Durham County

Killer clown breaks box-office records. Why real clowns say they won’t see ‘It’

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bill Skarsgard in a scene from "It."
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bill Skarsgard in a scene from "It." AP

Fear of clowns – coulrophobia – is a genuine psychological phenomenon, brought to the fore this weekend by the film “It,” based on the Stephen King novel.

Breaking box office records, the President of Worldwide Marketing and Distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures Sue Kroll announced, the film made made $123.1 million during its opening weekend – the best horror film opening in history. Morevoer, “It” had the biggest September opening weekend ever, for any movie of film genre.

UNC Chapel Hill psychology professor Jon Abramowitz said a fear of clowns is like most phobias in that if it’s going to appear, it is most likely going to develop in childhood.

“Clowns on one hand are humans. But they can be unpredictable,” Abramowitz said. “I would say it’s the unpredictability that causes the fear. Clowns wear these costumes. You can’t really see their faces.”

Looking at a clown, you see a clown’s face.

David Bartlett of Durham has made a career out of portraying the clown Mr. Rainbow.

“It’s confusing what their real emotion is,” Abramowitz said.

That face expresses an emotion so exaggerated feeling is blown into hyperbole – a caricature of human sentiment.

Some clowns grin and giggle to the point that a child, teenager, or adult may perceive them as laughing maniacally.

But, sometimes, clowns frown.

Because, often, professional clowns disagree with the villainous, killer-clown characterizations pop culture depicts in movies, like those based on King’s novel.

Set in Maine, “It” opened in cinemas Friday and centers around Pennywise the Dancing Clown terrorizing of a crew of youngsters into their adulthoods.

It made a huge splash on its opening night Friday. According to The Hollywood Reporter, it grossed $51 million in ticket sales opening night, the biggest opening ever for a horror movie or for a film which premiered in September. It was expected to haul in more than $100 million on the weekend.

The Hollywood Reporter added: “New Line and Warner Bros.' film adaptation of Stephen King's novel is jolting the domestic box office back to life after seven straight down weekends, resulting in the worst summer in recent memory, as attendance fell to a 25-year low.”

Hometown clown

Based in Raleigh, Tricha Cotton Dean has performed across the Triangle as Cotton the Clown for decades.

When audiences invariably ask if she’s seen “It,” Dean said, “Ooo. Pennywise? Oh, yeah. Mmm, he’s a cutie.”

Dean graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts without any intention of being a clown.

She prefers intellectual humor over slapstick and did musical programs for kids at museums, libraries, schools and on the coffee shop circuit, she said.

After four or five months though, she found her offered family entertainment sold much better when she packaged herself as a clown.

But, Cotton the Clown stopped painting her face white years ago.

“I do not understand the origin of that fear,” she said. “It’s just. It’s got to be, really? Very? What’s the word I’m trying to think of … it’s like … it’s real, basic.”

That base terror must stem from a repulsion ingrained into the bedrock of such psyches, she said.

Cotton lost her makeup forever after a day spent performing at a street fair in Wake Forest during the mid 1990s.

That day, Cotton clowned down the street encountering a 75-year-old woman, who upon seeing Cotton the Clown – in full white cosmetic, red-lipped glory – panicked, screamed and with unusual agility for a woman her age, threw herself behind her companions.

“There are people who like clowns and ones that don’t like them,” Dean said. “I think there are certain people, for one reason or another, develop this fear of not being able to see a person’s real hair and real face. I wish I could help them.”

Clown cure

Abramowitz once helped cure a man of clown phobia.

Phobias are treated with Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) which primarily involves repeated confrontation with the stimuli of fear.

Working in Philadelphia in the late 1980s, Abramowitz employed CBT to help a patient overcome his clown fear, by first starting with pictures. The patient was made to repeatedly view magazine photographs of clowns.

Next, a birthday party clown was booked for a therapy session.

Abramowitz said his patient showed classic fight-or-flight symptoms.

The clown entered the treatment room. The patient’s heart pounded as he gripped his seat. His breath quickened and shortened. An urge to flee the room mounted in the patient until the storm of anxiety climaxed and calmed.

After a while, the sight of the clown didn’t bother him so much. So during his next session, the psychologist and patient visited a clown show, Abramowitz said, and eventually the phobia subsided.

Class clowns

University of Virginia Department of Drama Professor Emeritus of Circus History LaVahn Hoh taught the only college accredited course in America on the history of the American circus for 32 years until his retirement.

Since the debut of the “It” miniseries in 1990, students have perennially told Hoh they were afraid of clowns because they saw it.

“To me, what it’s doing is making it difficult for clowns, who have tremendous backgrounds and who are very good – whether they’re birthday party clowns or however they are working,” Hoh said, “making it very difficult for them to get work.”

There were no scary, mean, killer, viciously hissing, psychopathic clowns in the traditional American circus.

“No. Nooo-oh-oh-noo. Clowns were friendly,” Hoh said. “They were wonderful people.”

Modern clown get-ups and personalities trace their ancestry back to the Italian Commedia dell’arte and Harlequin, its most famous zanni or comic servant characters, which have their roots in the 16th century

“In modern day clowning, you have a white face clown and in Europe that would be the authority figure,” Hoh said. “Then, you have the Auguste clowns. The ones with the baggy pants, crazy hairdos and large shoes. Augustes take the pies in the face and other prat falls.”

The professor believes that when you look at a clown, the clown is reflecting something from society.

“You have the tramp clown,” Hoh said. “During the days of the Depression, people could relate to those clowns. What they did in the circus ring, people out in the audience might say, ‘Yeah, I know about that.’”

Between spring and fall semesters at UVA, Hoh taught the history of clowning at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and the first thing clowns were taught there was “Let the child discover you. Do not go up to the child,” he said.

Because when a big person with big, crazy buttons approaches a little tyke and says “Hey, how ya doing?” Hoh explained. “You’re going to have nothing but a dirty diaper to deal with.”

Well-intentioned parents may cause as much clown trauma as clowns themselves, he added.

“Parents will drag a child to see a clown and say, ‘Meet the clown. Cause they’re Funny! Funny!’” Hoh said. “Well, funny is not in That! Voice!

Only once in 32 years, did Hoh teach a class in which no UVA student raised a hand after the professor posed the question: Is anyone here afraid of clowns?

Funny business

The 1980s were a golden age for birthday clowns.

David Bartlett left the Navy and moved to Durham with his wife and two children in late 1980. The couple started looking for jobs but David didn’t find one quickly.

He sat around the house and “drove his wife crazy,” he said, until she signed him up for a balloon animal course through N.C. State University to get him out of her hair.

“I thought that was the dumbest thing she’d ever done,” Bartlett said.

But one thing led to another and David began making up his own balloon animal designs. Eventually “I became quite famous for the balloons,” he said. “I had a series of 19 mostly balloon videos, and there were some clown entertainment videos.”

Bartlett became Mr. Rainbow – a clown. After the videos were filmed and sold he made enough money and gained enough recognition that never had to work again – without wearing a red nose.

“Clowning is taking anything that happens and turning it into a humorous opportunity,” Mr. Rainbow said.

Mr. Rainbow is bothered by representations of clowns as evil, because, Mr. Rainbow is “bothered by any clown that isn’t funny.”

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks