“Coulrophobia” is the fear of clowns. Thanks to Merriam-Webster, we have a standardized definition to explain the greater public’s inconsolable fear of the red-nosed nemeses. Who invented clowns? And who was the first parent to hire one for their kid’s birthday party? These people must be identified. In truth, there’s no such thing as a tame clown. Even Bozo has distinctly horrific qualities. If you unwittingly found that thing in your closet and opened the door, there is a 67% chance you would experience a myocardial infarction.
It’s no wonder, then, that clowns have become the go-to character for horror films and kid flicks alike. They creepily walk the line between the funny and freaky, providing producers with ample opportunity to leave an impression on their audiences.
In honor of all those coulrophobia-induced sleepless nights, here is our list of the 10 Scariest Clowns in Horror Movies.
Pennywise – It (1990)
Let’s just get this one out of the way. If you saw this as a kid, you have a lifelong excuse for bizarre behavior and mental trauma. What’s worse, when it aired on ABC, the studio determined it should air in two parts and not just one.
The real culprit is Stephen King, however, who remains one of the most prolific horror writers on the planet. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he managed to tackle the clown subject at some point in his lengthy career. He did it with aplomb, completely destroying the word “Georgie” in the process. Through his menacing, clawed and fanged Pennywise the clown (played by Tim Curry), King created a truly frightening character. He almost looks like the bastard brother of Bozo, adopted from an undisclosed location. Pennywise shows up everywhere: sewer drains, showers, daydreams and nightmares. He is to be avoided at all costs.
Billy – Saw (2004)
A clown on a tricycle. That’s exactly what the world needed. Aside from being one of the most egregiously violent and sadistic series in film history, Saw put a twist on the clown clan by adding Jigsaw to the fray.
Billy is one part marionette (with the protruding cleft chin), one part showman (with the three-piece suit), and one part clown (with his generally terrifying existence). The communicant for John Kramer, the “Jigsaw Killer,” Billy carries all of his master’s messages to his victims. He sounds like a voice modulator running low on battery, and yet somehow Billy has become a mainstay of horror merchandise around the country.
More importantly, Billy proves that it’s not the size of the clown that matters. Their general existence is a bane to humanity (just ask any of the unfortunate souls who got trapped in Jigsaw’s puzzle). He may be a foot or two tall, but he could still give Pennywise a run for his money.
Happy Slappy – Air Bud (1997)
This entry is not a joke. Please go to your VHS collection (if you haven’t tossed it) and pop in Air Bud, just for the first sixty seconds. The sweeping ’90s score fills your (mono) speakers and the Disney logo imbues you with the familiar childhood warmth of your youth. Make sure you’re seated for the :40 second mark when a seemingly innocent shot of an open country-road highway is suddenly disturbed by the rising head of a clown. It quickly becomes clear that Air Bud requires parental guidance.
The massive clown head atop a vintage pick-up truck hails the entrance of clowns into the Disney-channel filmography. Ignore the upbeat music. The only sound that matters is the whimpering of the golden retriever in the truck. He’s petrified of the clown boss’ miserable demands and clearly needs to be saved. While the opening credits still roll, we first meet “Happy Slappy” (Michael Jeter) as he is shrouded in smoke and dust. It is a shot straight out of a Wes Craven film, and as the Rolex wearing clown turns Buddy into his polka-dot donning accomplice, he screams, “Hey kids! It’s Happy Slappy time!” No, it’s not.
The Clown in Zombieland (2009)
“Time to nut up or shut up.” This statement, espoused by Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) in Ruben Fleischer’s terrific zombie-comedy caper, should be the world’s go-to statement for clown eradication. In the face of certain doom as the love of his life (Emma Stone) is stranded on The Giant Drop, Columbus faces a mano-a-mano duel against one of the ugliest clowns known to man.
This one looks like Bozo minus the buckets, and surely has the worst case of halitosis outside of Great Britain. When he smiles, the whole world stops and runs the other way. Fittingly, as Columbus smashes the clown behemoth with an amusement park sledgehammer, his nose honks with a disarming innocence. That is, until his face explodes like a post-Halloween pumpkin. Good riddance.
Pogo the Clown – Gacy (2003)
John Wayne Gacy Jr. took humanity’s latent fear of clowns and actualized them all. Having worked at charitable events, kid’s birthday parties and local parades, Gacy brought great amusement to countless onlookers. When in public, he was an entertainer. In private, he was an executioner.
In the 2003 film Gacy, directed by Clive Saunders, the despicable truth of the cruel clown gets the Hollywood treatment. It’s the ultimate horror story. A boy who grew up in an abusive household becomes a perpetrator of the very crimes he once experienced, escalating his fury into a murderous rage that culminated in the death of over thirty people. It is a story of complete and utter mental instability, made all the more grotesque by Gacy’s penchant for clowning around. Take one look at Gacy in costume as “Pogo,” which might be considered his alter ego, and you’ll never look at a clown the same way again.
The Clown Doll – Poltergeist (1982)
Spielberg has done it all. War films, thrillers, dramas and with his Poltergeist screenplay, he even mastered horror. While the film derives its subject matter and German title from the ghosts that haunt a southern California house, and hosts a bevy of traumatic scenes, the eeriest of them all involves the clown doll.
When young Robbie Freeling (Oliver Robins) goes to bed at night, he throws a bell-laden blanket over the clown doll at the foot his bed. Robbie knows what he’s doing, but he’s not the kind of player you want on your beanbag toss team. The blanket misses, and when he wakes up hours later, the doll has disappeared. Within moments of trying to locate the creature, Robbie finds himself getting pulled under the bed. It is a chill-inducing scene that scarred a generation of children.
Everything in Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)
From balloon search dogs to popcorn-blasting guns, this late ’80s entry into the clown canon turns everything you love about carnivals into a weapon. They store bloodied corpses in cotton candy cocoons and use their shadow puppets as vicious, one-dimensional killers.
Sure, the crazy “klowns” are clearly wearing oversized costumes and masks, but knowing that doesn’t make them any more palatable. This is B-movie mania at its finest, and the stunningly inane characters in it make the clowns all the more terrifying. As a general rule, if a malicious looking, make-up caked clown materializes out of thin air, do not encourage it. Don’t wave, don’t make eye contact, and don’t smile at it. The killer klowns always have the last laugh.
The Bicycle Clowns – Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Pee Wee is a fairly happy-go-lucky fella, but even he has nightmares of the miming freaks commonly known as clowns. In director Tim Burton’s fantastical vision, these guys carry blowtorches and move like a Johnny Depp character on speed. When they descend to the underworld, they are unmistakably linked to the devil himself (who unexpectedly yells “Meow!” throughout the scene).
Depicted as his henchmen, the clown carriers bring humans from earth down to hell. In destroying Pee Wee’s beloved bike, they wear innocent looking hospital uniforms, but they operate hypocritically under the Hippocratic Oath. Who do we have to thank for such terror? Tim Burton, of course, who began to set his wacky world-view into action. Pee Wee became Burton’s first big feature-length adventure and will likely not be his last film to employ the evil of clowns.
Captain Spaulding – House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Rob Zombie didn’t pick his last name for nothing. Both in his movies and music, he perpetuates a fascination with the macabre, twisting even the most lightly creepy elements into something genuinely horrifying.
In his film about the homicidal Firefly family, Zombie gives Captain Spaulding (played by Sid Haig) full artistic license as a clown with an axe to grind. The man runs “The Museum of Monsters & Madmen,” which should give viewers a clue about his intentions. The spooky, bald-headed clown wears a frightening Uncle Sam top hat and a Evel Knievel-like suit as he takes his guests on his own personalized “murder ride.” Spaulding revels in the deceased and thrives on “blood, violence and freaks of nature,” and under the tutelage of director Rob Zombie, he only adds to the litany of freaky clowns.
Horny the Clown – Drive Thru (2007)
Supplying a new angle of creativity to the genre, Brendan Cowles and Shane Kuhn’s film Drive Thru makes the fast-food serving clown cinema’s most demonic service industry employee. When you go to Hella-Burger’s for some late night grub, don’t give in to his heckling.
Horny the Clown gets off on murder, especially when it comes to thugs and punks. In Drive Thru, Horny is a metallically clad clown robot that asks his victims, “Want fries with that?” The correct answer is no. Armed with a meat cleaver, Horny specializes in the grotesque. When faced with the opportunity to hide in the fast-food ball pit and sneak up on a few stoners, Horny takes full advantage. The clown knows no bounds. Watching this horror flick will make you respect the food services industry a little more, avoid clowns at all costs, and inspire you to eat healthy whenever possible.
Honorable Mention: Twisty
Unfortunately, the most terrifying clown we could think of, Twisty (John Carroll Lynch), was ineligible for this list, as he is a star of the small screen rather than the large. In American Horror Story: Freak Show, showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk sought to imbue the residents of a travelling “freak show” with humanity. The same can even be said for Twisty, the murderous clown whose crimes keep getting pinned on the local “freaks.”
Twisty originally traveled with a carnival not unlike the freak show at the center of the show, but was driven away by false accusations of pedophilia. Distraught, Twisty shot himself with a shotgun, but only managed to mutilate himself, which he covered up with a wide grinning mask. After that accident, he began kidnapping children to become his audience, which was not taken well by their parents.
There you have it! Which cinematic clowns terrify you the most? Let us know in the comments below!