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Terrifying criminal clowns

There’s good reason that a lot of people find clowns frightening.
Photo by Social Cut on Unsplash images

Clowns. Fun children’s entertainers in flamboyant costumes and wacky make-up utilising slapstick and pranks to delight everyone who watches them and their barmy antics. That’s how they’re seen, right...?

Well, no. Of course not. That’s not how anyone views clowns. Not anymore, at least. Years ago, these zany circus fools were legitimate sources of fun, with jesters and harlequins and the like being the cornerstone of any good banquet. But over time, clowns have come to be synonymous with creepiness and can cause, in some folk, downright terror.

Coulrophobia, it’s called. A fear of clowns. A lot of the less common phobias are often termed ‘irrational’, but there’s good reason that a lot of people find clowns frightening.

'They're unnatural,' phobia specialist Adam Cox says. 'We know they’re human, but they don’t look like normal humans. The face paint hides their facial expressions so we can’t read their emotions.'

It’s a known phenomenon, it’s called ‘The Uncanny Valley’. It basically explains why we’re so freaked out by things that are kind of human, but kind of aren’t. Clown make-up distorts the face until it almost becomes ‘other’. But it’s still fundamentally human.

Of course, Stephen King’s IT hasn’t helped. Films, books, TV and other forms of pop culture have successfully latched onto the clown’s inherent eeriness. Let’s not forget that hip-hop has an entire posse of insane clowns, for crying out loud.

The angle that we’re most interested in though is, understandably, the criminal. There’s a long-standing and extremely unsettling bond between clowns and crime. Let’s explore it here, starting with the most infamous clown in the annals of true crime…

John Wayne Gacy aka Pogo the Clown

Springfield Illinois’ Man of the Year 1964 was a popular community leader, a local chairman for the Democrat Party, a successful building contractor and an all-round well-liked guy. He was a children’s entertainer at the weekends called ‘Pogo the Clown’ too. Oh, and he was also one of the world’s most notorious and vicious and predatory serial killers.

John Wayne Gacy would often don a big red clown suit and perform at charity events or at fundraisers for hospitals and the like. He’d gotten into it via some friends at his ‘Loyal Order of Moose’ club (basically a budget Freemasons lodge). There was a ‘Jolly Joker Clown Club’ where some of the men would take turns dressing as a clown for events. Gacy joined up and thrived. He had two clown personas, his jovial ‘Pogo’ and his more serious ‘Patches’ character.

During the years that Gacy dressed as a clown at local parades and to raise money for new hospital units, he kidnapped, abused, tortured and murdered 33 young men and boys.

Before his death in prison in May 1994, Gacy painted dozens of surprisingly artistic self portraits of him in clown guise, some of which are worth quite a lot of money and sit in serial killer memorabilia (‘murderabilia’) collections. A sizable amount were acquired and burned in a large bonfire by a collection of Gacy’s victims’ loved ones.

The Viral Clown Panic of 2016

It was commonly referred to as the ‘Killer Clown’ fad, trend or craze. No one was being slain, though - so the moniker was hyperbolic to say the least. The story was no less odd for it, however.

Its true genesis is hard to trace with any real accuracy. But in Autumn of 2016, people started reporting ‘evil clowns’ popping up, jumping out and scaring townsfolk. All over America and Europe. Some early examples could be explained away, with marketing for short films and YouTube prank video creators being responsible. But soon, ‘killer clowns’ were everywhere…

'It's a volatile mix of intense feeling and contagion via social media that spreads the idea of participating in an emotionally charged behaviour to such a large population that even if a tiny percentage of its viewers wish to mimic it, we’re bound to see instances of it far and wide.' That's how Aaron Balick, a psychotherapist and author of the book The Psychodynamics of Social Networking, explains the bizarre trend.

In retrospect - and in the wider context of crime - this may seem rather daft and twee. Maybe even comical. The simple fact is, though, it’s harassment. Scaring the bejesus out of young children, the elderly and vulnerable people is about as amusing as clowns themselves. In other words - not very funny at all.

What is it about sickeningly perverse clown criminals and the city of Springfield in Illinois? The place has a population the same size as Winchester, yet it’s been home to the two of the very worst clowns the world has ever produced.

Springfield’s Klutzo the Clown (real name Amon Paul Carlock Jr.) makes The Simpsons’ Springfield clown Krusty look like an anointed saint by comparison. We’ll get onto just why shortly. First, let’s continue the theme of shared names and unfortunate comparisons…

Somewhat oddly, there wasn’t just the one ‘Klutzo the Clown’ in the state of Illinois. As poor old Jerry Kautz found out to his cost. ‘My heart sank,’ Kautz said. ‘And I thought I'm just going to have to bury him. Klutzo is going to have to go.’

Kautz was forced to ditch his harmless Klutzo alter ego after receiving scores of abusive emails and letters, some even threatening his life. The reason? Carlock Jr., Kautz’s clown namesake, was arrested on his return from a performing trip to the Philippines. The charges brought against the ex-cop and church minister? Child molestation and the production and distribution of child sex abuse images and videos.

‘I'm really sad about it,’ Kautz said shortly after Carlock's 2007 arrest and the trouble that followed. ‘Klutzo has been a part of my life for 24 years,’ he said. ‘If Carlock was charged with something like shoplifting, that would be different. But child pornography...?’

We feel sorry for Mr. Kautz. Although we feel more sorry for Carlock’s young victims.

Sheila Keen-Warren - Killer Clown?

May 26th, 1990. Wellington, Florida. Marlene Warren answered the door with a fright. Standing there was a clown, holding a large bouquet of flowers and a couple of Snow White balloons. Terrifying, eh? Well, it gets worse. A lot worse.

The clown was also holding a gun. Before Marlene could get a sense of the situation and the danger she was in, she was shot twice at point blank range. She died in hospital two days later.

Rumours of affairs and a relatively big life insurance payout initially put the victim’s husband Michael Warren in the frame, but police found no evidence that he was behind the mask.

In 2017, a woman named Sheila Keen-Warren was arrested. Held on bond with ‘no reliable physical or testimonial evidence’, according to her lawyers, Keen-Warren (who had married Michael Warren some years before) remains in jail, awaiting trial.

So, then. Clowns… It looks like we were right to be suspicious of them all along.