The Disturbing Truth Behind Pennywise

Why Stephen King's dancing clown is so perfectly terrifying...

Pennywise The Dancing Clown
Warner Bros.

Let's talk about fear. Here's a question for you: Why is a clown so scary?

They're supposed to be figures of fun and childlike entertainment. They visit sick children in hospital, they fall over and take custard pies to the face for their entertainment and they provide sometimes delicious burgers and fries at McDonalds. We ought to love them universally.

So how come when it came to Stephen King telling a story that would bring together every scary fantastical figure from horror for a retelling of the Three Billy Goats Gruff fairytale, he didn't choose a werewolf or a spectre for It's most frequent form. He chose to make his literal personification of fear a dancing clown. Not a grotesque, bloodied monster of a clown. Just a clown.

So let's ask it again? Why is a clown so scary? Here's the disturbing truth behind Pennywise and why he's so horrifically effective.

People tend to flock around the idea of John Wayne Gacy's legacy being key to the success of Pennywise's look. After all, the overlap in killer clowns has got to be a fairly small Venn diagram. It's even true that Gacy's look partly inspired Pennywise's design in the novel - just as Ronald McDonald, Bozo the Clown and Clarabell the Clown did - but it's telling that only one of those was a murderer. At least a proven one.

In reality, the impact of Gacy's murderous tale is a symptom of the same fear that inspired Pennywise's chilling impact, rather than a cause. Gacy was more frightening because of his link to clowning. He didn't make clowns more scary. That came well before he did.

The simple fact is that clowns were already scary. When he's been asked over the years why he chose Pennywise to be It's most frequent form, King has responded with the simple statement in various forms that "kids are scared of clowns." When he was asked about the supposed "killer clown" trend a few years ago that caused a media panic but had no more nefarious purpose than whipping up hysteria and fear, King said it again - it got out of hand because clowns are just really f*cking scary.

That's not really enough though, is it?


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