There’re posts that are written because several independent things have pointed the thought in the same direction. This is one of those posts.
First, Reuters via Nursing Magazine reported on a study out of the University of Sheffield stating that children don’t like clowns. The team of scholars interviewed 250 kids between 4 and 16 in an attempt to understand how to improve the decor of pediatric wards. They concluded that clowns are invention of the adults who do not know or care about what children want. In 2005, Ask Yahoo published a response to the question “Why a lot of my friends have a fear of clowns?” in which they mentioned that doctors’ name for the irrational aversion to clowns is “coulrophobia” (this by itself signals how pervasive this phenomenon is), that serial killer John Wayne Gacy used to dress as a clown when performing his gruesome acts, that Stephen King immortalized the evil clown in his novel It (1986), that Johnny Depp had nightmares of clowns when he was growing up and that phobiaologist Kathryn Cillick believes we are afraid of clowns because we can’t gauge their true emotions and intentions. Then, Neotorama published their commentary with a YouTube video of a woman dreadfully clinging to her stuffed animal in the presence of a Mr. Giggles. She was treated for a fear of clowns by a group of psychotherapists. Pop-culture contributions to this topic include Poltergeist (1982), Batman (1989) with Jack Nicholson as Joker, Kevin Smith’s Vulgar (2000), Steve Sessions’s Dead Clowns (2003), Kevin Kangas’s Fear of Clowns (2004) and the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s It on the Sci-Fi channel (via FilmJunk). Finally, Reuters published a rebuttal of the Sheffield study based on an avalanche of e-mails from U.S. clowns. The Clown Care program launched in 1987 currently employs close to 100 clowns who regularly serve hospitals and nursery homes. It has already spread to Italy and Brazil. According to these professional clown doctors who make 250,000 bedside visits annually, the vast majority of kids enjoy their antics, while only a small portion fears them. An ethnographic study of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit that entertains children in New York hospitals appeared in the Medical Anthropology Quarterly in 1995 (available through JSTOR). Authored by Linda van Blerkom of Drew University’s Department of Anthropology the study documented the many benefits to the patients brought about by clown doctors and compared Western clown doctors to the shamans of non-European cultures.
I’ve run across all these media reverberations while reading Andrei Znamenski’s recent The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and the Western Imagination. Interestingly enough, when Siberian and North American shamans were “discovered” by the learned Europeans, they were invariably described as “clowns.” Western rationalism refused to grant any validity to these indigenous medical practitioners. In the West, the singular tribal figure of the shaman bifurcated into serious “doctors” and silly “clowns.” What has escaped the recent media buzz is the fact that the phenomenon of clowns should be studied in connection with the phenomenon of doctors.
Hospitals are places where scientific rationalism rules. It has full control over the matters of life and death. While denied effective medical power, clown doctors are nevertheless admitted to hospitals and seem to be mostly successful in alleviating the young patients’ fear of… doctors. I recall, as I was growing up, I loved circuses and clowns but was scared to death of our family doctor, a sweet young lady, the wife of my father’s army buddy. Indeed, the moment you start coughing, doctors barge into your private sphere, touch you, poke you, make you open your mouth, then they thrust their tongue-depressor (what a name, eh?) into your throat and engage in other kind of abuse. And while doing all these antics they smile and soft-talk to you. How creepy! Jeffery Dahmer in his prison outfit looked like a physician in a scrub suit – an ostensibly normal citizen who started off by dissecting animals.
Like doctors, clowns belong to the world of health and death. The movie Vulgar describes a clown who is socially traumatized: he has no father, he can barely pay for his New Jersey apartment, his mother is mean to him, his friend is a mooch, his neighbors are abusive, then he gets gang-raped by a bunch of inbred psychos who later start blackmailing him. Psychologically, however, he is healthy, pure and a bit childlike: he entertains children, he can cope with his trauma, then he saves a little girl from the hands of a gunman, becomes a local celebrity, starts his own TV show, makes lots of money, makes his mother finally happy, and manages to destroy his violators without actually using his gun.
Clowns and doctors equally attest to a perennial conflict between reason and emotion, science and nature, law and society. Gullible emotions are invited into the world only to be mocked by reason. Fear of clowns is risible; it’s actually funnier than the clown himself. Blind trust for doctors is sad; it may be more dangerous than the disease itself. Emotions strike back by wreaking havoc, turning the world upside down, confusing embedded rational distinctions. Science claims control over nature but in many cases we can’t tell if the reality it portrays is true or it’s simply a crafty simulation.