Friday, January 15, 2016

Page 176: Clown urban legends

As Niels Belanger implies, various urban legends circulate about the most heartwarming yet psychologically disturbing of professions: clowns. Some are quite benign, and some are scary.
The benign legends often involve clowns who are part of a franchise—Bozo or Ronald MacDonald, for example. Because actors in cities around the world have portrayed these characters at local events and live television programs, such legends are difficult to prove or disprove. For example, some tales from the mid-1960s involve bloopers occurring during a Bozo the Clown broadcast either from a foul-mouthed child, or from one of the actors as a result of an open mic gaffe. While this is certainly plausible, Brunvand has identified similar faux pas in older non-clown urban legends, suggesting that the Bozo version is fictional. I’ve also heard stories circulated about actors portraying some famous clown being drunk on-air or at a public appearance. And the Internet is full of claims of Ronald McDonald being arrested.

As for the scary ones: Urban legends are supposed to reflect our fears—and clowns are creepy to a lot of people—so why not?  Perhaps the best-known creepy clown urban legend involves a babysitter who is working for a new couple. At one point the couple check in and the babysitter has two requests: 1) Can she watch television? Sure. 2) Can she throw a blanket over the clown statue, it’s creeping her out. The couple instruct her and the children to get out of the house immediately: they don’t own a clown statue. The police soon arrive and arrest the disguised home invader.

Even more persistent are scares that claim a group of clowns in a van are abducting and murdering children.  Originating in the New England and Midwestern states in 1981 (according to Brunvand),  subsequent flaps were observed in 1985 (Phoenix, AZ) and 1991 (“ranging from New Jersey to Chicago,” Brunvand, p. 314) before crossing the Atlantic to the UK. Whenever these reports are investigated by authorities or the press, they never produce any evidence.

Nevertheless, nothing creeps people out like a clown. One teen in Waukesha, WI, recently discovered that standing around at night in a clown costume gets quite a reaction from the community!

And so we come to The Billionth Monkey, where these legends were simply too good and opportunity to pass up. The names of the clowns we meet on page 177 et seq. are references to other famous clowns:
  • Poundfoolish: The logical counterpart to Pennywise from Stephen King’s novel It (1986). 
Pennywise as portrayed by Tim Curry in the 1990 tv miniseries of Stephen King’s It
[originally broadcast on ABC, distributed by Warner Bros.]
  • Roland MacPoland: Sorta-spoonerism of Ronald MacDonald.
  • No-No: From the phrase “That’s a Bozo no-no,” which is itself an urban legend.
  • Loonibelle: Inspired by Clarabell the Clown from The Howdy Doody Show
Promotion photo of Clarabell the Clown [image source: Wikimedia Commons]
  • Pogo: The real-life scary clown alter-ego of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
  • Pagliouchie: From the Italian opera Pagliacci, and a joke told by Alan Moore’s Rorschach in Watchmen. Here’s the scene from the 2009 film adaptation:

Alas, I couldn’t think of a parody name for that famous clown who is already a parody: Krusty.


Jan Harold Brunvand. “Bozo the Clown’s Blooper.” In Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 45–6.

Jan Harold Brunvand. “The Phantom Clowns.” In Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 313–5.

Barbara Mikkelson. “Statue of Limitations.” June 20, 2014.

Barbara Mikkelson. “Cram It, Clown!” August 5, 2007.

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