We sweat and laugh and scream here 'Cause life is just a dream here — Alice Cooper
When I was a kid, I was terrified of clowns. And when I say terrified, I’m not exaggerating. Whenever I saw a clown, my heart would start beating rapidly, I’d feel my throat constrict and my body start to sweat in a panic, and I wanted to either scream or run away. I remember being so frightened of them that I felt safe marching in parades as a majorette because if I was in the parade, then the clowns who were also in the parade couldn’t approach me to try to talk to me or give me candy.
If there’s one incident from my childhood that illustrates just how frightened I was of clowns, it’s the time that my dad’s cousin-in-law, Bob, came to our house wearing clown makeup. The instant I saw him at our back door, I screamed in terror, raced back the hall to my room, crawled under my bed, and hid there. I scared the shit out of my little brother so badly that he ran with me to my room and crawled under the bed too. Bob, still in clown makeup, came back to my room, knelt down on the floor, peered under the bed and tried to tell two screaming, frightened children who he was and get us to come out, but all I saw was a creepy clown reaching under the bed to try to grab me. It was my worst nightmare come to life. I didn’t stop screaming or come out of hiding until that man had washed all the makeup off his face and it took me a long while to calm down after that scare.
I’m no longer scared of clowns and haven’t been for some time, but I still find them creepy; the same goes for ventriloquist dummies and puppets and, to a lesser extent, mannequins and even some dolls. The episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer titled “The Puppet Show,” gave me the wiggins (to use the Scooby Gang’s lingo) and to this day, I have refused to read or watch Stephen King’s It because I was afraid that it would resurrect my childhood fear and give me horrible nightmares.
Over the years, I’ve pondered just what it was about clowns, dummies, and the like that scared me so much as a kid and I think it was the fact that they’re a grotesque mockery of the human. Dummies, puppets, mannequins, and dolls are meant to resemble humans but they’re not. Clowns, although they’re actual people, wear exaggerated face makeup that makes their features look unnaturally large and phony. To my child self, these things weren’t interesting or cute or amusing but downright monstrous.
Recently, I had a dream about conquering my childhood fear of clowns. I facetiously said to myself, “Well, I guess it’s time for me to finally read It,” but that dream actually meant something quite different and a great deal more to me. I despise lying and deception, dislike phony people, and get particularly disgusted with those who deliberately try to fool, deceive, or manipulate others (really, who are they trying to kid?). To the adult me, clowns, dummies, puppets, and such are a metaphor for the masks that people wear and the very nature of reality, the phoniness and lies that pervade society. It’s a sick sort of reminder that the face that others choose to show to you often isn’t real, that we can’t trust how things might appear on the surface. The message is clear: I need to see the puppet show for what it is—don’t watch the little figure performing who’s trying to distract me, but keep my eye fixed on the one behind the scenes pulling the strings (the true self). I must look closer, deeper, to truly see. If I do, then the truth can never be hidden.
There is another part to this, though. I think my subconscious is also telling me that I need to start outright letting people know that they’re not fooling me. I don’t mean just calling people on their bullshit (the ones who are pretending for meanness sake), but those who show a different face to the world because they’re hurting or afraid or in pain, those for whom the mask is a form of self-protection. Telling people that I see who they really are, that I care, and letting them know that they don’t have to pretend with me or hide from me is even more important.