Why Clowns are Knocking at Our Doors
Creepy clowns are terrifying America. Suddenly they are everywhere—riding in trucks, popping up in backwoods communities, in grainy photos on city streets—always with their crazed grins hiding deeper, sinister emotions. Arrests are made; schools receive clown threats; children are frightened. Real clowns are fighting back, parading with signs: Clown Lives Matter. Ronald McDonald has gone into hiding for self-protection.
Why is this happening? Or perhaps the better question is: Why is this happening now?
One answer is that the scary clowns embody a familiar archetype present in many human cultures: the Trickster. Familiar examples are Mercury and Hermes in classical mythology and the Coyote in Native American societies. The Trickster is a shadowy, shape-shifting figure who plays with us, confusing us, and, in the end, holding up a warped mirror to our anxieties.
The Trickster normally lives in the weeds, at the periphery, but when we are afraid, he seizes his opportunity. As Dr. Thomas Singer, a Jungian analyst in San Francisco, puts it, “In times of national stress, powerful forces are unleashed. This is how the Trickster behaves— he exploits them, both creatively and destructively shifting shape and forms like a clown to amuse and frighten people. But the shadow has more sinister aspects that threaten mayhem and destruction.”
So, in the year of Brexit and Middle East turmoil, a figure like Donald Trump has emerged, behaving like a Trickster, tapping into deep faultlines in the national psyche. He merrily breaks the rules. He can say forbidden things that exploit unspoken anger and resentments of many in the country around race, immigration, ethnicity, and the status quo. He has toyed with our strongest sense of the familiar. He has said that he can get away with murder.
Lewis Hyde writes in his study “Trickster Makes This World” that the Trickster is one of America’s unacknowledged founding fathers, the Confidence Man, who beguiles, seduces, and fascinates us. The scarier times are, the more people take vicarious pleasure in watching him refusing to follow the rules.
That’s why Hollywood loves its shadow clowns. Think of Jack Nicholson in the 1989 version of Batman, skipping and singing through an art museum, smiling fiendishly while defacing Old Master paintings. The Tricksters turn our most familiar values upside-down, just as the center seems not to be holding in the world today.
Clowns in circuses help children conquer their fears of the unfamiliar. Today’s frightening clowns on the streets are expressing a profound dislocation many people feel about the future. But we need to see who these Tricksters really are and why they are here today. And that is no joke.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch novelist and newspaper columnist who moved to America in 2012. Her memoir, Saving Charlotte, will be published by W.W. Norton in July 2017.
Landon Y. Jones is the former editor of People and Money magazines and the author of Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation, which coined the phrase, “baby boomer.” His most recent book is William Clark and the Shaping of the West (New York, 2004).