They’re supposed to entertain us, but they often terrify us. What happens when a clown trades the role of a fool for that of a killer? American Horror Story: Freak Show is currently exploring the creepy clown archetype. John Carroll Lynch’s portrayal of Twisty the Clown, whose clown bag you definitely don’t want to look inside of, has already secured the titles of murderer and kidnapper. Inspired by Twisty’s truly terrible ways, we decided to explore cinema’s creepiest clowns—those who hide something dark under their makeup and are in the killing business rather than the laughing business.
10. The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Tim Burton-scripted Nightmare Before Christmas is affectionately creepy, but if you look closer at several of the characters, there’s some real dark stuff happening in the 1993 animated movie. Remember the character billed as “Clown with the Tear Away Face?” Why is the pudgy clown permanently bound to his unicycle? What does he eat with that mouth full of sharp teeth? And can he please stop giving us an existential crisis when he tears off his face, revealing a black void underneath?
9. The Brave Little Toaster
A toaster, a blanket, a lamp, a radio, and a vacuum cleaner have separation anxiety when their owner takes off for the big city, leaving them alone in a cabin in the woods. If The Brave Little Toaster sounds like Disney’s Bambi for the modern age, you would be right. “The Brave Little Toaster is Blade Runner for children—in truth, there are too many disquieting moments to document, and as many avenues rich for deconstruction,” wrote critic Walter Chaw of the 1987 film. In one scene, the toaster has a frightening vision that involves a devilish firefighter clown hosing his victim. Settle down, Disney.
Six-year-old Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween —who stabs his big sister with a kitchen knife, lands himself in a psychiatric hospital, and returns to Haddonfield, Illinois during a killing spree 15 years later—might be more frightening than the mute madman he grows up to be. When the clown mask comes off, there’s a lot behind those eyes.
7. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
Clowns performing surgery, full stop.
The drooling, zombified clown in Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland inspires Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus to change one of his rules of survival: “Don’t be a hero.” Clowns are one of his greatest fears, but he manages to take the undead not-so-funnyman out, saving Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).
5. Killer Klowns from Outer Space
Cult favorite Killer Klowns from Outer Space combines two fears for the price of one: clowns and aliens. In the 1988 movie, a race of evil aliens who outwardly appear as snarling clowns capture humans on Earth and trap them in a cocoon of cotton candy. It’s pretty much your worst clown nightmares brought to life since the cosmic creeps kidnap people in giant balloons, lure people to their death during puppet shows, and spray people down with deadly popcorn.
4. To Catch a Killer
Brian Dennehy won an Emmy for his amazing performance in 1992’s To Catch a Killer—a TV movie based on the life and crimes of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. After a string of rapes and murders in the 1970s, Gacy was caught when police discovered dozens of victims buried in the crawl space of his home and on his property. He was nicknamed the “Killer Clown,” as he used to dress up in costume for charitable events and children’s parties (shudder). His character was named “Pogo”—and seeing Dennehy in Gacy’s full garb is absolutely chilling.
3. House of 1000 Corpses
Before Sid Haig starred in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, he was a “that guy” actor—appearing in countless films and TV shows. Zombie’s movie made him a mainstream star when he suited Haig up in a filthy clown suit, complete with smeared makeup, rotten teeth, and a bad attitude. Dubbed Captain Spaulding, Haig’s vile clown lures unsuspecting thrill-seekers to the murderous Firefly family in House of 1000 Corpses. Never trust a clown with the tattoos “Love” and “Hate” on his knuckles, à la Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter.
Thank you Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg for the nightmares about this possessed clown doll that will stop at nothing to claim its owner, young Robbie.
Stephen King introduced an evil shape-shifting being known as “It” in his 1986 novel of the same name. The entity appears as a wicked clown named Pennywise who lives in the sewers of Derry, Maine and preys on children. The book was adapted into a 1990 film starring the great Tim Curry in the role of Pennywise—and viewers haven’t recovered since. The killer clown’s bloodshot eyes, razor-sharp teeth, and growling inflection are horrifying on their own, but what really makes Pennywise truly horrible is his mistreatment of the characters in King’s story. He feeds on their worst fears and insecurities, bullying them relentlessly. Curry’s Pennywise made such an impact on the public that most people envision the cruel Pennywise when they hear the words “creepy clown.”