I’ve Been a Clown and I’m Terrified of Scary Movies, So Of Course I Saw It

Shannon Plumb braves her first horror movie in two decades, and ponders how a beloved comic figure became an icon of evil.

“The clown eats little kids’ arms!” my son told me. A clown? Eating arms? Of little kids? He warned me not to go see It. He knows I hate to see anything get chopped or chewed other than onions and bubble gum. I notice I slightly wail when the wildebeest gets devoured by a group of lions on National Geographic. The boys tell me, “It’s OK, Mom. The lions have to eat too.” My husband always adds, “You know they eat ’em from the butt first.”

I’ve been scared of monsters most of my life. Red eyes in dark closets, werewolves creeping up the stairs, deep voices from no one there. I’ve seen it all; in my house, in my room, in my head. And just when I thought I’d conquered my childhood fears, I’d hear a scratching noise from between the walls. “Don’t hang your hand off the bed.” The monster in the walls can squeeze through baseboard cracks. It swims in the darkness hunting body parts that dangle off human beds. Then it eats the sleeping children.

When I saw the trailer for It, I thought, “I shouldn’t go see this movie. I shouldn’t write about this film.” I’d be trembling for a week if I saw it. I have to uphold a sense of safety for my boys. How would it look if I was in the kitchen at night saying, “What’s that, what’s that?” to every little noise I heard? Maybe the boys could bravely descend to the basement and do the laundry? Or check under my bed before I sleep? I couldn’t see this movie alone. I needed a friend. I asked my husband to go with me.

The central character of the new movie It is an evil clown that growls and drools and leaps forward with the jaws of a megalodon. While my hand covered my face like a baseball mask on a catcher, I watched the clown terrorize children through the spaces between my fingers. I noticed the lady next to me was using the same finger-hand technique to shield her face and soul. I hadn’t seen a horror film since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That was 20 years ago. My body had forgotten the high of a scary movie. The first attack by the clown and my spine tingled. My hairs were trying to flee from my follicles. I squeezed my husband’s hand hard, and transferred my sweat to his palms. I nervously stuffed popcorn into my mouth. The audience loved the sensation of being scared. Every time Pennywise jumped out, I felt like a kitchen appliance being turned on. Electric! I could see this being addictive. My toast was burnt, though. The lady next to me screamed. Then she laughed at her fear.

When I first saw the trailer for It, I was not only frozen with fear, I was also furious. Having applied the white makeup and strapped on the red nose a few times, I was disgusted we were celebrating the evil clown. “He’s not evil! Don’t make kids scared of clowns! Clowns have rights too, don’t they?” The clown is a special character. The clown is a breaker of rules. The clown sees everything as if for the first time. The clown is wise yet vulnerable. The clown is a mirror for us all. The clown is a healer. My grandfather used to say that laughter is the best medicine in the world. I wanted to emulate these great traits of the clown. I wanted to heal the world. I owe a lot to the clown. The clown inspired me to find the humor in life. Even when it is most difficult, the clown reminds us how good it feels to laugh.

I am here to defend the funny clown! He’s a relic and he’s in danger of getting cut down. The clown has had a place in entertainment since the first caveman made another caveman laugh when he walked into a tree and a coconut fell on his head and knocked him out. After that, the clown probably did a chase sequence with a wooly mammoth and so began his routine. Why do we want to poison the clown with our need for horror?

I know some of us have a fear of the candy-appled, red-nosed, cherry-colored curly head with a white face and a yellow-stained toothy grin. But at one time, a fear of clowns was like a fear of tablecloths with orange polka dots. It wasn’t a common thing. Most kids loved clowns. We trusted the clown. Clowns used to be the best part of the circus; the funniest thing in the world. We want our last icon of happiness and laughter to turn into a beast who eats children’s limbs? How did the funny guy go bad?

Maybe it was John Wayne Gacy, who killed 33 boys and men and also famously worked as a party clown. Maybe it was Poltergeist, or the creepy clowns in the woods of suburban backyards. Whatever the reason, society titillates itself with turning funny clowns into scary ones. The perverts of the world, the addicts of horror, the killers of innocence have taken the clown hostage, forcing him to do tricks and performances that he was not meant to do. They outline his smile with a thin red line instead of a thick goofy stroke. They fill his mouth with razor-edged teeth. His eyes are piercing, his fingers are skewers for little heads and lean bodies. His motive is to kill.

To be fair, the evil clown epidemic could also be a result of clowns not being as funny as they once were. The clowns don’t have an act anymore. The past five years, I’ve come away from the circus always disappointed. I didn’t laugh. People are not inspired to spend money on a funny clown who isn’t funny anymore. Instead, they pay to see a clown on screen who stands in a sewer telling little Georgie to reach in for his paper boat, and then he eats his arm off. Clown makeup and big shoes do not magically make you funny. The clown seems like an empty shell now being given a slimy filling.

Honestly, I can’t tell you much about It. At some point my face was fully covered by my hand and I was trying to think about sunflowers and riding horses. The group of adolescents in It were funny. The clown was not.

To keep his spot on the main stage, the clown might have to change his presentation. Maybe use a little less makeup, maybe try an off-white, maybe less crimson, maybe no makeup at all. Or he should just stay the same and accept that a crowd of children might scream and run away instead of giggle and gather around. We did it to the clown. We neglected him. He was lured away by a red balloon and a promise of big box-office hits. We may never see him again. Thanks, It! But we can, maybe, keep his spirit alive. Let a new clown arrive; the unmasked warrior of comedy. We will recognize him only by the measure of our laughter. He won’t scare you so bad that toast pops out of your head. But he might make you laugh so hard you pee your pants. Enter the new clown!

Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.