Just before Halloween, in October 2016, police across North America began receiving calls about pranksters dressed as creepy clowns driving around town and scaring people.
Two teenagers dressed as scary clowns were detained in Toronto in early October for allegedly chasing other students around school property. The local school board issued a warning. On Sept. 27, the community in Glace Bay, N.S. was faced with its own clown scare. Numerous calls came in to the Cape Breton Regional Police Service, reporting a man wearing a Halloween mask and jumping in front of cars on West Ave. On Oct. 4, a 24-year-old man dressed in a clown mask was arrested in Shelburne County, N.S. for allegedly grabbing the clothing of a young boy. Across the border, police in the United States were arresting rogue clowns of all ages, ranging from 12 through 55.
With the rise of these creepy clown incidents, professional clowns in Canada have become concerned about the damage to their reputation. Entertainment clowns like Marvin York, of Toronto, have been following the creepy clown fad carefully, and with mounting frustration.
They're not real clowns. JoJo the Travelling Balloon Clown, aka Marvin York
“They got to understand that they’re giving us a bad name because of it,” said York, the face behind JoJo the Travelling Balloon Clown.
York got his start in clowning when he was enlisted by his previous partner to blow-up balloons at a birthday party. Twenty four years later, he’s partnering with Shane Farberman, the face behind the infamous DooDoo the Clown and co-owner of Farco Entertainment. Farberman has been in two movies, including playing a clown in the Adam Sandler film, Billy Madison.
Both performers are tired of the current craze.
“Professional clowns who do this for a living (want) to make children and parents smile,” York said.
Farberman and York, like many other professional entertainment clowns, belong to a recognized organization, like Clowns International or Clowns Canada. The evolution of clowning in the Western tradition, from the 16th Century to the 21st, has varied greatly, but the craft’s fundamentals haven’t changed, according to professor Stephen Heatley, who runs the theatre and film department at the University of British Columbia. Heatley specializes in the history of clowns, particularly the “Commedia dell’arte” in the latter days of the Italian Renaissance. Heatley explains the origins of the contemporary clowning which westerners know.
The stock characters of Leonardo da Vinci’s day dressed and acted in a style recognizable to their audiences, exaggerating their movements, according to their role.
“These characters operate under their own logic,” Heatley said.
Since that time, this notion remains: the exaggerated dress, features and gestures which clowns use to perform, is what Heatley calls, “clown logic”.
“A clown does things that you might stop yourself from doing. They have a more liberal editor,” he said.
If you do a crazy thing this year just for funsies, do you really want to do the same crazy thing or do you want to do something else? Ian Brodie
In history, clowns have done what was taboo to do. They’re masked and exaggerated characters who can get away with tomfoolery and satirical jibing, when it was considered profane to do so.
“Clowns as characters have always been disruptors, and they’ve also been transgressive,” Heatley said.
So, arguably, while the creepy clowns may be partly acting according to recognized clown logic, they do not offer a different point of view, Heatley said, — an important characteristic that sets them apart from the professional and commercial clowns of today.
Timeline: History of Clowns by Sarah Samwel
Entertainment clowns aren’t the only ones concerned about the damage being done to their image. On Halloween night, the owner of a Toronto all-women’s boxing club and some volunteers dressed up as good clowns to march in the city’s annual Halloween parade. Savoy Howe, the owner of Newsgirls Boxing Gym, goes by the clown name Kapow.
Howe says it’s the people wearing the scary costumes that are causing the recent problems.
“It doesn’t mean the clown [costume] is the bad guy,” she said.
Howe and her crew put their clown skills to use, offering to teach women a practical class in boxing, should they have to confront an attacker dressed as a scary clown.
As for why people are choosing to dress as killer clowns, one expert believes it has to do with the fear of making the familiar unfamiliar. Ian Brodie, a folklore professor at Cape Breton University, says that the spread of the creepy crown phenomenon from the United States to Canada is partly due to its popularity as a practical joke.
“You don’t know these people are messing with you, so they become an object of menace,” said Brodie, in an interview.
This idea is similar to the concept of the uncanny valley, a hypothesis first proposed by robotics professor Masahiro Mori. It states that the less distinguishable something becomes from a human, but retains some form of resemblance to one, the more afraid humans are of it.
Brodie notes that this is part of the appeal clowns had in the circus world, right from the beginning. But for some, their exaggerated facial features and body parts come across as deformity instead of amusement.
“They are in disguise,” Brodie said. “They are recognizably human but recognizably not normal in a way.”
The seasonal concern about creepy clowns has professionals, educators, activists and even the media contemplating why it recurs. Some, like Helen Donnelly, are busy trying to repair the damage, and ensuring new generations of performing arts students in Toronto learn the proper techniques of professional clowning. Donnelly teaches clowning at Ryerson University, the University of Toronto, Second City, as well as runs community clowning classes.
“It changed my life, ” said Donnelly, who clowned with Cirque du Soleil for one and half years, performing over 400 shows all across the United States. Now she prefers to work doing artistic clown interaction through therapeutic play with patients at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, in Toronto. “To be able to offer your art in a totally different environment and context, in a different way, is very interesting to me.”
Donnelly previously worked as a clown doctor at the Hospital for Sick Children, for two years. Playing with therapeutic clowns can reduce anxiety in children and improve healing in children with respiratory illness. Donnelly thinks the biggest difference being a therapeutic clown and an entertainment clown is that she became a guest rather than the host of the performance.
“It’s the art of being invited, it’s the art of seeking opportunities to empower people who find themselves in a position where they don’t have as many choices,” Donnelly said. “We often put them (patients) in positions of teacher, or boss, we sometimes call a three-year-old boy ‘Sir’, and I once called a baby ‘Maestro.’”
Instead of a set with prepared jokes, Donnelly says therapeutic clowning requires lots of extemporaneous play.
“It’s really for motivation, it can decompress any stress,” she said.
Shane Farberman of Farco Entertainment isn’t stressed about the clown scares that creep up from time to time. Farberman says that kids can tell the difference.
“I just did a show recently in front of a few thousand people,” Farberman said. “And the first thing I said was, ‘How many kids know about the scariness?’, ‘And how many kids know that there’s us, the birthday-happy performing clowns?’ All the kids put their hands up. Everyone knew the difference between that and scary.”
Farberman takes issue with how the media coverage of the current crazy clown fad has “blown this out of proportion” and wishes more attention was being paid to clowns’ positive work.
“What about all the work we do for charities?” he said, in an interview at his home in Thornhill, which he had decorated as a haunted maze in time for Halloween. On Oct. 31, Farco Entertainment hosted a Haunted Halloween fundraising event there, in aid of the charity Crafting for a Cure. Approximately $2,500 was raised.
For next Halloween, professor Ian Brodie believes creepy clowns could be out of fashion.
“If you do a crazy thing this year just for funsies, do you really want to do the same crazy thing or do you want to do something else?” he said. “Think of it as a Halloween costume. It will often change from year to year because of what’s in vogue. So, who knows what will happen?”