One of the steadfast rules of internet publishing is that you cannot engineer virality. The internet is just too big to ever accurately predict which pieces of writing will resonant in a meaningful way. In fact, it’s often the articles you care about the least that elicit the most enthusiastic responses among readers — and the ones you’re proud of that often fall the flattest.
But when I reported in April about clowns who were worried the new IT movie would hurt their business, I had a sense that I’d caught lightning in a bottle.
The story sold itself: A bunch of literal clowns expressing earnest frustration about a reboot of an beloved made-for-TV movie, featuring the most iconic clown in pop culture history? My MEL colleagues laughed hysterically when they overheard me interviewing various L.A.-based clowns, and verifying their ridiculous clown names. “Humpy Pumpy” got a particularly raucous reaction. The internet is going to eat this shit up like Pennywise snacking on Georgie’s left bicep, I thought.
I was right. The story went legitimately viral — even more so than I had expected. GQ, The Huffington Post, The Onion A.V. Club and even the British newspaper The Independent all re-blogged the article.
The news about the angry clowns hit such a fever pitch that even Stephen Fucking King himself felt compelled to address the controversy. (His message to the miffed clowns was essentially “Sorry, not sorry.”)
It’s not everyday that the most successful writer alive, and the most famous horror writer this side of Edgar Allan Poe acknowledges an idea you put out in the world. Pretty cool, imho.
But then there were the clowns themselves. I must admit, I felt I exploited them somewhat. The humor of the piece stemmed from it being a serious look at an inherently ridiculous subject (clown outrage). But these people were genuinely anxious about the future of their chosen profession, and the entire internet was laughing at their earnestness (thanks, in large part, to me).
To see whether their fears played out as they predicted they would, I re-interviewed some of the clowns to hear how the new IT film has affected the clowning industry in the four months since the movie was released.
Two weeks before Halloween, Nick Kane got a strange request. The woman on the other end of the phone wanted him to dress up as Pennywise — the sewer-dwelling, child-eating clown from IT — and scare her adolescent son.
At first, Kane resisted. “I’m not really that type of clown,” he told the woman. Normally, Kane performs at charitable events and children’s birthday parties as his happy clown alter ego, Mr. Nick. He got into clowning to spread cheer and laughter, not terrify children. Performing as Pennywise would mean betraying his integrity.
But Kane knows that’s not how most people think of clowns. The prevailing cultural perception of clowns is that they’re creepy. Clowns, once beacons of joy, had become avatars of fear — and that perception has been slowly killing the clowning profession, especially after the spate of creepy clown sightings in fall 2016.
Eventually, Kane relented and agreed to the gig. He drove to the family’s Hollywood Hills home dressed as Pennywise, and with the help of the mother, spied on the boy and his friend. The boys were playing video games and screaming, “Kill him!” at the screen, prompting Kane to mutter “Kill” from another room. The boys were spooked — they were under the impression they were home alone, and they started searching the house to make sure that was indeed the case. Once they’d checked the entire house, the mom revealed herself. Her son came running to her, only to have Kane jump out from behind a corner and grab his leg.
“It was hilarious because this kid is screaming bloody murder,” the 34-year-old Kane says. “And I’m dragging him by his ankle. His mom is on the floor because she’s laughing so hard. Eventually I drag him literally on top of his mom.
“The kid loved it. It was so weird to me, because I’ve always been anti-scary clown. That experience enlightened me to this idea that people like being scared. It’s the greatest thing to them, and it’s fun to be the one to scare them.”
People definitely do like being scared, especially when it’s at the hands of Pennywise. Case in point: The big screen remake of IT became the highest-grossing horror film of all time, grossing more than $327 million at the U.S. box office alone.
It was the exact kind of success that real-life clowns originally feared. Clowns have been haunted for decades by the creepy clown motif, and the clowning profession has seen a corresponding drop in participation in recent years. A smash hit horror film about a clown monster who lures kids into the sewers with balloons was the absolute last thing professional clowns wanted or needed.
And yet, clowns report that the film’s success hasn’t had much of a negative impact on their business. “We freaked out too prematurely,” Kane says. “Our fear ended up being much greater than what the effect was.”
If anything, IT has helped the clowning trade. Its massive popularity has afforded clowns a new business opportunity performing as Pennywise, and clowns are embracing the new revenue stream — and warming up to a clown character they once despised. “I’m learning to embrace the scary clown,” says 43-year-old clown performer Guilford Adams (clown name: Gilly). “You gotta kinda roll with stuff a little bit. Typically, I don’t do scary. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that that’s what people want.”
Adams did his first scary clown gig this past year. It was primarily a financial decision — Adams had just had twins and wasn’t in much of a position to turn down work. Plus, the money was good —he was paid $450 to simply answer the door as Pennywise at an adult Halloween party, and then walk around carrying red balloons.
“That party was revelatory,” Adams says. “It was… fun?”
Both Adams and Kane say business is on the upswing again. Last year, amid the clown sighting crisis, Kane was being booked only five times a month. This year, he averaged about seven bookings a month. Adams says he sometimes gets as many as 20 bookings per month, and much of the interest is due to IT. “Either people don’t care about the creepy clown association, or they’re excited to have an edgier, scarier clown,” Adams says.
Kane suspects we might be on the verge of a full-on clown renaissance due to the release of The Greatest Showman, the P.T. Barnum biopic starring Hugh Jackman. “The movie is bringing people back into the circus arts,” Kane says. To wit, acrobatics classes are already seeing new customers because of the film, and that could translate to a renewed interest in clowning, too. “We’re all part of the same community of circus artists. And what’s good for the ringmaster is great for the clowns.”