Clowns are one of the scariest villain tropes in popular culture and one that Hollywood just keeps coming back to when a movie or TV show wants to frighten the pants off its viewers. This has resulted in a prevalent fear of clowns known as coulrophobia. If clowns give you the creeps, you’re definitely not alone, and these 9 characters from popular culture could be to blame.
1. The Joker
The Batman villain the Joker is one of the earliest evil clowns found in pop culture. The Joker first appeared in the very first Batman comic in 1940 and has remained the most threatening of all the Batman villains ever since. Even in the most recent Batman movie incarnation Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, was anyone really that afraid of Bane after Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal of the Joker? Ledger’s take on the character won the first ever acting Oscar for a superhero movie. His Joker was part rock and roll (Ledger said he rook inspiration from punk rockers like Sid Vicious and Iggy Pop) and part “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy,” the late actor told The New York Times. Jack Nicholson played an earlier, iconic version of the character in Tim Burton’s Batman.
2. Clown doll from Poltergeist
This 1982 film about a possessed house is considered one of the scariest of all time and one of the most horrifying scenes involves a clown doll being overtaken by the house’s evil spirit. The ‘Beast’ — the name for the entity inhabiting the new house the Freeling family has just moved in to — uses the clown doll to attack the young son Robbie when he’s trying to go to bed. The clown viciously chokes the boy until Robbie wrestles him on top of the bed and rips his stuffing out. But the damage was already done to make our souls forever clown-fearing.
3. John Wayne Gacy
The real-life inspiration for a lot of modern clown fear is the murderer John Wayne Gacy, who raped and murdered at least 33 boys and young men while maintaining a clown career during the 1970s. Gacy would lure the victims to his home, where he’d rape them, then strangle them and bury them in the crawl space under his house. The press dubbed him the Clown Killer and coulrophobes everywhere were simultaneously vindicated and horrified that their worst nightmare had come true in real life. There was a 2003 TV movie made about Gacy that aired on ABC, but the real story itself doesn’t need a film adaptation to make you fear clowns.
4. Twisty from American Horror Story: Freak Show
The fourth season of American Horror Story is set at a carnival freak show in 1950s Florida and features a murderous clown named Twisty to provide the scares. Twisty, played by character actor John Carroll Lynch, stalks couples with scissors and imprisons children in a school bus.
Aside from those with coulrophobia, another group that doesn’t find Hollywood’s manipulation of clown fear very funny or entertaining is professional clowns. Clowns of America International, the biggest clown organization in the country, has formally complained about the latest season of AHS. “Hollywood makes money sensationalizing the norm. They can take any situation no matter how good or pure and turn it into a nightmare,” said the organization’s president, Glenn Kohlberger, to The Hollywood Reporter. “We do not support in any way, shape or form any medium that sensationalizes or adds to coulrophobia or ‘clown fear,’” Kohlberger continued.
5. Pennywise from It
Stephen King’s novel It features one of the scariest clowns in pop culture. Pennywise is a demonic presence that takes on the form of a clown to entrap his preferred victims: young children. He returns to the town of Derry, Maine, every 27 years to prey on the town’s kids. Not only is Pennywise terrifying just for being a homicidal clown, but he also has the power to see his victims’ worst fears in order to kill them in the most personally awful way possible. The TV movie adaptation stars legendary character actor Tim Curry as Pennywise, with the actor giving a performance that received wide acclaim and has been responsible for making almost anyone who watches the movie afraid of clowns.
6. Wasco Clown
Inspired in part by American Horror Story reminding everyone that clowns are like the most terrifying thing ever, pranksters around the country have been posing as creepy clowns in public, scaring random passersby and posting photos to social media. The clown that started it all calls himself Wasco Clown and poses around the Bakersfield, California area, posting pictures and foreboding messages on social media. Other prankster horror clowns have popped up in Fishers, Indiana; Jacksonville, Florida; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, ABC reports. People in those cities have even called police over the scary presences, but thus far these clowns haven’t done anything illegal. This awful prank means that you could run into a creepy clown lurking around your town.
7. The Clown with the Tear-Away Face from The Nightmare Before Christmas
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas features the director’s ghoulish visuals, but otherwise is a Halloween movie most wouldn’t be hesitant to show a young child. The majority of the monsters in the movie are a Burton-esque mix of creepy and cute and most of them have endearing personalities that belie their scary exteriors. Even scarier than the movie’s main villain, the Oogie Boogie Man, is the Clown with the Tear-Away Face. He’s not around for too much of the movie, but his voice-changing and ability to rip his own face off during the movie’s opening song is enough to instill a fear of clowns in any young child.
8. “Klowns” from The Killer Klowns from Outer Space
The Killer Klowns from Outer Space is supposed to be a comedy horror parody, with the ludicrous plot of alien “klowns” coming to Earth in a space ship that transforms into a circus tent and trapping their victims in cocoons made out of cotton candy after pelting them with popcorn guns. There’s also a balloon-animal dog that comes to life and helps them chase down their more agile prey. Every ridiculous circus and carnival trope you can imagine is similarly mined, with the klowns drinking their liquified victims through silly straws and pelting the heroes of the film with acidic cream pies. The 1988 movie remains a cult classic mostly because the fear of clowns is so common.
9. Billy the Puppet from Saw
The low-budget slasher hit Saw sees the Jigsaw killer communicating with his chained-up victims via a clown doll named Billy the Puppet. The puppet is never actually named in the Saw movies, but franchise creator James Wan refers to the character as Billy. Billy delivers Jigsaw’s sadistic pre-recorded messages to his victims, often presenting horrific ways that the victims could potentially survive an equally horrific death. A clown puppet as the mascot for Saw is just the scary icing on the cake for one of the most violent and twisted slasher movies in recent years.