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Other View: Scare, clowns, scare

Are you afraid of, a) spiders, b) snakes, or c) clowns? We can't help anyone who chose icky "a" or wriggling "b," because we don't have space to analyze arachnophobia or ophidiophobia. We're here to discuss your fear of clowns.

You aren't alone. Clowns are weird. They're supposed to be good-natured and silly, but, by design, they are freaks. Just look at the size of those shoes! Clowns mask their facial appearance with garish grease paint, frozen oversize smiles and bulbous red noses. They play the role of tricksters. They manipulate balloons. Some are mute. Where do they come from? Who does their hair? No wonder your 4-year-old burst into tears at the circus.

Then came horror writer Stephen King, whose novel, "It," features an evil supernatural clown named Pennywise. King said he created Pennywise after asking himself, "What scares children more than anything else in the world?" His answer: clowns. Pennywise preys on children.

The movie version of "It" is a current box office hit. That's bad news for the clown business, whose jolly owners/operators are crying on the inside. "People had school shows and library shows that were canceled," Pam Moody, president of the World Clown Association, told The Hollywood Reporter, about rising anti-clown sentiment.

Polls have shown many people don't like clowns, or are afraid of them. When two Knox College researchers did a survey to identify the creepiest profession, clowns topped the list, followed by taxidermists, sex shop owners and funeral directors. Last year, there was a spate of alleged creepy-clown sightings: people dressed as clowns jumping out of the shadows, lurking menacingly near schools. It was probably all just pranks, but even McDonald's sidelined Ronald McDonald to protect his image. Clowns are under siege.

The history of clowns provides some important context that may assuage fears. Going back to at least ancient Rome, clowning figures were jesters and pranksters who teased the populace and spoke impolite truths.

In 20th-century America, clowns went G-rated, becoming entertainers at circuses and birthday parties. They reached the pinnacle as beloved celebrities. But the clown figure's striking dichotomy between wholesome and strange made the character an obvious target to subvert in pop culture. The fact that serial killer John Wayne Gacy performed at parties as Pogo the Clown upped the profession's creepiness factor by about a thousand. This season of the FX show "American Horror Story: Cult" features killer clowns. And don't forget the Joker character from "Batman," who was especially terrifying when portrayed by Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight."

So, the verdict on clowns: inherently creepy? Or victims of bad publicity? A bit of both, we think. Clowns are part of a hallowed entertainment tradition. Clowns can be fun. But they leave some people feeling uneasy.

— Chicago Tribune

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