By Marc Snetiker
September 07, 2017 at 03:48 PM EDT
Everett Collection

You may have noticed something awful going on in America lately. No, not that. The other thing: Clowns are back. (So, actually, sort of that.)

If the sudden resurgence of mankind’s most aesthetically invasive performer has not fully dawned on you yet, it’s only a matter of time until you take note of just how inundated our country is once again by clowns. And yes, of course, for some people clowns aren’t the least bit frightening. Congratulations! But the truth is, you’re not not afraid of clowns—you just haven’t had your clown story yet. To quote Tolstoy verbatim: Non-clown-fearing people are all alike; people who are afraid of clowns are afraid of clowns in their own way.

The problem I see with 2017’s clownaissance is not just about the tactile terror of clowns, with their artificial smiles and grotesque physiological shapes, nor is it about any personal experience I may have with a clown ruining lives. (In third grade a circus clown punched my neighbor in the face and broke his nose, but it probably has nothing to do with all of this.) The greater issue is that clowns are a non-naturally-occurring relic of the past that has far overstayed its welcome in the zeitgeist. The modern interpretation of clowning is, at best, a bastardized form of an art that likely once was; I even wonder if those who run in proper clown circles would agree (the World Clown Association certainly seems fully aware of the change in the non-balloon-related air).

I believe that clowns, at one time in history, provided a necessarily colorful diversion for miserable people. Uncorrupted children still enjoy a clown’s brand of family-friendly comic relief and low-octane party illusions, and I do fully expect a French scholar or Zach Galifianakis to slide into my DMs and clownsplain the importance of jesters throughout history or the clown’s nuanced evolution from Shakespearean fool to high-art opera hobo. There’s history here! But the types of people who once found delight in clowns and circuses also loved things like hoop rolling and the World’s Fair! They loved clowns just as they loved penny arcades and adventure radio serials and waiting for packages to arrive on a train once a month! These things have gone away, recognized for the antiquities they are. And yet: Clowns remain!

Now clowns only haunt our pop culture because of the ways they’ve literally haunted pop culture. You Know You’re a ‘90s Kid if the notion of a clown evokes an image of Pennywise from It or Zeebo from Are You Afraid of the Dark?. You’re an ‘80s child if you can recall Clownhouse, Poltergeist, and Killer Klowns From Outer Space; for a ‘70s kid, Ronald McDonald and Bozo and John Wayne Gacy. Worst of all, you know you’re a conscious human of the 2010s, age be damned, if the very word “clown” in 2017 draws your mind to the roving gangs of homicidal maniacs in the South who have been luring people into forests with machetes.

What a fun legacy for clowns!

The good clowns are waning, and fast. There is but a small list that is acceptable in the year of our Lorde 2017: Krusty. Baskets. Homey from In Living Color. The Joker (but specifically not Jared Leto’s). Ronald McDonald (only cartooned on Happy Meal boxes, not live-action). Cirque du Soleil (viewed from mezzanine or further). And of course, whoever the last good opera clown was.

Personal feelings aside, we’re in the midst of the solidification of clowns across three decades as a predominantly horrifying force in pop culture. For the past 30 years, the primary iconography of clowns has been evil, and their primary target formative teenagers — suggesting that, with the ascension of this generation, what’s going to happen is this: Millennials actually are going to kill clowns (Whiteface Pierrot and buffoon clowns, specifically) much as they are blamed for killing cursive and affording rent. The evidential extinction of the Ringling Brothers Circus demonstrates that it’s already happening, and It and American Horror Story are only accelerating the deflation of that reputational balloon animal.

Millennials aren’t rooting for clowns. They don’t want to see greater clown representation on television. They don’t want to know the gritty origins of the first family to pile into a small car. They’re not clicking on viral clown content or making clown make-up tutorials trend on Instagram or workshopping new clown characters on YouTube. The salvaging efforts of clown-positive celebrities like Galifianakis or Eric Stonestreet have been noble, but they have not shifted the technological tide. So yes, the It remake will blow up the box office. But to what culturally impactful end? No, clowns aren’t really going anywhere, but they’re also not really going anywhere. It, really, is it.

Of all the industrial casualties being pinned on the changing habits of twenty- and thirty-somethings, the decline of the clown will be one that’s not only justifiable, but bears its own share of the blame, if only because of how an entire generation was exposed to the dregs of a centuries-long art form that had a good run. Perhaps clowns deserved better audiences these past 30 years. Or perhaps we just deserved better clowns.

Send out the clowns.

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