The “It” movie is here to traumatize a new generation of clowns (and kids, too)

Scary clowns give real clowns a bad wrap.
Scary clowns give real clowns a bad wrap.
Image: AP Photo/Agustin Marcarian
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I was only a year old when the It miniseries first aired on ABC in 1990, but I have a brief memory of watching it later as a child. The TV was left on, and there was a young boy playing in a yellow raincoat on screen. I sat down to watch. Things quickly took a dark, dark turn.

That was my first and only encounter with the original adaptation of the Stephen King novel—and it was the end of clowns for me. I tossed the cute clown mask my mom hung on my bedroom wall, and avoided any white-paint-faced entertainers (of which there were thankfully few) at friends’ birthday parties.

The Hollywood movie remake, which hits US theaters today, looks as traumatizing as the original, if that’s possible. And it could be bad for real-life clowns—the friendly kind who aren’t serial killers and just want to make children laugh at parties. A few days ago, local police in one Pennsylvania town were “completely terrified” by red balloons that were tied to storm drains, in an allusion to the way the movie’s clown lures children.

Clowns were also sighted in North Dakota and Maine this year, and Pennsylvania state police warned more may be spotted soon. The release of the It reboot may have started things up again, but it was the 1990 series that scarred everyone—myself included.

“It all started with the original It,” Pam Moody, president the World Association of Clowns, told the Hollywood Reporter recently. “It’s not a clown and has nothing to do with pro clowning.”

Tim Curry’s portrayal of the serial-killer clown Pennywise in It set the bar for creepy clowns. (Real-life clown and 1970s serial killer John Wayne Gacy didn’t help the clown community much, either.) The series was a huge hit for broadcast network ABC with more than 30 million viewers over its two-day premiere in 1990—a huge audience even in an era of fewer channels. It paved the way for scary clowns that followed in Hollywood, including those in the current FX TV show American Horror Story.

Last fall, a wave of scary clowns sightings in the US led some local schools and libraries to cancel the clowns at their events, Moody told the publication. Even McDonald’s scaled back the use of its mascot, the clown Ronald McDonald, during that time. Clowns were spotted lurking in neighborhoods, in some cases wielding knives, in at least seven US states including Georgia, Wisconsin, the Carolinas, and New York. This was around the 30th anniversary of It, the novel, and shortly after the first official images promoting the new film were released.

One WCA member was reported to police when she arrived early for a gig at a child’s birthday party and waited in her parked car. “She looks up and there are four police officers surrounding her,” Moody said. “Someone in the neighborhood called in a clown sighting.”

It all prompted the WCA to release a statement (pdf) with its stance on scary clowns:

These horror characters are not clowns. Even the character in the movie It should be understood to be a fantasy character—not a true clown… We disavow any relationship with these “horror characters.” We stand with our safety officers who call for an end to the traumatization of individuals and communities by horror characters in public.

New Line, the makers of the new film, had nothing to do with the sightings, which were believed to the work of local pranksters. A similar thing happened in towns in the US, England, and France in 2014, which police believed to be influenced by social media and clowns in pop culture, like American Horror Story’s clown-studded season.

Moody doesn’t think the new It will have as much of an effect on real clowns as the original. “I feel that this is a remake of an old movie…..and yes, it did first introduce the thought of ‘scary clowns’ in that era, it has since became used in countless other horror based movies and television shows,” she told Quartz in an email.

Some clowns have distanced themselves over the years from these creepier clown portrayals, which may help stave off the effects. The clowns at, for example, don’t have the white-painted faces of Pennywise. ”We have tried to keep true to the roots of a clown while trying to modernize and update the look and feel,” George Blackstone, president of the party-rental service, told Quartz. “Hollywood has entertained audiences with the scary/horror side of clowns for years.”

Blackstone said business slowed slightly last year during the wave of clown sightings, but he doesn’t expect the release of It to have the same impact(He does however get the occasional crank call asking for scary clowns.) Still others, unhappy with It‘s portrayal of their profession, have taken their grievances directly to the author, King.

That said, scary clowns have freaked people out for decades and are a staple of the horror genre. And the evil that embodies the clown Pennywise takes on many forms in the novel.