Storm Doris did her best to ruin things but, in the end, only succeeded in delaying the start of the London Fortean Society talk Killer Clowns:Moral Panic and Urban Myth. It was probably apt that proceedings should get under way in such a shambolic, almost clownlike, manner but these descendants of Grimaldi are more funny peculiar than funny ha ha.
I've never been a huge fan of clowns. It's not that I find them scary or even sad. It's just that I've never found them funny or particularly interesting. In fact the recent spate of killer clown sightings is probably the most interesting thing that's ever happened in the world of painted faces, water spraying buttonholes, and cars with the doors falling off.
As LFS host and organiser Scott Wood was taking the talk itself it had more of an informal, chatty atmosphere than normal with guests, even my usually taciturn self, throwing comments in left, right, and centre. After a brief overview of the seemingly new phenomenon Scott looked at some possible forebears. They made for an interesting, curious, and slightly disturbing bunch. It seems that men dressing up in strange clothes so they could scare and threaten children isn't anything new at all. Jim'll fix it for you!
First up were the Mohocks. They were a gang of well-bred criminals in 18c society's upper echelons who, no doubt bored with the trappings of privilege, named themselves after the Mohawk native Americans and attempted, with a typically poor understanding of 'the other', to ape their savagery. They'd go out and get pissed then run around central London, Mayfair mostly, disfiguring their male victims and sexually assaulting women. They cut off people's noses and hands and rolled a woman down a hill in Clerkenwell in a beer barrel. They were like the Bullingdon Club, essentially, but with better dress sense than Boris Johnson.
Unlike Cameron and his cronies though the evidence for their crimes is scant. John Gay wrote a 1712 play about them that never saw the light of day and Daniel Defoe included them in Moll Flanders ten years later but most reports came from the burgeoning Grub Street press. Grub Street was an actual street roughly where the Barbican is now. It seems unclear if Grub Street gave us the adjective 'grubby' but it would be appropriate if it did. In a manner familiar to Rupert Murdoch's tabloids and the dreadful clickbait prose of Katie Hopkins, Piers Morgan, Jan Moir, and Camilla Long (to name four of the shittiest people in the country) it traded in lurid sensationalism. It didn't really matter if it was true or not. Chuck enough mud. Some of it'll stick.
This was what Scott's talk was really about. Scaremongering. How folkloric legends pass on. In the 19th century Spring Heeled Jack 'appeared'. Clad in a tight oilskin garment with clawed hands and fiery eyes he was seen making astounding leaps and breathing out fire. He was spotted first in London in 1837 and by 1904 he'd got to Liverpool. With an echo of the Mohocks so similar it suggests that it was just an updating of the story he was said to have ripped a woman's clothes off and sexually assaulted her on Clapham Common. Like many urban myths and legends it seems Spring Heeled Jack carried out some of his most dastardly deeds in South London. Lewisham, Croydon, and Bexley featuring strongly in the evening's talk.
By the 80s the press's favourite bogeymen were football hooligans. These were very real. I remember, as a teenager, witnessing a pitched battle with the police in comparatively civilized Reading so the shenanigans of the likes of Millwall and Chelsea would no doubt have been far more frightening. Chelsea weren't the elite European superstars of Stamford Bridge they are now. They were a mid-table team far more famous for their 'headhunters' than they were for the defensive prowess of Ken Monkou or the midfield skills of John Bumstead.
It was rumoured there was a branch of their hooligans called the Chelsea Smilers who'd hang around in a white van, it's always a white van, outside schools and when the kids were let out force either a credit card or a knife into their mouth until it cuts the sides open and rips their face into a 'smile'. A clownlike smile in fact. Think Heath Ledger's Joker. These rumours spread around London and eventually made their way to Scotland. Along the journey the team nominally supported by the perpetrators of these crimes was regionally modified to reflect local concerns. Some kids even got a day off school when their headteachers took these threats as real.
The same thing happened with the killer clowns. The first sighting was said to be in Carrickfergus. This particular clown hung around outside the police station with an even more disturbing balaclava (always a strong look in Northern Ireland) wearing sidekick. He stood there holding a regulation balloon and waving at passers by. Not particularly threatening but certainly uncanny.
That's the point with most of the so-called killer clowns. Soon one turned up in Northampton and, not longer after that, they were tooting their clown car horns all around both the UK and the USA. In America they'd often stand outside Wal-Mart. Here they'd be more inclined to loiter by the side of the road or in some bushes looking a bit menacing. Accessories were added for effect. Knives and even, in one case, a chainsaw. A few were seen to chase children but none to actually harm any.
American serial killer John Wayne Gacy may've dressed up as a clown for his day job, as well as painting pictures of them that aren't remotely disturbing, but when he was raping, torturing, and murdering more than 30 teenage boys in Chicago in the 70s he was wearing his civvies. During the killer clown phase the only reported actual acts of violence were carried out in France and Sweden (Trump's gonna have to ban clowns from entering the states now). It's as if, like football, the Europeans perfected something that the Brits had been doing badly for years. Well, Brexit means Brexit and we'll have no trouble here. From now on the only clowns in this country will be the ones running it.
I'm pretty sure Scott would be rolling his eyes at that lame joke and he'd be well within his rights to. He provided a thoughtful, amusing, slightly rambunctious talk on a subject that, like a lot of things going on in the world at the moment, doesn't really make a great deal of sense. Oh, what times we are living in.