Ryan Kearney: Earlier this month, I came across a Gawker post titled, “Is This the Scariest American Horror Story Scene Ever?” I had never watched a single second of the series, but the thumbnail image was of a soiled and bloody clown, his lips stretched wide to reveal a grotesque mouth of rotting, oversized teeth. Click. Gawker answered its own question in the affirmative. “I’m not one of those wimps who thinks all clowns are scary, but I do think that scary clowns are particularly scary,” Rich Juzwiak wrote. “Scary clowns in daylight? Terrifying. Scary clowns in daylight who will murder you? I pissed myself all over again typing that.” Given this hard sell, the embedded video could do nothing but disappoint. The scene may have been the scariest one ever on this FX show, but it was too campy to cause any loosening of the bladder.
But it made me miss the clowns that paralyzed my larynx when I was a young boy in the ’80s—from the toy clown in Poltergeist to the real-life clown John Wayne Gacy, who murdered more than 30 people—and it made me wonder why there have been so few frightening clowns of late. Is it that the famous clowns of the past 20 years, The Simpsons’ Krusty and the Insane Clown Posse, have rehabilitated the clown as a humorous character (intentionally or otherwise)? Or is it that clowns just aren’t hip enough for today’s horror auteurs? Whatever the cause, there’s no doubting that when it comes to horror archetypes in American culture, the clown has been supplanted by the zombie. And that’s a shame for one simple reason: Zombies aren’t scary.
Hillary Kelly: Well, you’re right about one thing (yes, only one thing)—that “American Horror Story” clip didn’t remotely live up to the hype. Not even close. The entire scene was more infuriating than terrifying. First of all, it played on the oldest horror trope in the book: Girl and Boy Head to Lonely Local Spot to Make Out, Are So Stupid They Get Themselves Killed. Secondly, the characters’ interactions with Twisty (that’s apparently the clown’s not-at-all scary name) were so baffling they had me screaming at the screen in horror that such abysmal writing was allowed to appear on what used to be one of the most bone-chilling TV shows of all time. Now, this isn’t to say that no clowns are scary. Would I want a clown figurine peering down from a shelf in my bedroom while I slept? No way. Do I think it’s completely bizarre and inappropriate that something called Brushy the Clown was meant to encourage good dental hygiene in me as a child? Absolutely. Would I positively lose it if a clown rang my doorbell late at night while I was home alone? Hell yes. But the clown thing is played out. It hit its peak in Stephen King’s It (which my mother let me read in 6th grade for unknown reasons-thanks Mom!). And It was nightmarish more for the whole syphilis-spreading subplot than anything else. Of course zombies have supplanted clowns as the figures most likely to haunt your dreams. And there are at least 3 reasons why: 1. Clowns just murder you; zombies aren’t so generous. They turn you into some hellish version of what we all sometimes imagine ourselves to be: Lame, unthinking machines programmed to roam the earth in misery. 2. They pretty much always cause the apocalypse. That’s a 2-for-1 horror package right there. 3. Zombies aren’t representative of some “other” figure like clowns are. They’re us. They’re humans. They’re just the very worst versions of what we could be.
RK: Clowns aren’t humans? John Wayne Gacy’s victims beg to differ. Zombies may represent the unthinking office-drone masses, but every single human can relate to a clown: We have all smiled to hide our sadness; we have all cracked jokes when we’d rather cry. That’s a bit maudlin, admittedly, but there’s a reason one of the great pop songs of the twentieth century was about a sad clown, not a sad zombie.1 Depending on the character and narrative, clowns can elicit happiness, sadness, fear, tragedy—and in that way, they embody the spectrum of mankind’s most essential emotions. Zombies evoke existential dread at best; usually, just malaise.On a more literal plane—and this is one thing “American Horror Story” got right—clowns are scarier because they will kill you when you least expect it. As thinking, murderous humans, they appreciate the element of surprise, using their hilarious reputation to lull their victims, whether they be adult or child. Then, wham: a bowling pin to the head. Zombies, on the other hand, never surprise their victims—and thus, the viewer. You can spot them coming from a mile away, always trudging in great numbers down the street or across a grassy field. Anyone with legs can outrun them. If a zombie somehow kills you, then you deserve to be (un)dead.
HK: It sounds like we agree about the general theory of our fears: Killer clowns and lurching zombies are both ugly versions of humanity, and that’s why they scare us so much. No philosopher will disagree with us there.But, boy oh boy are you wrong about why we fear zombies. Yes, an isolated biter is an easy mark. One sharp stick to through the temple and into the brain will take a walker down in seconds. But the individual zombie is not the real objet de la peur. Heck, the pack of lurching, moaning, chomping zombies isn’t even what we really fear—it’s the quick, catastrophic spread of infection on a magnitude that comprehensively alters the structure of society. What we’re afraid of is the fact that modernity has removed us so far from the original sources of our basic needs. (How many of you could actually grow wheat and turn it into bread on your own? Or build a safe, stable dwelling? Or start a freaking fire?) The masses (and I’m talking about myself here) are utterly dependent on a complex web of corporations, people, and infrastructures to simply get us our morning coffee. How the hell would we survive—and thrive—if all of that was suddenly wiped out and we needed to string up tin cans around our forest forts to alert us of nighttime zombie intruders? Four and a half seasons into “The Walking Dead,” the zombies have become mere accessories to the plotline. Every once in a while they pop out and take a bite out of a beloved character (R.I.P Bob). They’re a menace that hovers in the background and keeps the group on the move. But the damage has been done, humanity has been irreparably destroyed, and the real fear for the characters (and for us) is that life is just survival, and nothing more. And that is what keeps me awake at night.
RK: Are you genuinely scared of such a world? The post-apocalypse looks pretty damn exciting to me. If half of cable TV is any indication, I’m not alone in secretly wanting to be challenged in that most elemental way, to see if I can hack it in such a coldly Darwinian world—literally, whether I can hack others to death before they do the same to me. I probably wouldn’t survive! But it’s not such a terrible way to go out: I also don’t think I’m alone in secretly wanting to be one of the last humans on Earth, to be there when the lights go out. After all, the worst thing about dying is that—contrary to what many religions claim—you don’t get to see what happens next. But being extinguished along with our entire species would ensure that I don’t miss, say, private space travel that costs as little as the Delta Shuttle—or, less ambitiously, a maglev train between D.C. and New York.But we’ve gotten off track (as it were). Let us return to the fear of the thing itself: clown or zombie? Earlier, when I bemoaned that the latter had supplanted the former, I was referring strictly to pop culture—in movies, TV, and perhaps even music. But clowns, as any parent can tell you, haven’t gone anywhere. The police would concur: There’s been “a strange phenomenon of fake, evil clowns terrorising passers-by spreads in France,” AFP reported Monday. “Complaints have poured in recently over ‘armed clowns’ wreaking havoc in various parts of the country, and police have detained several people dressed as the pranksters—some carrying pistols, knives and baseball bats. The phenomenon has even prompted anti-clown vigilantism, forcing police to try to quell the hysteria by saying there have only been a few sightings of the terrifying clowns.” Among the theories for the violence: “a recent episode of the popular TV series American Horror Story featuring Twisty the killer clown.”That’s as convincing evidence as you’ll find that clowns are generally considered to be scarier than zombies. “The Walking Dead” inspires no such real-life horror. At best, it suckers fans into dressing as zombies for promotional stunts that passersby regard, appropriately, not with fear but indifference.
HK: First of all, don’t sell yourself short, Ryan. You’re tough. I think you’d make it at least a few weeks in the post-apocalyptic world before a writer who’d been briskly edited a few too many times would see his chance and take it...
Yes, I’ve read about those clowns, too. The media is falling all over itself to write about every weirdo with a face-makeup kit and floppy shoes who’s taking advantage of “American Horror Story”’s lame-o plot to wander around backyards and get their jollies. But there’s a right-quick fix for those cases when you glance out the window and see Bozo holding court with a knife on your picnic table: lock the doors, call the police, and hide. If you look outside and see a horde of bloody-eyed, slow-moving neighbors with bits of flesh and clothes between their teeth, I doubt the police can do much to save you.