Barnum and Bailey's Toilet of Clown-Infested Doom

I don’t like clowns much, and I can pinpoint my Not Liking Clowns to a specific date and time. It was Sunday, December 26th 1982, at a friend’s eleventh birthday when we celebrated it by going to see Poltergeist. And the moment that possessed clown doll attacked Robbie and Carol Anne in the film, that was the moment I can safely say I lost all Clown Appreciation.

It didn’t help that I owned a clown doll which my mother had lovingly sewn for me as a toddler. “Sneaky” was his name, dubbed for the sneakers he wore on his ragdoll feet. Only when you’ve just watched a jingling, sneering clown doll attack a kid your age on the big screen, “Sneaky” suddenly takes on a very ominous tone.

That evening, it was with new suspicion I eyed the expression on Sneaky’s face and I wondered where I should exile him. First I considered my closet.

Er... no.

And under the bed was no better option. Eventually, I slipped into Grandpa’s room and put Sneaky in his closet. Let him deal with the supernatural clown-oriented phenomena. I would show him that's what you get when you eat all my Halloween candy every year and cheat me at dominoes!

Yes, justice was served.

Interestingly, my friend whose birthday it had been—we’ll call him Joe-- was suffering from a similar clown conundrum.

Years before, Joe’s mom had decorated the kids’ bathroom in… a circus motif. She’d hung red and white striped wallpaper to look like a circus tent, added some other decorator touches and did two things that are burned into my memory…

One was she hung this Emmett Kelly clown doll from the wall. The other was she exchanged the vanity light for a red lightbulb.

To Joe’s mom, it was a cute, kitschy room in a very hip 80s red.

To Joe and I, it was the fiery mouth of a clown-populated hell.

I recall hating to even use Joe’s bathroom when I’d visit. I would hold it for hours rather than spend a minute in Barnum and Bailey’s Toilet of Clown-Infested Doom. The Emmett Kelly was a dangling ventriloquist doll. And he loomed there on the wall, fastened as he was, the hanged man, peering down on us with that sullen expression, glassy eyes, and bathed in blood red light.

I never said anything to Joe about that clown doll until…

Well, let’s zip ahead to Christmas about five years ago. Joe and I are still friends, and I was visiting with his parents, Joe, Joe’s wife and his sister at their house. Somehow we got to reminiscing and the topic of clowns came up. I mentioned Clown Fear as a result of Joe’s Poltergeist birthday extravaganza. Joe came clean to his own coulrophobia, and added, “And remember my scary clown bathroom?”

Well, apparently all those years ago, Joe didn’t like that bathroom any better than I did. And he dealt with it daily.

Frankly, it's impressive he didn't end up in some facility for the very, very nervous, weaving baskets and potholders and twitching every time the color red pops into view. Or an ad for the Shriner's Circus came on the TV.

Anyway, during this discussion, Joe’s mom had left the room and returned with the Emmett Kelly doll. Because, naturally, something innately creepy and fear-inspiring just has to be someone else's prized possession and family heirloom.

So there we were, full grown-ups--Joe married and with his PhD for Pete’s sake, and me about as mature as I was ever going to get--and we found ourselves shouting, “No, oh God, no! Not THAT! Put that thing away!”

Joe’s mom, who had been kept in the dark about the clown issues all of these years, made a surprised, sentimental plea on behalf of Emmett Kelly… “Oh, but I thought he was nice. You didn’t really hate him, did you?”

Ah, but how we did. In fact, it was amazing closure after twenty-some years of disliking that clown doll, to tell it to his face, once and for all, that he'd been no favorite of ours. It probably saved Joe and I thousands of dollars in therapy.

Send out the clowns.

Humor-blogs is a sure cure for coulrophobia. Just don't ask them to spell it.


Alice said...

I loved the description of the bathroom! Red light bulb? Creepy for sure. It would be just perfect for Babycakes who shares your clown fear/hate. (Not that I'm really keen on them myself.)

The first hotel I ever stayed at in Vegas was Circus Circus and I would advise you never to stay there.

Unknown said...

Red light bulb, yep, Alice-- nothing like seeing your entire face glow red in the mirror over the bathroom sink.

I will be saying far, far away from Circus, Circus. In fact, just ONE circus would be more than enough for me...

I SHOULD add that my grandmother COLLECTED clowns... But that is fodder for another story.

Anonymous said...

I hate clowns too!

When I was about four-years-old my dad took me to the circus and I saw an adult clown put a "little boy" clown into a washing machine and toss in a cartoon-sized stick of dynamite.

With a VERY loud explosion the lid of the washing popped open ejecting a cloud of confetti.

The "little boy" clown never emerged and I was traumatized for life thinking the evil adult clowns forced a little boy to become a clown and then kill him...FOR THE AMUSEMENT OF THE CIRCUS AUDIENCE!

It was years before I realized that the "little boy" clown was actually not a little boy at all but an adult "little person."

Unknown said...

Rooster- I can see where that would have been traumatic!

Same issue I had with Willy Wonka growing up, now that I think of it. Many of the bad kids-- Augustus Gloop, et al- just never re-emerged... I figured Gene Wilder had offed them. Scared the bejeebers outta me. :)

Ekim941 said...

Grown men, disguising themselves so they can play with little kids. What's creepy about that?

I should be nice, being a clown takes a lot of effort. Those are some mighty big shoes to fill.

Unknown said...

Ekim- Ba-dum-bump!

He'll be here all week, folks-- enjoy the veal. :)

crpitt said...

I hate clowns, they just don't amuse me at all.

I was made to go up and assist a clown at a friends birthday when I was about 5, he tried to make me join in but I just stared him out. I could tell he hated me :)

They got their revenge when at a fancy dress/talent show thing at a holiday camp the only costume left for me was a clown, there is video evidence but no one will be seeing it!

Unknown said...

Heh- now I have a "Send in the clowns" song parody running through my head... "Stare Down the Clowns..."

"Isn't it rich?
don't you despair?
I'm five but I know you're just a guy
In a red nose and hair
Stare down the clowns..."

I think it would be GOOD and HEALTHY for your counseling work, Claire, to share with us your clown video. Really... We wouldn't mock you... Much.

Good for, um, personal wellbeing, and will make you, er, a better counselor. :)

crpitt said...

Hmmm converting that piece of vhs to digital for my own humiliation?


Unknown said...

We've seen you in a mud-mask, Claire... We've seen doodles of you with green skin and one eye... We've seen you smooching up llamas... just WHERE do you draw the line with these things? :)

crpitt said...

To be honest on thinking about it, if I could convert it I probably would show it :)

Unknown said...

See- now that's more like it. :)

Greg said...

Oh, you people and your clown fixations. I guess I must've been just a wee older when Poltergiest came out, or at least by the time I saw the movie, since it barely registers on my Scary Scale.

I've always thought clowns were kind of fun, though it becomes clear all the time how few people share that point of view anymore. But then again, I've never been to Joe's bathroom...nor had a scary clown doll.

Unknown said...

Do not mock the clowns, Gregoire. They create an illusion of cheerful primary-colored frivolity... and then they swallow your soul. :)

Be on guard, my friend. As you are the Disbeliever in our group here... the Scoffer... you will be Clown Munchies first...

That is how the movies always go, anyway.

Ian Thal said...

As someone who actually is a clown, I've a number of theories about wide spread fear of clowns:

1.) Clowning is a very specialized and difficult artform. There are a lot of amateurs who put on the make-up and the costume but don't understand the skills and start acting-- well... creepy.

2.) A lot of people take the iconography of the clown and try to be "ironic" in the sense of "clowns are supposed to be sympathetic characters! Let's be the exact opposite!"

3.) The fact is that when you wear a mask or heavy make-up, or alter your movements radically, you become uncanny, a good clown knows that he or she needs to be friendly to the audience so that they can relate to the odd appearance-- a bad clown doesn't get that empathy is something that needs to be worked on.

Unknown said...

Ian- you're terrific for posting here and for the thoughtful analysis! (Also, for taking the talk of clown fear in stride. :) ) I think you brought up some really valid points.

I also think a lot of the fear folks have isn't as much associated with clowns themselves, but as a part of a bigger picture-- carnivals of the past were pretty dodgy places, so the quality of the clowns was also dodgy-- and we view it with the image of transience, being swindled, safety problems associated with carnival rides, etc.

Thanks again for your general good-eggishness here.

See, folks?-- Of Cabbages and Kings isn't just making fun of deep childhood trauma-- it's learnin' too. :)

Ian Thal said...


You have to keep in mind that carnival clowns are not the same as circus clowns. Circus is show business. Circus clowns are all about showmanship and giving the audience a great time. Carnivals are all about separating kids from their money as quickly as possible. Carnival clowns aren't really clowns-- they're not actors, not entertainers, they're just people in costumes doing what any other carnival worker does.

And yes, there is a basic contempt that circus people have for the carnival, so I'm quite biased here!

Unknown said...

Hi Ian- I'd imagine much of the general populace probably wouldn't have realized the deep differences between the two- I'm sure it's the automatic assumption that it's generally equivalent which has caused some of the confusion and issues!

Anonymous said...

I didn't get the willies from the clown doll but the dead in the pool area gets me. I already have a phobia about cemetaries and walking on the dead people. Who needs them showing up in the pool!!!!

I've wrote about this on the Cottage Living forum but in college I went with this really artsy cool girl to her aunt's house to watch a movie. Her aunt had this odd sense of style herself and would do each room in a color. I still get the chills from the red rum um red room. Imagine walls, ceiling and carpet in shades of dark red. It was like walking into a scene of a very grusome murder (or maybe a Dexter scene?), another room was blues and greens. Again it was horrifying, like being underwater and drowning. To add to the creep factor, they had a past pet german shepherd stuffed in the tv viewing room. I don't remember the movie but I remember those glass eyes twinkling in the light. It was horrible!!!!

Unknown said...

Chyna- ah, YES! I recall you telling that story!... the stuffed dead German Shepherd.... and the red walls... and you LIKE red, too, under normal conditions. It's amazing how a room can really leave an impression on you. That particular room sounds like a place I, um, wouldn't find relaxing. :)

Tamie said...

Yep, Poltergeist made me afraid of clown dolls too... poor poor Robbie!!

Static said...

Ahahaha! Barnum and Bailey’s Toilet of Clown-Infested Doom, you had me with the title!

It sounds like the scary clown bathroom was just that. Absolutely horrifying. I hate clowns also, they always seem... oh, I dunno... HAPPY. Insanely happy at that and THAT is just wrong. So wrong, in fact I think clowns are wicked evil.

Clownism has to be a mental disorder that can only be treated by tossing them into a padded cell & throwing away the key. I am almost sure if there is a hell, it is over-run with clowns and muppets. Don't forget those mimes too.

Unknown said...

Tkwi- You KNOW how traumatic it's been for a whole generation of kids when we actually remember Robbie's name...

I don't know about you, but I also had issues with him getting eaten by that tree.

Static- I would like to take a moment to defend the Muppets. :) The Muppets never freaked me out, they usually made me fairly happy-- with the exception of one character who was, I guess the "Phantom of the Muppet Theater." He's on my list. CREE-PEEE. :)

Ian Thal said...


A good clown-- and I suggest looking at all the classic clowns-- is never happy all the time. What makes a good clown compelling is that the audience can identify with their outlandish predicaments (look how many classic clown bits are about being bullied or being unlucky in love or involve slapstick violence). A clown who is constantly happy is simply not very good at clowning. Constant happiness is a pretty horrific thing to witness in any situation.


Actually, the Muppets are closer to genuine clown traditions than the clown dolls, or the horror movie clowns that elicit your coulrophobia.

It's not the make-up or the wig that makes a clown. It's what the actor does that makes a clown.

Da Old Man said...

Can I assume you don't want to go to Clownfest at the Jersey Shore this year? : (

Unknown said...

Da Old Man- You mean Clownapolooza? :)

No amount of good ski-ball and salt water taffy is worth the personal trauma.

Hey, I wonder if they come by bus, or they all journey to the short in a really, really small car... :)

Anonymous said...

I guess the clown doll did get me because I can't watch any movie/show where the doll comes to life. That movie about the possessed puppets? I've seen snippets and that is it, no way and no how will I watch that movie. Chuckie is bad too, he looks just like my little brothers My Little Buddy. The one the dog stole and we never got back. I think Joey became Chuckie and boy is he mad!!!

Maybe subconsciencely that movie did get me, all those eyes watching you sleep. Now I'm freaked again! Or maybe it was the doll going under the bed and grabbing him. I'm a lifelong member of the "Boogie Man Under the Bed" club that's all I needed was to see a toy grab a kid and pull them under the bed.

Speaking of red lightbulbs. My mom had one in the pantry in the basement. We already thought Hell was down there in the first place (gas heat) but to make a room that is that creepy red! No wonder the two of us are slightly twisted. ;)

Michele said...

Sounds like your friends mom had a good idea with the bathroom, but picked an unfortunate theme.

I too, am afraid of clowns. There is something so creepy about them. Like they can't be trusted. Somehow after watching poltergeist I don't remember the clown scene, but I do remember being afraid of trees for a short while.

Unknown said...

Chyna- Ah, yes, I remember that "My Buddy" being advertised... I can see a kid could have some issues over one of those things, let alone Chuckie.

And of COURSE the basement was hell. Every kid knew that. Moms really just need to rethink the use of those darned red lightbulbs, I guess. :)

Michele- You too with the clowns. But it's apparently all Poltergeist's fault. Stephen Spielberg seems to have scared the popcorn out of a whole generation with that darned film. :)

Being afraid of trees had to be fairly inconvenient!

Anonymous said...

You're right, what was it with those red lightbulbs during that time period? I'm surprised all of us don't have a nervous twitch. To add to the dungeon of horror next to hell (or better known as the crawlspace and gas furnace) my mom would store potatoes in there and they'd of course sprout. So you've got a room with a red lightbulb, numerous unidentifiable jars of canning and potatoes with feelers.

and yet I love horror movies. Though Friday the 13th makes me laugh now.

Barry said...

Sounds like a creepy bathroom, or one in a whorehouse :P

I don't care for clowns - never was afraid of them - just don't like em