The Killing Joke – A Shudder of Clowns


Scary Stories Session 12 opens with the story of a jealous, abusive clown. It is a short retelling of the Italian opera Pagliacci, which features the murderous clown Canio who kills out of jealousy. But the figure of the muderous clown, or at least the murderer dressed as a clown or jester, has been a frequent one in literature and theatre.

Pagliacci itself resembles an earlier work by Catulle Mendes, La Femme de Tabarin, which also includes a clown murdering his wife. So similar a work was it, that Mendes attempted to sue the composer of Pagliacci, Leoncavallo. But murderous clowns predated even Mendes.


A short horror story by Edgar Allen Poe was published in 1849. Hop-Frog tells the story of the titular character, a dwarf who comes under the employ of the King as the court Jester. After witnessing the brutal treatment of his friend, Tripetta, at the hands of the King, Hop Frog hatches a plan to exact his revenge. He dresses the King and his court as orangutans for a masquerade ball, only to set their costumes alight, murdering them all and making his own escape with Tripetta.

But no discussion of literary evil clowns is complete without Stephen King’s Pennywise. As the most memorable form of the titular IT, Pennywise the Dancing Clown has terrified adults since the book was first released in 1986. Most will think of Pennywise as a monstrous creature, terrifying to witness. And the latest screen incarnation certainly plays up to this. But when we first see Pennywise in his initial encounter with Georgie, he is meant to ensnare not frighten.

He saw himself getting up and backing away and that was when a voice — a perfectly reasonable and rather pleasant voice — spoke to him from inside the storm drain” “Hi, Georgie,” it said.

George blinked and looked again. He could barely credit what he saw; it was like something from a made-up story, or a movie where you know the animals will talk and dance. If he had been ten years older, he would not have believed what he was seeing, but he was not sixteen. He was six.

There was a clown in the storm drain. The light in there was far from good, but it was good enough so that George Denbrough was sure of what he was seeing. It was a clown, like in the circus or on TV. In fact he looked like a cross between Bozo and Clarabell. … The face of the clown in the storm drain was white, there were funny tufts of red hair on either side of his bald head, and there was a big clown-smile painted over his mouth. If George had been inhabiting a later year, he would have surely thought of Ronald McDonald before Bozo or Clarabell.

... In the other hand he held George’s newspaper boat.
“Want your boat, Georgie?” The clown smiled.

George smiled back. He couldn’t help it; it was the kind of smile you just had to answer.
— Stephen King's It

All of these murderous literary clowns use their makeup and their jovial exterior to hide much darker intentions. And yet at the same time, the costume is there to also warn us, to clue us in that something is amiss.

Verity ClaytonComment