Why are we afraid of clowns and what caused this fear?  The coulrophbia present in today’s culture can be  blamed on the last 40 years of media for this with with the creation of Pennywise the Dancing clown in 1986’s Stephen King novel IT being the supposed start of it. He is an amalgamation of the fear of clowns, abduction, and the unknown. Although it was this point at which the fear of clowns was at its highest, “IT” had its origins rooted in events from the previous 20 years. It started with confirmation of John Wayne Gacy’s crimes in 1978 as his alter ego “Pogo the Clown” and abducted and killed at the very least 33 young men and boys, which could have been inspiration for Pennywise’s prey. As well as in 1981, in Kansas and other eastern states reports of pedophilic clowns scoured playgrounds for months. This happened again in 2016 between the summer and fall months with sightings across the world, however because of the increased amount internet usage, much of it could have been related to people wanting to make a name for themselves and was more a effect than a cause, but was a time that unsettled the world nonetheless. These events, with acception to the latter most event, likely influenced the opinions of King, and the opinions of those who read or witnessed them take place on paper or on screen.

John Wayne Gacy was born in 1900 to a machinist and his wife in Chicago, Illinois. During his early life he was overweight and nonathletic, and when he was 11 he suffered a blood clot that lasted till he was 16. He went to four high schools before dropping out his Senior year, moving to Las Vegas, losing all of his money, moving back to Chicago, and graduating business college before becoming a manager at a family member’s KFC franchise. He was also at the time allegedly homosexual, and made a speakeasy for young men in his basement where he sexual advances towards them which he was arrested for when he was accused of assaulting two 15 and 16 year olds in 1968(Criminal Motives). This was the start to his actions and they would increase from this point on with his first murder taking place in 1972 and ending in 1978 all whist creating large block parties dressed as a clown named “Pogo”. He would usually lure his victims into his car or his home, sexually assaulting, and then later physically asphyxiating them until they suffocated.

The parallels are very similar between the Killer Clown and the “Clown Killer”. Both target children or young adults, luring them into their lairs with promises of reward or just brute force in some cases, with the end result being that they are killed for their curiosity or greed.  “The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference”,With Gacy being a homosexual pedophile placing him in two area that stray far from social normality, and as he grew older, so enforced his sexuality onto his victims often leading to him going to (Cohen 7). A possible cause of this is the head injury he received as a child, which may have also affected his actions as an adult. An article by Radford University says, people that engage in murderous activities usually have psychological problems caused by physical trauma from childhood whether it be from abuse or accidents (Mitchell and Aamodt 40). This would explain why he acted the way he did, with the damage to his head possibly breaking connections between the parts of his brain that allowed him control over rationally thinking of the impact of his actions, during moments fueled by adrenaline enhanced eroticism. In any case, he hunted for children creating an image for culture to fear and created a foundation for King to build his own child abducting monster that we know and love today.

The way clowns acted in fall of 2016

In the April of 1981 reports went out in Boston that children were seeing men dressed as clowns in the parks around the area some of which were nude and tried luring kids to their cars with promise of candy. Although no kids were ever abducted it still instilled a fear in the city and curfew and police presence in the area was heightened. Reports of clowns continued but only from kids and so the subject was largely ignored by police from that point on. However in Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri, similar reports went out of a man who was dressing as a clown in a yellow committing similar actions around schoolyards who alluded the cops as well. This continued into the summer of that year as kids in Pittsburgh, PA, Omaha, NE, and Denver, CO (Derek Faraci). This continued to scare kids and parents across the US for months but died down before the year was out with very few, if no, people were arrested being that they were masked or painted. However in the late summer 2016, it happened again. Clowns popping up in corn fields, dark alleys parking lots, and abandoned areas around the globe. And this time there were physical altercations, as assaults with baseball bats, stabbings, and even some gun related attacks were recorded. This all came to a close in the winter months of that year, with few arrests being made, dying down until the following September, when the movie IT came out, but this was a lot calmer and did not result in any problems.


The way people reacted in fall of 2016.

“The Monster Always Escapes”, This holds true for these situations, as very few people faced punishment for their actions, as well as most sightings in 1981 being made by kids, making the believability of these claims very difficult for adults, and can be compared to how only kids would see the actions of Pennywise despite the parents being in the same area(Cohen). “The Monster is a Cultural Body”, The fear of both of these events caused enough stir and was widespread enough to warrant police action at some points, even causing laws to be enacted in some places preventing the wear of clown uniforms(Cohen). The first was most likely inspiration for King, an entity creating the perfect way to capture the entranced prey of children in it’s net, and whilst being feared by the children of the town of Dairy, leaves the adults blissfully unaware. Where as the most recent incident was inspired by the story, seeing the fear that the red nose and white face can cause, they took to the streets in their dollar store masks and their instruments of malicious intent to reignite the fires of fear that had been fading over time. Also the fact that rumors of a IT movie coming the following year might have gotten them into a mood to terrify their hometowns.

Clowns are still a part of our society’s culture, performing at circuses, parties, and Shakey’s Pizzerias, around the globe. However, IT and the events that inspired IT, ha ha, created a shift in what people thought was acceptable for their kids to be around, causing a decline in the popularity of clowns and an increase in the fear about what they might cause.In a quote from Joseph Campbell, “Universal too is the casting of the antagonist, the representative of evil, in the role of the clown.”(Campbell 1972, 294) Monstrous human like creatures, that laugh at you, with white and red faces, doesn’t sound too appealing in the first place, but now knowing that they can potentially abduct or stalk and kill you does not place a good image over their heads. Pennywise and its later knockoffs and visual specials inspired by the stories cemented the foundation that would grow into the fear of clowns that is present in society today. But it is important to remember events that caused them, being Gacy and the Phantom Clowns, so that the events that they caused will not happen again, at least not outside of books and movies.


Annotated Bibliography

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture: Seven Theses.” From Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 3-20.

This abstract from the book goes into detail on how monsters are apart of our culture and the very ideas behind them. It separates the examples it gives into categories based on the reasoning behind the context of each monster and how it affected society from that point forward. I am using it to define how Pennywise connects to the events and people that possibly inspired it prior to the Novel’s release. This is a credible source because it is one of the reasons this analysis is being made in the first place.


Crime One. “John Wayne Gacy.” Criminal Motives RSS, Criminal Motives.com, 21 Dec. 2009, 1:27, www.criminalmotives.com/serial-killers/serial-killers/john-wayne-gacy/.

This article goes into detail on the early, adult, and late life of John Wayne Gacy. It also shows his past, going into detail for when his habits as a homosexual pedophile started. I will use this information to explain Gacy’s past and draw comparisons between Pennywise and the serial killer. The information is a collection of information from different sources, most of which come from autobiographies and archived documents from the court testimonials from Gacy.


Faraci, Derek. “When Pennywise Was Real: The Phantom Clown Scare of 1981.” The 13th Floor, The 13th Floor, 4 June 2017, www.the13thfloor.tv/2016/01/04/when-pennywise-was-real-the-phantom-clown-scare-of-1981/.

This article talks about the Phantom Clown Scare of 1981, starting with the events in Boston and ending with the final one in 2008. It talks about the fear faced by parents affected by the events and the actions taken by police and officials to protect their citizens. This shows the events that happened in 1981 and can be compared to the actions of Pennywise and how the actions take by both are similar. This article is not the most credible as there are no citations, however is a collection of all of the events that took place in 1981.


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pg. 294

This book is about the mythological heroes seen throughout history. It also discusses the matter of their villains and how they were often given as fables given by the upper class to enforce morals on the lower classes of the era. This book has a good quote that proves one of the points I was trying to get across.


Mitchell, H. & Aamodt, M.G. J Police Crim Psych (2005) 20: 40. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02806705

This journal is about how psychopaths or criminals are created. It says that some of the causes can be trauma, physical or mental, and can affect these people in their later lives. The article can associate physical damage done to Gacy in his childhood could have lead to his 8 year murder spree later in life. This is a credible article because it was made as a medical study at Radford University.

Media Cited

JontronClips. “Jontron – Just a Clown [Howling II].” YouTube, YouTube, 1 Nov. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzY9RCb9cGg.

Serena, Katie. “The Chilling Story Of John Wayne Gacy, The Real-Life Killer Clown.” All That’s Interesting, All That’s Interesting, 8 Jan. 2018, allthatsinteresting.com/john-wayne-gacy.

GIPHY. “Hello GIF – Find & Share on GIPHY.” GIPHY, GIPHY, 15 June 2017, giphy.com/gifs/hello-SbPtkLHsFPe8w.

Bassett, Jordan. “The Northampton Clown Is The Forgotten Hipster Of The Killer Clown Craze.” NME, NME, 12 Oct. 2016, http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/the-northampton-clown-is-the-forgotten-hipster-of-the-killer-clown-craze-and-we-should-pay-him-his-d-1188209.