There are so many iconic horror monsters that have graced film screens over the years, striking fear in the hearts of audiences of all ages. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, zombies, and…circus clowns?
Ostensibly, a clown is a comedic performance, making fools out of themselves for the laughter and happiness of their audience. But as anyone who’s had to counsel a crying kid after they interacted with a birthday party clown will know, they often provoke the opposite response instead. A 2016 survey by the Morning Consult found that 42 percent of Americans were, to some degree, afraid of clowns: admittedly, this survey occurred after a minor mass hysteria over a series of alleged evil clown sightings across America, but the fact that “evil clown sightings” were even a thing indicates there’s some deeper hangups involving the make-up clad fools.
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Perversions of clowns or jesters and their sunny, goofy demeanor have existed in some form for centuries. In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story “Hop-Frog,” named after the central villain, a murderous court jester. One of the most famous operas of all time is Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” which focuses on a commedia dell’arte theater leader who kills his wife and her lover on stage during a performance.
From those origins, the concept of the evil clown has spread, and it is now a common character in horror fiction. One of the original examples was Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine in 1928’s “The Man Who Laughs,” an actor with a hideous frozen grin spread menacingly across his face. Veidt’s appearance in the film inspired the original character design for comic book villain The Joker, who appeared as the scariest antagonist in many films starring his arch-rival Batman. And low and high budget horror alike have found a place for scary clowns, from Pennywise in the blockbuster “It” to the alien terrors in “Killer Klowns From Outer Space.”
Why are clowns so scary on screen? A recent survey from the Washington Post provides some answers. There are some obvious reasons, like the exaggerated facial features and makeup creeping people out. But the other commonly stated reason is their unpredictability: clowns are fond of startling people and playing pranks, leading to erratic behavior that leaves people on edge. That carries over to the great cinematic evil clowns, who are funnier and more colorful than most horror monsters, but have an edge and a chaos to them that makes them unpredictable to watch.
In honor of Halloween, IndieWire looked back at all the scariest clowns to ever appear onscreen, and determined which are the scariest and which are the greatest. Read on for our list of the best evil clown movies of all time, unranked and listed in chronological order.
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