No one pretends that clowns are jolly, funny purveyors of whimsy anymore. With their monstrous floppy feet, hideous squeaky noses and child-devouring grins, they’ve shown their true colors far too often for any of us to trust them with so much as a deflated balloon. They’re just plain evil; Lon Chaney knew it, Johnny Depp knows it, and anyone who’s encountered any of the twisted harlequins below sure as hell knows it. Halloween is the only time we tolerate their presence: the only time of the year when having the righteous crap scared out of us is actually a desirable outcome. Here are the creepiest clowns in pop culture, the ones who host a never-ending carnival of terror inside our skulls.
The mascot for the Twisted Metal game line has grown increasingly creepier and more disturbing with each new game. His head was actually on fire in the second installment and his demonic ice cream truck features such charming touches as death spikes on the bumper. Sweet Tooth is responsible for the in-story creation of other Twisted Metal characters like Axel and Dollface. He’s also spawned a fair number of imitators, most notably Adam the Clown in the Dead Rising series. But there’s no competing with the original.
These guys showed up during a nightmare sequence in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure: collecting Pee Wee’s beloved bike and performing some unnamed operation on it in the name of freaking us the fuck out. The director (some cat named Burton) innately understood that clowns are not our friends, and injected enough pancake-makeup horrors into this fever dream to trump countless hours of full-fledged horror movies.
Spawn’s demonic nemesis manifests on Earth as an obese circus performer who sets the resurrected Al Simmons on the path to damnation. He also convinces villain du jour Jason Wynn to wire his ticker to virus canisters all over the world. If Wynn dies, so does everyone else: the ultimate case of taking your ball and going home. The film itself is quite dreadful, and Spawn’s stock as a comic book character has fallen precipitously over the years, but the Violator remains a terrifying villain (thanks to an over-the-top performance from John Leguizamo). He also proves what we all suspected: that those puffy white gloves were manufactured in the deepest pits of hell, and will drag us all back if we accept so much as a single balloon animal.
Aliens who abduct humans, wrap them in cocoons and suck their juices dry are scary enough. Killer Klowns ups the ante by making them all misshapen circus denizens: complete with acid pies, cotton-candy cocooners and outsized heads guaranteed to keep even the hardiest soul up all night with a baseball bat close at hand.
And now we come to it: the dead certainty that whatever hides behind that giant smile is lurking under our bed or in our closet and will pounce on us the minute we close our eyes. Poltergeist’s young Robbie Freeling (Oliver Robins) is onto the equation from the get-go, but that still doesn’t stop his unconscionably sinister doll from wrapping its nylon arms around the boy’s throat and squeezing the life out of him. It beggars the question “what the hell was the kid doing with that hideous thing in his room to start with?” and anyone who watched the film during their precious formative years deserves one hell of a good answer.
Tim Curry usually plays comedic characters, but there’s always something sinister in his smile: the sense that he’s putting one over on you and not bothering to conceal it. That pays off when he donned the baggy shoes of Stephen King’s most infamous monster, complete with a gravelly child-molester’s voice and sharp teeth for gnawing on any precocious kiddies who get too close. “We all float down here, Georgie,” he coos to one of his victims. We have no idea what that means, but we’d really rather not find out.
Whether he’s played by Mark Hamill or Heath Ledger, drawn by Bob Kane or Jim Lee, the Clown Prince of Crime knows no equal in this regard. He takes the transgressive nature of carnivals and circuses into more mundane realms, inviting the whole world to share in his nihilistic insanity through all manner of insidious plots. Many of them are outrageous, but – as Ledger proved in The Dark Knight – they sometimes come so close to reality that we can almost hear them breathing down our necks. That poisonous laughing gas is a lot scarier than we pretend; just ask the grinning demon passing it out.