Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Today seems like a good day to ponder why clowns are so terrifying

Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

There must have been a time, before last year’s prank epidemic, the infection of video store shelves with copies of 1990's It, and, uh, John Wayne Gacy, that clowns were an accepted part of society. Though obviously an era long since past, the cultural lineage responsible for these man-monsters deserves looking into. As various wise people have been reputed to say, “Those who don’t understand their history are doomed to repeat it.”

PBS’ Origin of Everything put itself to that task with a video following the route of this particular evil as far back as possible. It traces the origins of the clown from court fools (who enjoyed the special privilege of criticizing government authority) and the chaotic harlequin figures of Italian theater through to the less valuable contributions of circus performers and adult weirdos in face paint who show up to kids’ birthday parties.

With this week’s release of an updated version of It, clowns are likely on their way back into a spotlight that reasonable people know should not have shined on them since the early 19th century. (Any sickos desperate for more on this note should check out Screen Smart’s recent take on the unique horror of Stephen King’s novel.) Now is the time to get to know where the squeaky-shoed freaks came from so as best to understand how they operate and, most crucially, how to avoid them.

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About the author

Reid McCarter

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Reid's a writer and editor who has appeared at GQ, Playboy, and Paste. He also co-created and writes for videogame sites Bullet Points Monthly and Digital Love Child.