In late August, residents of Greenville, S.C., began reporting to police that one or more clowns had been observed attempting to lure children into a wooded area. It was an odd moment in a year that had already seen more than its share.
Since then, reports of sinister-clown activity (e.g., threats, assaults, the brandishing of knives and standing in place while waving slowly in a menacing manner) have gone viral throughout the United States, with a few now coming in from elsewhere in the world. Professional clowns are distressed by the damage to their reputation, and Ronald McDonald has gone on sabbatical for an indefinite period.
Like many anomalous phenomena -- UFOs, for example, or appearances by Elvis or Bigfoot -- clown sightings tend to come in waves. The recent spate of them has been unusual in both its geographical range and its emotional intensity -- although I suspect that coulrophobia is in fact the normal, even default, emotional response to clowns in any context. A study of children’s response to hospital decorations conducted by researchers from the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Sheffield in England found that “clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them frightening and unknowable.” And over the past 30 years or so, a strain of pop-culture iconography has tapped into that basic anxiety and amplified it with a series of overtly horrific clowns.
Some of the recently reported incidents involved people wearing commercially produced horror-clown masks. Whatever deep psychological wellsprings may have driven the clown sightings of previous years, the current cycle is, at least in part, a performance of mass hysteria -- an acting out of uncanniness and anxiety, with some individuals playing the menacing part in an almost standardized way.
Trying to make sense of this funny business, I did a search of my digital archive of journal articles, conference papers and whatnot in hopes of finding a paper -- by a folklorist, maybe, or possibly a psychoanalyst -- that might help elucidate the clown question. The most interesting material to turn up was by the late Orrin E. Klapp (1915-1997), a sociologist, whose first book was Heroes, Villains and Fools: The Changing American Character (1962).
Sections of it originally appeared as journal articles; a few of them made passing reference to clowns and clowning. But in these pieces, Klapp is interested in something more general: the range of fairly informal labels or categories we use to characterize people in the course of ordinary life. Examples he gives are “underdog,” “champ,” “bully,” “Robin Hood,” “simpleton,” “crackpot,” “cheat,” “liar” and “big shot.” (“Clown” is one of them, of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)
What intrigues Klapp about such labels is that they reflect, but also enforce, prevailing values and social norms. Some express a severe judgment (“traitor”) while others are relatively inconsequential (“butterfingers”). New labels or epithets emerge from time to time as others fall out of use; they are part of the flux of everyday life. But Klapp argues that the labels implying particularly strong judgments fall into three general categories that do not change much with time: the hero, the villain and the fool.
“The most perfect examples of heroes,” Klapp writes in one paper, “are to be found in legendary or mythical personages who represent in a superhumanly exaggerated way the things the group admires most.” Villains are “idealized figures of evil, who tend to countermoral actions as a result of an inherently malicious will,” prone to “creating a crisis from which society is saved by a hero, who arrives to restore order to the world.”
The contrast between hero and villain is clear and sharp, but not exhaustive. “If the villain opposes the hero by exaggerated evil traits,” writes Klapp, “the fool does so by his weaknesses, his métier being failure and fiasco rather than success. Though an offender against decorum and good taste, he is too stupid or ineffectual to be taken seriously. His pranks are ridiculed rather than severely punished.”
These three almost archetypal figures are seldom encountered in their purest form outside of fairy tales or superhero comic books. But most of the labels applied to people in the course of ordinary life can, in Klapp’s view, be subsumed under them. (The underdog is a kind of hero; the traitor a form of villain; the fanatic a variety of fool.) The symbolic figures and the everyday labels alike “help in the preservation of values” and “nourish and maintain certain socially necessary sentiments” -- such as “admiration of courage and self-sacrifice, hatred of vice, contempt for folly” and so forth.
Preservation of consensual values and the proper nourishment of socially necessary sentiments were major concerns of American sociologists of the Eisenhower era -- and Klapp’s framework was, in that respect, both normative and normal. But there’s more to his argument than that. He worried that mass media and propaganda techniques could exploit or corrupt those sentiments: Klapp’s papers on villainy and vilification in American culture concern, in part, the then recent success of Joseph McCarthy. He also deserves credit for paying attention to the significant ideological baggage carried by ordinary language.
The clown, in his schema, definitely falls under the heading of the fool -- but with a difference. As someone deliberately accepting the role, inducing ridicule rather than just succumbing to it, the clown exemplifies what Klapp calls the paradoxical status of the fool as “both depreciated and valued: it is at the same time despised and tolerated, ridiculed and enjoyed, degraded and privileged … He also acts as a cathartic symbol for aggressions in the form of wit. He takes liberties with rank; and as butt or scapegoat receives indignities which in real life would be mortal insult or conflict creating.”
Klapp draws close to an insight into a type of clown he doesn’t seem to have recognized: the menacing kind, in Greenville or elsewhere. For the clown, on these terms, has reason to want revenge, to wreak havoc as much as the villain does. (Here one also thinks of a certain political figure with an orange face, unnatural hair and a strange combination of extreme self-centeredness with no discernable self-awareness.) The stock of widely accepted heroic figures may be at an all-time minimum, while neither clowns nor villains are in short supply, and it’s getting harder to tell them apart.
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