Killer clowns are everywhere this fall, thanks to the film remake of Stephen King's It and American Horror Story: Cult. Clowns are scary because they have unpredictable motives, are otherworldly, have exaggerated features, and wear makeup that dehumanises them. In short: the human brain finds it hard to understand clowns.
That wasn't always the case, however. One clown might have ruined it for everyone: serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Gacy was a prolific serial killer who was active from 1972 to 1978 in Chicago. He was convicted of killing 33 people in 1980, and in the ensuing decades DNA analysis has been used to attempt to identify eight victims who have long been unknown, the New York Times reports. They have only succeeded in identifying two of them. One of those, a 16-year-old named James “Jimmie” Byron Haakenson, was only identified in June. All of Gacy's victims were young men and teenage boys.
Gacy worked at children's parties as a character named Pogo the Clown. He was then dubbed "the Killer Clown" by the media during his trial. Gacy was jailed until his execution by lethal injection in 1994, and while incarcerated he painted numerous portraits of Pogo that are beyond creepy. Gacy, as Pogo, shaped his mouth into pointy tips, the Miami New Times reports, rather than rounding them to be kid-friendly. He lured young men to his home under the premise of offering them construction work and sometimes dressed as Pogo the Clown when he killed them, Biography reports.
Stephen King's It was published in 1986, not long after the Gacy case and prosecution would have played out all over the media. King says his direct inspiration was the idea writing a story about a troll under a bridge, but he had also said he wanted to play on a childhood fear of clowns. That fear was probably driven into overdrive when moms told their kids in the '80s to behave, or a killer clown like Gacy might get them, as a cautionary tale.
The director of the It 2017 remake, Andy Muschietti, told the Guardian, "I wanted to go for something more layered, weird, and ancestral, a stranger and unpredictable kind of horror. There’s a passage in the book that stuck with me forever – Bill Denbrough saying, ‘What if this monster is eating kids because that’s what we’re told monsters do?’ So it might be a case of, ‘this character is alive as long as it’s alive in the imagination of children.’”
In It, the clown preys on innocent children by discovering their worst fears, but in this season of American Horror Story, the clowns of Cult seem to have their sights set on adults. The season, inspired by the events around the 2016 election, appears to be taking an equally "ripped from the headlines" tack and taking those creepy clown sighting reports from last summer and fall to their gruesome conclusion. That was not only the overactive imagination of children, but adults seeing clowns mysteriously appearing in the wild.
We live in a world where we're still discovering the identities of a real-life killer clown's victims. It's no surprise that killer clowns are experiencing a resurgence in pop culture — let's just hope they don't start popping up in your neighbourhood.
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