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UToledo Professor to Explore History of ‘Scary Clowns’ in Oct. 27 Lecture

With its ghostly white makeup and blood-red smile, Pennywise, the child-killing evil clown, is a frightening duality: the friendly face of pure evil.

But the malevolent monster from Stephen King’s 1986 bestselling novel “IT,” and the popular TV miniseries and two films it spawned, is by no means the first clown to terrify us.

Dr. Daniel Compora, an associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at The University of Toledo, will explore “Coulrophobia” — the extreme fear of clowns — and its origins and history in popular culture and real life on Thursday, Oct. 27, on the first floor of Carlson Library.

Titled “Stephen King, Scary Clowns and Coulrophobia,” the lecture begins at 7:30 p.m. in Room 1005.

“Stephen King has had a tremendous impact on the cultural fear of clowns. While he did not create this phenomenon, undoubtedly, his creation Pennywise the Clown, the shapeshifting clown menace in ‘IT,’ certainly is the most recognizable,” said Compora, a longtime King fan who has a book chapter to be released this month titled “Toxic Nostalgia in Stephen King’s ‘IT’ ” and is working on another article focusing on King’s novel “The Talisman.”

“People often point to King and Pennywise as the basis of their clown fear, but there is actually quite a long history of menacing clowns, which have also been found in the lore of ancient imperial China, ancient Rome and medieval Europe.

Clowns didn’t become mainstream in the early 1800s until English actor and comedian Joseph Grimaldi created the traditional white-faced makeup design, he said.

But the truly frightening clown wasn’t from a King horror novel or film.

“The most notorious real-life clown would have to be Pogo the clown — the clown persona of real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy,” Compora said. “Infamously referred to as the ‘Killer Clown,’ Gacy was convicted in 1980 for the sexual assault and murder of at least 33 teenage boys and young men in the Chicago, Illinois, area.”

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