Birthday party clowns. Circus clowns. Horror movie clowns. Even Ronald McDonald. If you suffer from coulrophobia it doesn’t matter what kind of clown we’re talking about – they are all terrifying. Even if you don’t have an unreasonable fear of clowns there’s still something about them that just gives us the willies.
Why is that exactly?
As adults we know that anyone who wears such an obvious emotion on their face at all times is surely hiding something beneath the surface. And since clowns literally paint their smiles on, the happiness immediately seems disingenuous. This may also help explain why innocent children are often able to stomach a clown’s presence better than their jaded parents.
In the midst of all these real-life creepy clown sightings, we’re taking a look at clowns from popular culture that have given us a horrifying glimpse at what’s lingering beneath all the makeup and multi-colored wigs. That doesn’t mean they all have fangs or chase children around with butcher’s knives. In many instances, it’s quite the contrary. But for whatever reason, these painted faces are the ones we still can’t seem to wipe from our memories.
Here’s our list of the 15 Most Terrifying Clowns Of All Time
15. Zombie Clown – Zombieland
One of the best horror-comedies of the past decade, Zombieland follows a small group of survivors as they make their way cross-country toward Pacific Playland. Columbus (Jessie Eisenberg) becomes smitten with fellow-traveler Witchita (Emma Stone), but finds it hard to impress her while remaining true to his zombie survival rules. Columbus has plenty of fears: ocean undertows, department store Santas, being alone with a baby. But there’s one thing he fears more than anything else. No, not zombies. Clowns.
Of course, when Columbus has to rescue Wichita during the film’s climactic battle scene, the zombie that stands between the two was once an amusement park clown. Finally, Columbus decides to break his “Don’t be a hero” rule and, much to our approval, he bashes in the zombie clown’s face with an enormous mallet. Though its appearance is brief, this snarling, blood-thirsty clown is easily the most memorable zombie in the entire film. Well, aside from Bill Murray of course.
14. The Laugh – Amusement
Tabitha is baby-sitting her two cousins for the night, and of all the possible things that you could collect, Tabitha’s aunt is fascinated with clown dolls. Tabitha becomes particularly disturbed by the life-sized doll that’s propped up in a rocking chair. Later that night, after the boys go to bed, Tabitha’s aunt calls to check in. When Tabitha admits that she’s creeped out by the new life-sized addition to the collection, her aunt tells her that she owns no such doll. Of course, when Tabitha looks back at the rocking chair, the “doll” has vanished.
We can’t say Amusement is a great horror film. It’s brimming with your typical baby-sitting tropes and some less than believable twists, and we’ve all seen enough horror movies to know that there’s a killer hiding in that clown suit. (Poor Tabitha must not have a Netflix membership.) But horror cliches aside, The Laugh is still terrifying to look at. From its elongated face to its giant bow tie and miniature top hat, this clown’s design alone is enough to give you goosebumps.
13. ‘Crazy’ Joe Davola – Seinfeld
So you think you can avoid creepy clowns by sticking to sitcoms? Think again. ‘Crazy’ Joe Davola is a recurring character on Seinfeld who suffers from mental instability and comes to blame Jerry for his lack of success. While trying to avoid running into the deranged writer provides the premise for a number of hilarious scenes between Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, scenes where Crazy Joe is actually engaging with the characters can be quite unnerving.
Joe is an intimidating figure. He works out in his dilapidated apartment alone, often while crying, and develops photos of Elaine that he’s gathered from stalking her. What’s worse, Joe becomes obsessed with Pagliccio – the tragic clown from the Italian opera of the same name. Now disguised as the clown, Joe is able to sneak up on the gang without being recognized, but it doesn’t take long until his dead stare and monotone voice give him away. Peter Crombie’s performance as ‘Crazy’ Joe Davola is so unsettling that even the live audience’s laughter seems scattered and half-hearted whenever he’s in a scene, which really puts a damper on the usually hilarious sitcom.
12. Clown Killer – To Catch a Killer
This entry is far different from any others on the list because it’s based on the true story of John Wayne Gacy, also known as the “Clown Killer,” who was convicted of 33 murders in total and eventually sentenced to death. Though the spine-chilling story of Gacy’s crimes has seen its fair share of adaptations, the most terrifying by far is the 1992 TV film To Catch a Killer.
The story follows Lieutenant Joe Kozenczak who begins to believe that Gacy may be responsible for the disappearances of a number of boys in the area. Unfortunately, all the evidence is circumstantial and Gacy, who is known for dressing up as Pogo the Clown to attend charity events and entertain children’s parties, is seen as a respected member of the community. Brian Dennehy truly committed to the diabolical role, and was even nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries at the Emmys.
11. Happy Slappy – Air Bud
One of the first things we see in Air Bud is a creepy clown-mobile cresting the top of a hill. The vehicle is a busted-up old truck with a giant polished clown head perched atop the cab. The driver, Happy Slappy, is a beer-guzzling dog-abuser who’s on route to entertain a children’s birthday party.
Happy is a disaster of a clown. He can’t juggle, or spin a plate, or even finish a balloon animal without popping it. Instead, he relies on his dog Buddy to keep audiences entertained, and Happy threatens the adorable pooch with a rolled-up newspaper if he fails.
Michael Jeter plays the clumsy clown antagonist in this 1997 family comedy. And though Happy Slappy may not have us screaming bloody murder, the pathetic and abusive clown definitely leaves a lasting impression on younger viewers. The takeaway: get your kid a dog for their birthday party instead of a clown. Thankfully, by the end of the movie Buddy finds a new home with 12-year old Josh Framm, and a new place to showcase his talents out on the basketball court.
10. Hidden Camera Clown – The Game
What’s worse than having a creepy clown doll in your room? Having one that’s watching you at all times. And we don’t just mean that you can feel it looking at you with its big dead eyes, we mean one that it is literally recording your every move. That’s exactly what Nicholas Van Orton is up against in the 1997 film The Game.
Michael Douglas plays Nicholas, a wealthy San Francisco banker who spends his 48th birthday alone. 48 – the same age at which his father killed himself. Nicholas’ brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), gives his brother a voucher for a “game” run by a company called Consumer Recreation Services. The game involves CRS keeping a close eye on Nicholas, and in one scene they tap into his television set under the guise of a news program and start having a conversation with Nick. He wonders how they can hear him – how they can know his every movie. Of course, there’s a hidden camera inside the eyeball of a creepy clown doll with a ventriloquist-like mouth. Thankfully, the doll’s presence is short-lived, as Nicholas quickly snaps the clown’s neck, breaking the hidden camera feed.
9. Pooter the Clown – Uncle Buck
Buck (John Candy) is an unemployed slacker and all-around slob who drives a broken-down Mercury and lives in a shabby, overcrowded apartment. When his brother and sister-in-law have to leave town for a few days, Bucks finds himself watching over their three kids: Miles, Maizy, and Tia. Out of all the John Hughes movies of the ’80s, Uncle Buck definitely has one of the dirtier vibes, and although there’s only one scene that features the drunken clown, it definitely adds another layer of grunginess to the already off-beat comedy.
When Pooter the Clown arrives late to Mile’s birthday party still sloppy drunk from the night before, Buck can’t help but question the clown about his condition. Pooter quickly goes from playful party clown to hostile alcoholic in a matter of seconds. He barks insults in a gravely, condescending voice and refuses to get back into his mouse and drive away. Finally, Buck rears back and clocks the creepy clown right in the nose. Then hits him again for good measure. It’s terrifying to think of the damage Pooter could’ve caused during the birthday party if Buck hadn’t been there to put him in his place.
8. Klowns – Killer Klowns from Outer Space
Plenty of movies have offered audiences a horrific glimpse at what might be lingering in the darkness of outer space. The Thing, Alien, or War of the Worlds may be the first films that come to mind. But if you’re afraid of clowns, none of these alien incarnations come close to the extraterrestrials in Killer Klowns from Outer Space.
This campy ’80s cult classic involves a race of clown-like aliens that invade a small town with the sole mission to capture, kill, and consume its human inhabitants. The filmmakers clearly had a lot of fun playing on people’s fear of clowns – the Klowns crash land in a carnival tent, use balloon animals to track their victims, and shoot popcorn out of gigantic guns. But their most horrific act by far is wrapping their victims up in cotton candy cocoons. Killer Klowns from Outer Space Some has no shortage of bizarre imagery that will make you feel like you’re trapped in a creepy fun-house with no exit in sight.
7. Bicycle Clowns – Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure
A bizarre tale about an eternal boy and his bike, Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure featured a couple of creepy clown scenes in a movie that was already overflowing with oddity. Like a few of the other kid’s movies on this list, Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure may mark the beginning of a lot of people’s clown phobias, especially if you saw the film at an impressionable age.
The creepiness begins at the mall when Pee-Wee returns to find his chain broken and his bicycle stolen. The giant automated clown that he’d secured his bike to whips around, laughing manically at Pee-Wee with the broken chain swinging from his robotic arm. Later that night, while Pee-Wee is tossing in bed, he has a nightmare in which a group of satanic clown paramedics recover his broken bicycle. They perform some sort of bizarre surgery before sacrificing the bike to Satan’s flames. This is all set to ominous circus music within over-exaggerated set pieces that capture the terror of having a nightmare a little too realistically.
6. Captain Spaulding – House of 1,000 Corpses/ The Devil’s Rejects
Unlike a lot of clowns who act more like mimes, Captain Spaulding has a gift for the gab. He talks long and fast and acts more like a politician than your typical clown. Which makes it all the more unnerving when Captain Spaulding seems at a loss for words.
Captain Spaulding made his debut in House of 1,000 Corpses, Rob Zombie’s send up to ’70s slasher films, and two years later Sid Haig reprised the role for The Devil’s Rejects. Zombie is known for making bloody and down-right dirty films, and Captain Spaulding is the summation of his vision. The character’s makeup is rubbed into his scraggly beard, he’s covered in dirt and blood, and you can almost smell his breath through the screen. Spaulding is a member of the murderous Firefly family, and the proprietor of the creepy Museum of Monsters and Madmen. If you ever get a chance to visit, don’t forget to pick up your “Captain Spaulding for President” t-shirt! And whatever you do, don’t tell the Captain how much you hate clowns…
5. The Joker – The Dark Knight
Of course we couldn’t make a list of terrifying clowns without including the Clown Prince of Crime himself. The Joker first appeared in the debut issue of Batman back in 1940, and since then the infamous prankster has seen his fair share of incarnations, from Cesar Romero in Batman the TV series all the way up to Jared Leto in this year’s Suicide Squad. Even though Jack Nicholson’s performances as the Joker in the 1989 film continues to give us chills, Heath Ledger’s incarnation of the crazed clown remains the most terrifying to date.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker is a criminal mastermind and all-around agent of chaos. He taunts Batman and threatens to kill someone every day until the vigilante reveals his true identity. The scene where the Joker send in a self-filmed tape of him terrorizing a Batman impostor seems all too authentic, and the Joker’s voice ranges anywhere from squealing kitten to barking dog. We know the Joker is no more than a man with a bad makeup job, but Ledger’s sinister performance of the deranged clown continues to give us goosebumps every time we watch it.
4. Twisty – American Horror Story
Just by looking at him, it may be hard to believe that Twisty started off as one of the good clowns. He may not have been the brightest bulb in the box, but Twisty loved putting on a show for the kids that came to the circus. But for whatever reason, the circus “freaks” couldn’t stand him, and they eventually drove the clown to the point of committing suicide. But the shotgun Twisty put in his mouth failed to kill him, and instead it left him grossly deformed. If you think he’s hard to look at now, just wait until he removes his mouth piece…
American Horror Story is known for taking an overdone horror trope and turning it on its head. Twisty the clown is the perfect example of this. Many horror movies have given us creepy clowns with unknown origins, but American Horror Story: Freak Show takes us through the process of how a once-pleasant clown can become a deranged killer. And they succeed in creeping us out every step of the way.
3. Haunted Clown – Poltergeist
Poltergeist may possibly be the scariest PG movie ever made. But that’s what you get when you hire Tobe Hooper – creator of the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – to direct a movie about a family whose house is built atop a graveyard. In a film that’s filled with special effects scares – including a demonically possessed television set – one of the creepiest scenes by far involves nothing more than a simple kid’s toy.
When 10-year-old Robbie wakes up in the middle of the night, he discovers that his clown toy is no longer in the chair where he left it. Robbie gingerly checks under both sides of his bed, only to have the now-animated clown sneak up behind him and pull the boy underneath. Legs flailing, Robbie fights for his life as the clown literally tries to strangle him with its rope arms. Poltergeist no doubt made kids (and their parents) start thinking twice about the toys they keep in their closet.
2. Pennywise – It
One of Stephen King’s most terrifying novels, It follows seven friends living in the fictional town of Derry, Maine who are prayed upon by the child-eating clown known as Pennywise. As if the clown wasn’t already creepy enough, the demonic entity has the ability shape-shift and pray upon the children’s individual fears. Hence the title It. The story spans decades as the kids become adults, and it’s one of King’s longest works.
Don’t have the willpower to stomach a thousand page book about an evil clown? The story was adapted into a 1990 miniseries with the always-hypnotic Tim Curry in the title role. Curry’s performance as Pennywise easily trumps any of the grotesque monsters he morphs into, and the opening scene alone where the clown is peering out of the sewer holding a single balloon is already more than some viewers can handle. We can only shudder at the thought of 2017 remake, which won’t have to adhere to the regulations of ’90s television.
1. Cloyne – Clown
Remember the Goosebumps story The Haunted Mask, where scaredy-cat Carly Beth couldn’t remove the Halloween mask from her face? Well the 2014 film Clown has the same premise on a heavy dose of steroids.
Kent is a loving husband to Meg, and father to Jack. When the birthday clown is a no-show for his son’s party, Kent dons a clown suit he found in the basement of the house he’s selling. Little does he know that he’s actually put on the skin of Cloyne, an ancient demon who would consume five children a year – one for every cold month. The suit, wig, and fake nose won’t come off and Kent’s stomach begins to make strange gurgling noises. He develops an insatiable hunger and eventually succumbs to the possession.
The movie was produced by Eli Roth, who even makes an appearance as a clown himself. If you truly suffer from coulrophobia, we strongly recommend staying away from Clown at all costs.
So which on screen clowns leave you feeling creeped out for days? Feel free to start a therapy session in the comments.