They're Ba-ack!

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Creepy clowns are back, and Hollywood is counting on them to deliver big box office after what appears to have been a slow summer for the movie industry—at least according to the L. A. Times.  I've visited this territory before in this blog, but between the recent release of It, the cinematic version of the Stephen King novel by the same name, and all the recent hoopla over Insane Clown Posse and their "Juggalo" followers, I thought it would merit a second look.


If you've never heard of Insane Clown Posse, and think that Juggalos must be some sort of children's breakfast cereal, you're forgiven.  This is one of those many corners of popular culture that, somehow, young folks always seem to be in on, but which tends to be under the radar for the rest of us.  Not that Insane Clown Posse is anything new: they're a rap act that has been around since 1989, specializing in a genre called "horror core"—think Marilyn Manson meets Twisty the Clown.  And Juggalos are horror-core fans that follow performers like Insane Clown Posse around and hold mass participation events of their own—think Gothicised Deadheads in creepy clown suits at a Trekkie convention.

So what is it with It, and all this clown stuff?  What is the significance of this fad that appears to be edging into a trend?  Well, to begin with, it's less than sixty shopping days till Halloween, so that's part of the explanation—according to the First Law of Popular Culture (which I have just invented): viz., A fad that has made money will continue to be milked for more money until it is obliterated by a new fad that makes it look hopelessly outdated while retaining its essential appeal.  Applied to the present instance, we might say that just as zombies flocked in where vampires began to fear to tread a few years ago, creepy clown stock appears to be rising now that zombies are beginning to look rather old hat.  But is there anything more to it all?


In attempting to widen the semiotic system in which we can situate the creepy clown phenomenon in order to interpret it, I've found myself considering the peculiar similarities between the Juggalos of today and the Skinheads of yore.  Interestingly, both have working-class origins, along with highly stylized fashion codes and preferences for certain kinds of music (of course, this is true for just about any popular cultural youth movement).  More significantly, both have divided into what might be called malignant and benign camps.  That is to say, one set of Juggalos is at least accused of having the characteristics of a street gang, while the other appears to be as harmless as run-of-the-mill cosplayers.  Similarly, while the classic Skinhead liked to toy around with neo-Nazi and other fascist displays, an offshoot of the movement—sometimes referred to as "anti-racist" Skinheads—has adopted the fashion-and-music tastes (more or less) of fascistical Skinheads while embracing an anti-fascist ideology. 


All this gets me thinking, because if we expand the system we can find two other popular cultural trends that the creepy clown phenomenon—along with its Juggalo cohorts—shares with the Skinheads: an obsession with costumed role playing mixed with a fascination with violence (even if only in play), whether in the form of horror (Juggalos) or of hob-nailed mayhem (Skinheads).  In this respect (costume drama-cum-cruelty), we may as well include Game Of Thrones in the system, for here too we find elaborate costuming wound round a mind-numbing level of violence.  It's as if Harry Potter grew up to become a warlord.


Well, so what?  If popular culture appears to be filled with elaborate expressions of violent cosplay, it's just play-pretend isn't it, a distraction from the horrors, or boredom, of everyday life—what Freud called "civilization and its discontents?" And Stephen King is hardly alone in making a fortune off the perennial appeal of Grand Guignol.


But then I start thinking about the violence-obsessed costume drama that took place on the campus of the University of Virginia, where khaki-clad and polo shirt sporting crowds of young men marched torches in hand in a studied recreation of Hitler's brown-shirt demonstrations.  Was this some sort of political cosplay, a "let's play at Nazis" display for those in the crowd who weren't "official" members of the Klan and the American Nazi Party?  I really don't know.  I'm not sure that anyone knows just how many genuine Nazis there are in the country, as compared with the play actors who are getting a kick out of trolling their classmates.  But playing at horror has a way of familiarizing it, of moving it from the fringe to the center, and I can only hope that we haven't gotten to the point where the line between play-pretend and deadly-earnest has become so blurred that the true horrors may descend upon us.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.