Back when the documentary Killer Legends was broadcast on the Chiller channel, I wrote a blog post explaining a dispute I had with the filmmaker and explaining that I found his presentation to be a bit simplistic and superficial. The movie explored recent crimes that the filmmaker tied to famous urban legends, particularly those of the “Hook Man” and Killer Clowns. In writing about why I didn’t feel that the urban legends had an immediate origin in recent crimes, I wrote that “I don’t believe that most urban legends emerge from specific incidents from the recent past; if they did so, they wouldn’t be folklore and could easily have been verified by the original tellers of the stories.” I therefore presented some precedents for the urban legends in the myths and folklore of the nineteenth century.
Music expert and folklorist Steven D. Winick takes me to task for this in the Huffington Post over this point but much more elaborately on Killer Clowns, and in great detail. (He also posted a comment on my blog post directing me and my readers to the DVD release.) Winick holds a PhD in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania. Winick ignores the context of my blog post and instead takes my exploration of potential avenues of research that Chiller downplayed or ignored in their press release for a definitive academic treatise.
Winick uses his blog post to promote the DVD release of the film and attack me for discussing material related to its claims, but as he briefly notes he’s in the movie and consulted with the producers on “angles to explore in the film.” No wonder he’s so anxious to note where I disagree with him!
Specifically, he takes issue with my claim that there were stories of killer clowns in existence prior to John Wayne Gacy and therefore Gacy is unlikely to have been the sole origin point for Chicago’s spate of “clown abductions” in the early 1990s, which I took pains to note were closely correlated with the release of fictional killer clown stories like It (book 1986; miniseries 1990) and Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988). Winick, however, misses the fact that I was responding specifically to the filmmaker’s Twitter discussion with me over Chiller’s press release about his film and that I had not actually seen the film, which I wasn’t able to get a copy of. Therefore, he criticizes me for not knowing that the film mentions the Joker and other early killer clowns. Obviously, I can’t know what I didn’t see.
I specifically addressed this in my blog post: “I also, not unreasonably, assumed that the network’s press release was correct in saying that the film sought out ‘the true crimes that may have spawned these urban legends.’ If that wasn’t the case, that’s on the network for false advertising.”
Anyway, here is some of what Winick dislikes:
Colavito's post is admirably detailed, but suffers from a form of overreach typical of 19th-century folklore scholarship: stories with any plot point or character name in common are "tied together with a bow," to use Colavito's words, but significant connections fail to emerge. For example, he suggests that the Hookman is somehow connected to killer clowns, because he distantly resembles characters in several 19th-century poems, one of whom has a name etymologically related to "harlequin." The connection frankly seems forced, and he doesn't explain its supposed significance. I don't want to suggest that Colavito is entirely wrong; his analysis complements the film with more possible interpretations, and readers can decide for themselves which parallels are farfetched. But he doesn't provide any convincing reason that the legends can't be inspired by true crimes.
Winick mistook my literary flourish at the end of my original blog post, when I showed that the Erl-King legends (genuine European folklore!) that parallel Hook Man stories in their function of terrorizing young lovers also spawned the Harlequin character which formed the template for the “killer clown” plays of the nineteenth century. I did not claim they were the same figure, only that like Zeus and Dyaus, they share a common origin, however much they have diverged over the centuries.
There is no reason a legend can’t be inspired by true crimes; however, there is every reason that the specific legends in the film were unlikely to have been solely, entirely, or (in many cases) directly inspired by the specific true crimes explored in the film. Was John Wayne Gacy on the mind of Chicago teens in the early 1990s? His crimes would have been more than ten years in the past with no recorded killer clown urban legends in between, while It (1986; film version 1990) was much more recent; the local clown was even known as “Homey the Clown” after the In Living Color character and was said by local kids to be dressed as Homey, not Gacy . Worse, the folklore figure shares almost nothing in common with Gacy: Gacy did not kidnap children, drive a white van, or murder anyone while dressed as a clown. Unlike movie clowns, he also didn’t chase people with big knives while dressed as a clown. These are all imports from pop culture, not true crime.
It’s true that there is no widespread recorded fear of clowns before Gacy, but there wasn’t one immediately after him either. It didn’t emerge for another decade, until It, Killer Klowns, Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the evil clown movie genre of the 1980s: Blood Harvest, Clownhouse, Out of the Dark, etc. This doesn’t even count the evil clowns that predate Gacy, such as the killer clown from a 1969 episode of Scooby Doo and the bluntly named 1976 movie The Clown Murders, starring John Candy. As I had hoped to make clear in my first blog post, the modern “Killer Clown” is an amalgam of many influences: from Gacy perhaps, but more from these pop culture sources, as well as the generalized fear of urban violence c. 1990 and a desire to find a new take on the 1980s slasher genre. Because it can be shown that killer clowns of various stripes predate Gacy—going all the way back to nineteenth century stage plays—to put everything down to Gacy just doesn’t hold water.
That was my point, and I would also be willing to bet that many of the early killer clowns grow out of the stage tradition of violent clowns like Pagliacci (1892), whose distinctive costume was reproduced on Scooby Doo, in the Batman TV series, and in many other killer clown movies, betraying the filmmakers’ familiarity with the homicidal character. The contrast between the clown as figure of fun and the tragedy of a clown committing murder surely left a strong impression.
Similarly, Winick takes me to task for connecting Pagliacci to the Commedia dell’Arte figure Pierrot when the clown of Pagliacci was modelled on a (non-clown) actor from real life, therefore, he says, showing the true-crime origins of even this fictional clown crime. Winick misread my post there: I connected the costume to that of Pierrot, and that distinctive costume was adopted because it reflected the earlier vaguely sinister chaos figure of Peirrot, thus foreshadowing the violence to come in the later opera. It’s the same reason Batman put Cesar Romero’s Joker in a Pagliacci costume in its first episode: It implies an evil to come.
That isn’t a folklore assertion but rather a fairly obvious conclusion from the internal evidence of the source texts—which is out of the realm of folklore and entering the realm of textual criticism, artistic choices distinct from urban legends.
Colavito's biggest mistake is saying that stories inspired by recent events "wouldn't be folklore;" folklore arises from and comments on current events, and such relatively recent events as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have given rise to many legends.
I will admit that the line quoted above was a bit unclear; I did not mean to imply that folklore cannot have a basis in real life, only that the stories presented in the film could not have begun as professed relations of news accounts in the immediate aftermath of the events, since our media-saturated culture (even in the 1990s, when Killer Clowns emerged as a legend) should have made it easy to verify whether such events occurred. This may not be the case, as Winick notes above, but I find it hard to believe that someone could read about John Wayne Gacy and turn that into an almost completely unrelated story of a kidnapping clown in a white truck.
It’s true that real life events like 9/11 and Katrina inspire urban legends. But they’re legends of 9/11 and Katrina, not legends of a vague time and place where somebody heard that something bad happened to some building somewhere and maybe somebody got hurt. Hook Man, for example, lacks this specificity; he is not a mythologized real life event but a mythic figure localized. The Killer Clown is similarly a mythic figure imposed on local conditions in violent, impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago.
Winick doesn’t say anything else about the Hook Man, except to complain, as I noted above, that I say he is “somehow connected to killer clowns, because he distantly resembles characters in several 19th-century poems, one of whom has a name etymologically related to ‘harlequin.’” How one can be a folklorist and not be familiar with the Erl-King, the wicked forest goblin or fairy who himself or through his daughter terrorizes and kills young lovers, is beyond me, especially since Winick participates in a May Day Faerie Festival! My point there, again, was that the idea of a supernatural figure who terrorizes and kills young lovers is very old, regardless of its local expression in rural America in the 1960s. I find it funny that Winick is happy to talk about how traditional material was reused in ballads associated with Jesse James and others but feigns shock at the idea that Hook Man might have older material folded into his legend.
I thought it was amusing that the Erl-King and Pierrot, early parallels for our modern urban legends, share a mythic origin. It says nothing about how the two figures are used in urban legends today—no more so than the Indo-European *Dyeus governs how Jupiter and Tyr later developed—but makes an interesting point about how stories get started, diverge, and combine and recombine elements over time. I’d have thought a folklorist might have found that interesting.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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