Creepy, “killer” clowns cropped up in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and then across the country — drawing community concerns and headlines in the local news. Tim Cunningham, a professional clown, counts himself among those who are not laughing.
“What’s key is that these are not real clowns,” Cunningham said. “They are wearing masks. We use makeup and noses as a way for our character and story to move forward. They are putting on masks to put up a wall…they are using that wall to scare people.”
Cunningham is the former executive director, and current board member and volunteer performer of Clowns Without Borders USA (CWB), a 21-year-old organization that works with charities such as UNICEF and CARE to try and bring laughter to crisis zones. The organization has two missions, according to Cunningham. The first is “resilience through laughter,” to share joy and laughter with those in crisis zones in an effort to restore some level of normalcy to those who might be traveling as refugees or incurred a natural disaster. The second part is advocating in communities, describing what they have seen overseas.
Headquartered in Blue Lake, Calif., CWB does not identify crisis zones but is instead invited to various locations by its partners. The organization works collaboratively with its partners and the fact that its clowns are invited back is a sign of work well done, Cunningham said.
CWB clowns are volunteer performers, with CWB funds used for travel and lodging expenses.
Leaders at CWB have publicly denounced the creepy clown trend. When the sightings starting popping up earlier this year, Cunningham assumed that it would die out just as quickly as it came. That hasn’t happened. In fact, sightings have become more frequent. Cunningham attributes the rise to the social media attention the trend has garnered.
“Creepy clown is not clown. It’s a shame that we even call it clown,” Cunningham said. “It’s people seeking clickbait and attention. I believe that laughter can be life changing. We are trying to make laughter flourish.”
The clown sightings recently led to the cancellation of a CWB fundraiser in Connecticut, organizers feeling as though it was not appropriate given recent events. It has also led Cunningham to tone down the talks that he gives on behalf of CWB, during which he has arrived in full garb.
Cunningham noted that he has visited at least 20 countries with CWB and claimed that a fear of clowns is unique to the U.S. He attributed this to the American version of clowns, which tends to feature unruly wigs, big shoes and excessive makeup. Traditional clowning is more pantomime, more reminiscent of the type of performance silent movie star Charlie Chaplin made famous.
Outside of the U.S., when somebody finds out Cunningham is a clown they’ll ask about his style as opposed to the typical “birthday party” assumptions stateside. Professional clowns have often studied dance or movement and CWB volunteers have often performed on Broadway, Off-Broadway or in opera.
“It’s not something you could put makeup on and say you’re a Clown, clown with a capital C,” Cunningham said, likening it to a person putting on ballet shoes and claiming to be a dancer. “As acting is a higher form of art, so is clown, and I think the big thing with clown is visual virtuosity.”
Room Circus Medical Clowning, operating in its third year, had trouble selling tickets to its November benefit event. There was concern, according to program manager Linda Severt, that the creepy clown trend is having an adverse effect on participation.
“Our current donors are familiar with what we do, support what we do,” Severt said. “To expand, we need new donors. Hopefully this won’t affect that, but it remains to be seen. … It would be tragic to see medical and humanitarian clowns affected by this.”
The organization raises funds for professional stage performers to bring laughter to Seattle Children’s Hospital each Friday. The hope is to expand into other hospitals including adult-care and memory-care facilities, according to Severt, as clowning has been shown to have positive effects on dementia patients.
Hospital staff and parents have remained supportive while creepy clown sightings pile up. There have been instances in which Room Circus’ work has been met with apprehension. Severt referenced a time when she encountered two little boys in the hospital halls during one of the organization’s “clown rounds.” The boys were afraid at first, before warming up to the performers. “In that case, we had to work extra hard to prove that we are happy clowns, not creepy clowns,” she said.
Foundation for Laughter in Dallas, Texas has two primary functions, according to Co-Founder Tiffany Riley. The first is to train and develop hospital clowning programs and, two, to teach math and science through circus arts in schools.
Riley described the creepy clown trend as frustrating and disappointing as the clowns on the local news reports have nothing to do with the art form of clowning that the foundation is trying to support. Foundation leaders have made a pretty clear separation between their type of clowning, which is more character-based and involves minimal makeup, with the over-the-top clowns familiar to many.
Still, some won’t make the distinction and will be afraid of clowns no matter the type. Part of the foundation’s work, according to Riley, is to try to work past that fear. If nothing else, the creepy clown trend might offer an opportunity to turn frowns upside down by giving professional clowns a platform through which to make the distinction.
“The whole focus of this creepy thing that is happening, it’s allowed us to speak out,” Riley said. “More people know about clowning than they did before. There’s a difference and now people might be understanding that we’re not just people who dress up.”