This post originally appeared on Quora December 19. 2019.
Pretty much for as long as people have been donning makeup to become clowns, they’ve been associated with both comedy and horror/evil. There’s no “perception change” to be seen here unless you go the other way around—clowns being wholesome is a more recent idea. As much as people ignorant of history like to think that these horror concepts are new, they aren’t. (And I don’t mean ignorant in a negative, judgmental sense. It’s okay to be ignorant because a person can learn.)
Repeat after me: there is nothing new under the sun.
Should we start with the Harlequin of the 16th century? Harlequins were tricksters, and while they were uproariously funny, they were also cruel. Horrific in their amoral antics, they could be murderous. All for a good laugh, right?
Or how about the infamous wife-beating, child murdering Punch of Punch and Judy fame from the 18th century? This is considered entertainment in the 1700s. Quite horrific mixed with amusing. Just like horror today. It’s a macabre amusement.
Before the early 20th century, there was little expectation that clowns had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime clowns, for example, were characters who had more adult-oriented story lines.
How about The Joker, who originated in the 1940s Batman Comics? He was rather a ghastly tribute to The Man Who Laughs (1928). This is the very same Joker who got off on killing people until they softened him up into a prankster to market him to the kiddies in the 1950s and 60s.
It’s really not until the 1950s and 1960s that clowns become some kind of purely wholesome source of amusement. Bozo the Clown would never dream of harming a child or murdering his adoring audience. He was a sweet clown and quite wholesome. Ronald McDonald stuffs you full of treats and even has a very nice house where parents of sick children can stay for free. Whether or not we agree with or like McDonald’s for other reasons is a moot point here—Ronald would never intentionally harm a child is the message of the company. Wholesome.
For some reason, people who don’t know history tend to believe that what they grew up with—gentle, nice clowns—were the norm and anything outside of that is new and different, and somehow a product of “the decay of modern society” or some such nonsense. The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t take much to see that clowns have been longstanding in their horror and evil ways, and wholesome comedy clowns are really the more modern perception that stands out among a history of evil.