"Everybody is a clown, but only a few have the courage to show it," said the famous Spanish artist Charlie Rivel.
Clowns are currently scaring people across the world. I talked to Josh Zeman, a filmmaker and expert on urban legends, about this phenomenon.
Josh, there is a widespread phenomenon in the U.S.: People are dressing up as creepy clowns and scaring citizens. What is this all about? I think it has to do with the current politics in the U.S. Urban legends and hysterias are always born out of the moment's societal fears. In America, we have a political race that's nothing like we've ever seen. With Donald Trump, we have a nominee that is acting crazy: He's bringing personal issues into the debate, making statements such as: "only idiots pay tax," and inciting violence. We have a situation where people like him are chipping away at the basic moral fiber of politics. And that creates fear.
Isn't it interesting that this whole clown-craze is taking place now, just before the elections?
But why clowns? Why don't they dress up like werewolves or some other creature? The clown has become a Joker-like character: He is an agent of chaos. It has to do with the aforementioned fear: Politics are out of order and ignoring basic morals values -- you could actually say that they are acting clownish, in a way. Donald Trump is constantly challenging political institutions, as if he wants to the whole world to burn. He channels the "fear of the other": The fear of immigrants, of people belonging to other religions, etc. Isn't it interesting that this whole clown-craze is taking place now, just before the elections? These clowns have emerged before, but we never had this driving force of fear before. I predict that once the election is over, we won't hear any more about these clowns.
Also, most people find clowns creepy. It may have to do with the mask. This make-up used to be a very practical thing: Clowns used to perform in arenas, so they accentuated their facial features for better visibility. But now this mask has turned into something else, something sinister.
What is so fascinating about clowns? Clowns used to be depicted as drunks and hobos. There used to be a political dimension to the clown: We changed the clown from the court jester into an entertainer. In the U.S., we sanitised the clown and took away its rough edges: "Hey Kids, do you want a balloon?"
But in recent decades, there has been a change: Clowns have become associated with pedophila. And also with murder: Think of John Wayne Garcia, "The Killer Clown," for example.
But in most cases, the clown is simply our "other character": We put on the mask and engage in anti-social behaviour and act mischievous. As society becomes more structured we need to find outlets for our "evil." And the clown serves as this outlet. But in most cases it's quite harmless: It's like a prankster that pulls the fire alarm in school and watches the parents, teachers and police go crazy. Now, with all this media attention and the internet, it's exciting for kids to dress up as clowns and watch the whole world go crazy. Someday, a new monster will come along and people may forget about clowns.
And of course, the whole thing also has a funny side. I mean, I laugh when I see a policeman on a podium stating things like: "Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe we have no clowns here."
"Commissioner Gordon, use the Bat Phone!" [Laughs] Yes, exactly. This is a big part of it. People like to see the authorities being baffled. In particular, the police is no longer seen as this once revered and impenetrable institution of good. This might be a way for the people to defy and make fun of these institutions. It is a rebellion, in a certain way. Like the court jester that can make fun of the king.
In your documentary Killer Legends you explored this evil clown trope. What can you tell us about your findings? What we tried to do is look at the true crimes that may have inspired modern day urban legends: You need some sort of truth for the urban legend to feel real. Typically this is an unsolved or mysterious case with unanswered questions. We live in a culture where you can no longer just say "a friend told me" or "I heard this from somebody." You need actual evidence. This can be anything, like a doctored picture. We're in an age where our urban legends need more proof to exist.
The internet is also the reason that this is developing into a global phenomenon. Yes, of course. The internet plays an important part in this. I call it the digital campfire. It's ironic, because everybody believed that the internet would somehow help to eliminate this bullshit. But no: It only created more. But it's not only the technology, it also has to do with the fear I discussed. In many ways, the situation in Europe is similar to that in the U.S.: Europe is experiencing the Brexit, which is also challenging the current political institutions. And, last but not least, this has to do with human nature: We want to believe these creepy urban legends.
How did you get the idea to explore the clown phenomenon? I am interested in the dissemination of urban legends and the extension of folklore, that is, the acting out of these tales in real life. That idea fascinates me and I believe that we will see more of this behaviour -- not limited to clowns! Who knows what may come next?
This post first appeared on HuffPost Germany. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.