SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
October 19, 2014

Think It’s the Zombie Apocalypse You Need to Worry About? Fools! Fools!

 

Yes, yes, yes, the youngsters today are all hepped up about what they enjoy calling the zombie apocalypse, the playskool fantasy that the living dead have appeared among us, that their numbers are growing exponentially, and that the horde will soon overtake the planet leaving only a few real living humans to fight for survival amid the growing piles of gnawed bones and gore. Even newscasters are getting in on the game, dropping “zombie apocalypse” references whenever a naked drug-crazed bum bites someone or a corpse vanishes from a mortuary. The concept of a worldwide takeover by shuffling flesh-eaters has been turned into popular recent books and movies and TV series, though few seem to recall it was already done in a way that could never be topped back in 1968. The CDC (whom you’d hope would be spending their time and energy and resources on, y’know, real problems) even published a report concerning the possible spread of zombieism and how it might be contained. All these dumb youngsters and newscasters and epidemiologists are so damn dumb they aren’t even conscious of the fact the actual and for true zombie apocalypse took place some thirty-five years ago, when the undead rolled over what was left of thinking humanity with nary a scuffle, and they’ve been in control ever since.

            Zombie apocalypse? Yeah, Jimmy, it’s old and tired news. You wanna know what the real threat is? Where the real contemporary apocalypse is coming from? Here’s a hint, dumbass: It ain’t zombies, and it sure as hell ain’t ISIS or Ebola.

            In September of 2013, the residents of Northampton, England began reporting a deeply disturbing stranger in their midst. The Northampton Clown, as he came to be known, was said to resemble Pennywise from Stephen King’s novel (and the forgettable miniseries) It, complete with baggy one-piece suit, white face, big red nose, and wild flame-red wig. He didn’t frolic or make balloon animals. He didn’t have a seltzer bottle or do pie gags. At the same time he did not hurt people, did not even speak, and that may have been part of the problem. All he did during his sporadic and unexpected appearances was stand on street corners and stare at passers-by, and if you ask me, that’s a hell of a lot scarier than if he had a chainsaw. Online speculation about who the clown was and what he wanted went a little haywire, with some praising him for livening up the usually sleepy town, and others claiming he’s been seen with a knife and vowing to hurt him if they got the chance. Most residents were simply terrified and hoped he went away.

            The story of the enigmatic Northampton Clown went international within a matter of days following his first appearance.

            According to the Facebook page presumably set up by the anonymous figure behind the greasepaint, he posed no threat and carried no weapons (insisting those who claimed he did were stupid). In fact he seemed fairly lighthearted about the whole thing, but my suspicion was he knew exactly what kind of anxiety his performance art stunt was bringing to the region.

            A deep-seated fear of clowns (known in psychiatric circles as “Coulrophobia”) is not only nearly universal (albeit to different degrees) among adults and children alike, it can also be traced back a century or more, using popular culture as a gauge. Sure there was Pennywise, the demon clown most often cited in reports of the Northampton Clown, but well before Pennywise, knife-wielding clowns were a staple of slasher films throughout the eighties (and serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s Pogo the Clown certainly didn’t help matters). Then there was Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and Shakes the Clown. Over the last four decades alone there are too many examples of wicked cinematic clownery to list, but Christ, go back to the silent era and you can find unbalanced and vengeful clowns in films like The Man Who Laughs (1928), Laugh, Clown, Laugh (also 1928), and my personal favorite, He Who Gets Slapped (1924), starring Lon Chaney as a betrayed clown who employs a circus lion to exact his revenge. He Who Gets Slapped was based on a stage play which itself was based on a turn-of-the-century Russian novel. So it goes back a ways. There’s simply something about clowns that triggers our deepest fears. We don’t know what’s hidden beneath that death mask face paint, and there’s just something about their frantic, desperate joyfulness that threatens to slip over the brink at any moment into a slaughtering rage.

            My own fear of clowns had nothing to do with their portrayals in the movies, but rather an encounter with an angry and frightening clown at a Shrine Circus in 1973. No need to go into details; let’s just say I was scarred. This was only pounded home in the weeks that followed by my dad’s insistence on passing along the reproductions of Emmett Kelly paintings handed out as premiums at the gas station every time he filled up. I had nightmares for years.

            Then in 1992 I took a cue from G. Gordon Liddy and faced my fears head-on, and a fellow journalist friend and I drove to Seaside Heights, New Jersey, to cover the annual party clown convention. They held it there every year, and clowns from around the country got together to hone their skills. We went to clown seminars where they demonstrated birthday party methodology and the effective delivery of anti-drug messages. We talked to clown vendors who sold big shoes and ties and fright wigs and balloons. We attended party clown award ceremonies and watched clown preachers. We were drunk most of the time (it kept the shrieking at bay), and neither of us was hacked to pieces.

            In the process I learned something interesting. I could sit down and talk to a clown in full makeup and remain reasonably professional the whole time. It was a step forward. I asked each and every one of these clowns the same question: “Are you aware that everyone on earth is scared to death of you?” Each one in turn responded with shocked disbelief. They’d never ever heard of such a nonsensical thing before, and refused to believe it was true. Only one admitted to witnessing a child at a party screaming and hiding after he entered the room, but he was a Harlequin clown, the most despised clown-type in the well-delineated clown class hierarchy, so no one took him seriously.

            Either these clowns are lying outright and know exactly what they do to people, are in profound denial of what they are and what they represent to most of us, or they’re simply operating in a different universe. They’re essentially a lost breed as it stands, given that over the last twenty years calls for party clowns have fizzled to dust, as most children want their party entertained by recognizable costumed TV characters, not potentially murderous strangers with big shoes and bike horns.

            Which brings us back to the Northampton Clown. As actual party clowns vanish into oblivion, into a universe in which only they themselves find clowns happy and funny, where clowns only entertain each other, all we’re left with are the evil kind. The very definition of what a clown is has been flipped on its head. By playing into that, by doing nothing at all yet still posing a perceived threat merely by virtue of his presence and appearance, the Northampton Clown told us something about ourselves and the nature of our fears. That’s the nice way of looking at it, anyway, but it’s only the beginning. It’s a bit like saying the latest outbreak of Ebola in West Africa taught us the Western medical establishment was ill-prepared to face a deadly pandemic, and that’s all.

            I suspected from that initial appearance there was something more sinister afoot, that the Northampton Clown was merely a harbinger of the dark times ahead, and the past year has proven me right. After the Northampton Clown vanished (supposedly revealing his identity as a local actor and artist), another glowering clown appeared in another small English town. Then one appeared on Staten Island. Like the first one, these two did nothing but stare at passers-by in cold silence. but then a clown showed up in Brooklyn, and this one began banging on the windows and tugging at the doors of cars in a store parking lot, terrifying the families trapped inside. Another angry clown (this one with a balloon) showed up in Prospect Park. In January, a clown robbed a bank in Florida. In March, another clown robbed another bank in Virginia. Two months later still another clown (this one with a female accomplice in a monkey mask) robbed yet another bank in West Virginia. Clowns have been cited in at least three assault cases I’ve heard about in recent months. And now, beginning in early October, a number of residents of Bakersfield, California, have reported seeing several clowns prowling the night streets. Difference is, these clowns are armed with knives and guns, a few of them firing their guns in the air.

            It’s clear they aren’t content to simply glare at us with hate-filled eyes anymore. The level of violence is increasing, as is the frequency of incidents. But nobody’s connecting the dots!

            Fuck that inane geek “zombie” fantasy—this is real. It’s only a matter of time, days or weeks, maybe months, before heavily-armed clowns appear everywhere—circus clowns, party clowns, hobos and Harlequins—spilling out of their little cars, hundreds, even thousands at a time, and the bloodbath will begin in earnest. So take my advice: next time you see a clown, no matter how innocuous-seeming, if you have a gun, shoot 'em in the head. That's a sure way to kill 'em. If you don't, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat 'em or burn 'em. They go up pretty easy, especially with all those fright wigs and floppy clown clothes of theirs. Otherwise you can kiss this dirty old world of ours goodbye.

 

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