This September marks the second attempt to translate Stephen King’s massive, culrophobia-inducing novel It into audio-visual form, with the first of two planned movies dramatizing the evil that awakens to stalk the children Derry, Maine every three decades or so. (The first, Tommy Lee Wallace’s miniseries starring Tim Curry, came out in 1990—27 years ago.) And professional clowns, who only recently were cracking their greasepaint complaining about American Horror Story’s creepy clown, are not happy about it. But King says these (literal) clowns can’t place the blame on his shoulders: He was hardly the first to point out that grown adults in brightly-colored onesies making balloon animals are unsettling.
King does have a point: The smiling faces of clowns were being used to convey unease in movies as far back as the 1924 Lon Chaney silent film He Who Gets Slapped, and real-life serial killer/registered clown John Wayne Gacy—who arguably did more to damage the reputation of clowns than any of his fictional counterparts—was active in the mid-to-late ‘70s, nearly a decade before the publication of King’s novel in 1986. Then there are the creepy clowns in Poltergeist (1982), The House On Sorority Row (1983), and Xtro (1983)—hell, as far back as 1876, French literary critic Edmond de Goncourt wrote, “[T]he clown’s art is now rather terrifying and full of anxiety and apprehension, their suicidal feats, their monstrous gesticulations and frenzied mimicry reminding one of the courtyard of a lunatic asylum.”