problem. What, indeed, is more helpless than a human infant? And yet many able-bodied adults have descended to that level, at least in their own minds, and we have the current phenomenon of people living with their parents well into middle age (for other than purely economic reasons), and the other phenomenon of college students who insist on being quite literally treated like infants. Describing this situation as absurd is an understatement.
It seems that we have accepted, and repressed the awareness of, way more that is at once absurd, dangerous, and evil than would be needed to account for the clown outbreak. And yet most of these trends have been at work for many years – decades, even. So what put it over the top? One only has to look in awe upon the offerings of the two major political parties for election to the presidency. We could call them evil clowns – and many have – but it would be more accurate to say that the sheer absurdity of them and of their campaigns is being repressed by most of the citizenry. It is being denied the way any Big Lie is denied; rather than face the intolerable and acknowledge it for what it is, they prefer to engage in massive denial. And yet the collective psyche, which searches for truth no matter how much the conscious mind tried to repress it, begins to hallucinate. It creates symbols – living nightmares – for what it cannot deal with in a rational manner. The Evil Clown phenomenon is a waking, living nightmare – but it's still preferable to waking up to the real nightmare of our political system and its mutant offspring.
(I'm not the first to point out the “coincidence” between the clown scare and the Trump vs. Clinton circus. I'm just not aware that it's been analyzed in quite this way. If it has, then it's obviously time to start an academic journal devoted to the subject.)