Bad Clowns

By Benjamin Radford. 2016. University of New Mexico Press. 200 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8263-5666-6 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Sarah Gordon, Memorial University of Newfoundland

[Review length: 1011 words • Review posted on November 28, 2017]

[Cover ofBad Clowns]

The timing of the publication of Benjamin Radford’s Bad Clowns is serendipitous, if also a little disappointing: it was initially released just ahead of the epidemic of creepy clown sightings that took place in the United States and around the world in the late summer and early fall of 2016. So while it provides context for that flurry of ostensive actions, and helps give meaning to it, it does not address them directly. Folklorists will be unsurprised—and, in my case, somewhat vindicated—to read descriptions of creepy clowns in wooded areas and unmarked vans, similar to the accounts that circulated in 2016, dating to the 1980s and earlier. As with so many legends, our creepy clown stories are descended from older narratives.

This awkward timing of publication might cause readers to assume that this is, fundamentally, a book about clown legends. It is not. Bad Clowns uses a broad series of case studies across a diversity of media to trace the emergence of the clown as a figure of fear alongside, and often above, a figure of humor. Radford establishes in the early pages that “Real clowns—those who make a career out of delighting children and adults in circuses, at parties, and elsewhere—are barely represented here” (3).

From the outset, Radford debunks the idea that evil clowns are a recent perversion of a more wholesome, and wholesomely entertaining, original iteration of the character. In chapter 1, Radford outlines how European clowning has, since its antecedents’ outset during the Roman era, been steeped in misbehavior met with violence. Punch, the infanticidal wife-battering puppet of Punch and Judy fame whose shows span centuries, receives an entire chapter. Chapter 3 covers the social origins of the fearful clown, and chapter 4 digs into the psychological origins. Surveys of the bad clowns of literature, film, and music receive a chapter each. Transgressively sexual clowns receive a brief chapter, and carnival clowns a longer one.

Chapter 12, “The Phantom Clowns,” is likely the segment of most interest to folklorists, as it traces contemporary legends and childlore surrounding creepy clowns, in the vein of the flurry of sightings from the fall of 2016, back as far as the 1980s, highlighting the fact that accounts of creepy clown sightings have very rarely been connected to actual clowns, with some reference to Jan Brunvand’s existing work on the subject.

Bad Clowns is not a peer-reviewed book, and thus cannot be read, nor reviewed, as if it were. It is, ultimately, a thorough, useful survey of the history of bad, creepy, and evil clown narratives and imagery, and one that could prove a timely and accessible teaching text for undergraduate courses on contemporary legend, folklore and popular culture, or folklore and media. That said, readers and teachers should approach it with attention to the shortcomings associated with its lack of scholarly rigor. Citation and attribution of ideas are inconsistent (in the chapter on Punch, for example, Radford states that “some researchers have suggested that Punch may be a…caricature of a man…suffering from…acromegaly,” but does not identify or cite these researchers). His key terms would also benefit from some clearer definition: while Radford admits that his definition of “clown” is broad, he loses the tenuous thread when he expands it to include internet trolls, whose only obvious connection is their affinity for flouting social norms. And his extremely brief discussion of “Native American clowns” – which references only Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo “clowns”—is problematically shallow at best. He references “tricksters” frequently without clarifying whether he perceives clowns and tricksters to be the same thing, or expressing any apparent awareness of the ubiquity of the trickster figure in Native oral literature more broadly. A single page devoted to clowns as shamans, mediating between Hopi and Pueblo people and their gods, should have been omitted for its inability to, in so little space, engage with such sensitive subject matter with the tact it requires.

But Bad Clowns does an outstanding job of querying why clown imagery has come to be associated with fear, crime, and violence, and of pointing out an associated tendency to impose a clown-related ethos on the perpetrators of certain kinds of violent crimes. His section on the Joker, the most famous evil clown of popular culture, rightly queries why James Holmes, perpetrator of the 2012 mass shooting at a screening of the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado, has widely been assumed to be motivated by Batman’s clown nemesis. Holmes has never cited the Joker as a motivator, Radford points out; he wore riot gear to the theatre, not a Joker costume, and while his hair was dyed a clown-like bright orange, the Joker’s hair has always been green. Still, the narrative of Holmes-as-Joker persists. Conversely, Jerad and Amanda Miller frequently adopted the personas of the Joker and his equally clown-like girlfriend Harley Quinn while promoting anti-government political agendas—and yet, when they murdered two police officers, the characters were rarely mentioned during their trials. Radford does not attempt to rationalize this discrepancy. He raises it as a question for the reader to consider, but stops shy of offering answers—which, given the scope of the book, is both appropriate and satisfying.

Bad Clowns is a work of questions more than answers. Radford does not attempt to explain why the clown, intended to be a symbol of happiness, has become such an effective symbol of fear. He catalogs the available information, organizes it in accessible terms, and invites the readers to perform their own synthesis. Some of those syntheses simmer barely beneath the surface: Radford flirts constantly with the language of consent, skirting the idea that the fear of clowns may be attached to the fact that their lack of adherence to any obvious social or moral codes empowers them to engage bodily with the people around them without fearing repercussion. Other ideas, involving the uncomfortable intersection of childhood with adulthood, the catharsis of chaos, and the idea of a clown as a magnified cultural mirror – lurk deeper. For these questions alone, the book is worth a read.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.