Saturday, May 15, 2010

Clowns...Beware! (Short Story Included)

I can remember being 4 years old and going to the circus in D.C. I remember the excitement of music, the animals dancing in the arena, and the cotton candy. I also remember the moment the clowns came out, I tensed up and when one came near me, I became downright hysterical.

Why do clowns frighten us so much? Humans from the age of babies and throughout life look to facial expressions to understand moods and make decisions about people on a moment’s notice, but when a clown has painted on a frown and tear and yet is doing frolicking acts in front of us, something doesn't jive. It's those signals when things don't add up that make us tense and become more sensitive to other cues to verify our "gut" reaction.

I wrote a short story based on the fear of clowns and I will share it with you. A word of warning, I love twist endings…

“Cotton Candy, Carnivals and Clowns”

“Your assignment is to go out and do one thing alone this week. Shopping doesn’t count. You have to actually go to a place made for recreation and be seen alone. It can be a restaurant, a museum, whatever sounds good. But,” Ruth’s therapist emphasized, “it must be some place you would never normally go with or without someone. You need novelty.”
Ruth clenched her fingers into her purse on her lap. “You mean like going to a car show or something like that?” She must have made a look of disgust because Jeremy laughed.

“Yes. Something like that. What’s going on this weekend?” He asked and picked up a paper and started to shuffle through it.

“I-I’ll find something.” She assured him.

“Do you understand why we’re doing this, Ruth?” He asked as he remained behind the wall of newsprint.

“To learn to be my own person?” She asked weakly, always feeling like he was a teacher and she was the dimwitted student in class.

“Aha!” He snapped the newspaper shut, a huge grin on his gaunt face. “There’s a carnival in town. That’s just the thing for you.”

She felt her stomach flutter in response. She hated the sounds, the lights, the scary rides, the creepy workers, and the…clowns.

“Do I have to go to that?” She asked.

His face went grim as he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “Ruth, because of your reaction, I’m certain this is exactly what you should do. You go to the carnival and spend a good two hours. I expect you to leave there having found yourself.”

“At a carnival?”

Five hours later standing before the ticket booth with cash in hand, watching the couples and young families with small children rush through the dirt lot and point at the brightly lit noisy rides, Ruth checked her watch.

I get to leave at 11.

Feeling out of place by herself, she nervously skirted along the Tilt-A-Whirl ride where the smell of fresh vomit filled the air and gagged as she turned the corner and ran straight into her most hated fear.

A clown!

His silken billowy costume blew in the breeze, snapping like the sails on a ship. Ruth stumbled back, terrified he would touch her. The clown pulled his mouth down to exaggerate the painted on frown. Above his pout, a red ball created his prosthetic nose. Beady dark eyes clashed with the white pancake makeup and tiny bowed eyebrows were sketched in to make him look perpetually perplexed. He had a blue teardrop on his cheek. His hair was a skullcap with red wiry protrusions coiling out each side of his head. Everything about him was big, bright, and loud. Instinctively, she stepped back again. He imitated her motion as if mocking her.

Feeling like the frightened child she had once been at the circus, she raced off towards the restrooms and went inside. Within the stall, Ruth held her hands to the walls and gasped for her breath.

Panic attack number one.

The rush of numbness raced through her body like a tsunami. Her lips tingled, her heart pounded wildly and she felt beads of sweat dribbling down her spine.

It’s just a man who’s paid to put on makeup and a silly outfit and big shoes and wander around the park to drum up business and festivity. He’s not coming after you, you big baby!

Jeremy was right, if she sat through the panic attack and observed it and it rose and fell and then was over. She didn’t die or go crazy.

One accomplishment at a time, Ruth straightened up her sweater and walked outside again, determined to pretend to be normal. She’d watched other people do many things alone like eating in restaurants and traveling and they looked very comfortable in their skin. She would just pretend she was one of those people who never thought twice about going anywhere they wanted, doing anything they desired.

Deciding to firmly try and “find herself,” Ruth wandered over to the ring toss game and promptly ordered three sets of rings to toss. The other people around the display were tossing their rings to the bottles in the middle, laughing and cheering as they tried to win a prize. When she tossed the first ring, she smiled, feeling as if she were part of the crowd.

Someone next to her said, “it’s a scam, you know. The way the bottles are lined up, you can’t land one.” He offered. His friend elbowed him. “That’s not true, miss. You can do it. You just have to spin it. See?” He took his ring and spun it and it circled a bottle neck and then flung itself at the shifty man running the game.

The men laughed and Ruth found herself laughing too.

“When you open yourself up to the world and join the living, Ruth, you will find you are alive and not dead with your husband, Ricky. He would want you to live again. You’re much too young to be buried with him.” Jeremy’s words had never been so true.

Feeling more secure to try something on her own, she walked over to the Scrambler ride and gave the man her ticket. He clinked her into her little bench seat and she watched the entire carnival turn into a blur of red, blue, green, and white lights. Ruth laughed as the wind caught her long hair and flapped it around her until she couldn’t see which way she was facing. The ride continued to slam the seats to the edges of its reach and then back again, around and around. The smells of the carnival went from nasty to sweet. Candy corn, funnel cakes, corn dogs filled the night air mixed with the distant wood smoke of a fall night. She closed her eyes and laughed joyously as she was slammed yet again in her seat to the limits of the ride’s scope. The tinny sounds of the music and the dinging of the muscle hammer attraction filled her ears. When Ruth climbed down from the ride, her hair was a mess, her sweater askew, her walking unstable from the dizzying ride. And, she’d never felt so alive in the past two years!

Ordering a huge ball of pink cotton candy that matched her sweater, she wound the tendrils around her finger and nibbled it off with childish delight. Several men passed by her, watching her licking at her pink finger and looking sheepishly embarrassed for her delight. One even winked at her! Feeling a flutter of life unfold within her chest, she sighed. She felt like a woman again. She felt like she was no longer invisible. She felt as if she were interacting with her surroundings instead of just cutting through them on her way to another place, never staying still long enough to make human interactions.

Proud and contented, Ruth turned, holding her head up high, spine erect, she felt taller, more slender, more graceful. She smiled with her secret knowledge and then licked the sugar from her lips when she felt eyes upon her. She turned to see the clown again. His arms were crossed over his massive chest and his dark eyes were focused on her, the painted frown seeming even more anguished than before. His expression reminded her of her own expression only a half hour ago. It was a childish threat, but she couldn’t help feeling uneasy that he’d noticed her out of all the people in the carnival and all the distractions. What did he want?

She began a steady walk around the carnival grounds, nervously capturing glimpses of his red and white satin costume. Was he following her? She tried to zig-zag between the rides, but now she was absolutely certain he was chasing her. It sent a shiver down her spine to consider him getting any closer. Without realizing it, Ruth approached the edge of the carnival. She stopped short and looked back to the clown standing not 20 feet away openly studying her.

Heart beat hastening, Ruth searched around for a safe harbor. She was at the Ferris wheel now, the last ride on the edge of the forest clearing. All Ruth’s progress in one evening was going to be ruined by the last vestiges of childhood fear rearing its head. Jeremy would tell her to go to the clown and have him engage her in some trickery, but the primitive part of her mind had taken over. Heart racing, palms sweating, she handed her last ticket to the ride attendant and rushed forward onto the bench seat.

A whoosh beside her caught her attention as a blur of white and red climbed into the seat beside her. The attendant locked the bar in place.

“Sir!” She screamed out. “We’re not together.”

The attendant couldn’t hear her through the grinding of the gears as he moved her bucket up one and filled the next seat.

The clown’s satiny fabric fluttered against her arm. She withdrew to her side of the bench and looked out into the dark forest, desperate to endure a few minutes of ride beside him.

Trying not to look curious, she peeked cautiously at him. The clown was studying the distance as they continued up higher and higher until the last seat was filled and the ride could begin. Desperate for some sign of humanity about him, Ruth noted that he was Ricky’s size and had dark eyes like his. She bit her lip and turned away. This was not Ricky. This was a stranger. One who chose to spend his evenings behind makeup and a costume where he could know what everyone else was, but they would never know what he was.

What was he?

With a nagging inner voice, Ruth imagined what Jeremy would say. He’d prod her on about making the clown a real person and not a fictional character. He would tell her to take his teeth away as she had taken away the teeth of her panic attacks by enduring them and doing things in spite of them.

“I know clowns aren’t supposed to speak, sir, but I was wondering. Why did you get on this ride with me?”

He turned slowly and studied her with his black eyes.

“You wanted to frighten me? You saw that I was scared, didn’t you?”

He raised one of his thinly marked brows as if puzzled. The exaggerated pose was almost comical.

“I’m really not scared of you.” She insisted firmly as the ride began its fast ascent and descent into the night sky. She could see in the glowing lights of the ride her own cowering figure in his dark eyes.

He tilted his head to one side as if he didn’t buy it.

“See.” She insisted, putting her hand on his. He remained still. She retracted. “You’re just a man in a costume, right? I mean, I’m not a kid. Kids are scared of clowns. Adults know they’re just normal people wearing makeup.” She reached to touch the white of his face, but his hand caught hers.

“I’m sorry.” She blushed excitedly. His hand was warm and by the scent and size of him, she could feel the powerful man he was beneath the costume. It made her mouth go dry.

He guided her hand to his wide muscular thigh in his balloon-shaped pants. She could feel the muscles tighten at her touch. It was a male reaction, the same reaction that tightened his hip muscles and drew his groin into a pool of heat and throbbing ache when aroused. Curiously, she spread her fingers on the clown’s thigh, feeling the width of his leg, the silken fabric, and listening above the sounds of the carnival below.

Realizing how wrong it was to touch a stranger’s leg, she lifted her hand. The clown looked at her. She could tell by the corner of her eye, but she was childishly afraid to look at the face too long with its grossly exaggerated frown.

His huge hand glided to her thigh, feeling her leg through her taut jeans. His hand was so big and powerful, so warm. His breathing caught.

She looked up at his face cautiously, his eyes closed as he held her leg. He seemed to tremble inwardly. The ride jerked to a stop and she gasped. The clown’s hand lifted from her thigh leaving a hot place where it had rested.

The attendant grasped their cart and steadied it, opening it up. The clown stepped out and walked down the plank and Ruth followed feeling unsure of what the usual interactions with ride attendants and civilians were. When she got to the end of the ramp, he was gone.

Certain she’d done more than enough for a night, Ruth wandered back towards the restrooms before leaving. Near the line of forest trees, she saw something bright. The clown. He was holding a balloon and his grotesquely painted face frowning perpetually.

She looked around her and realized he was staring at her. She walked over to him, unsure what to say to a man who was sworn to silence.

He held out his hand, giving her the balloon and she smiled at him. “Thank you for helping me get over my fear of clowns.”

She turned to leave, not sure what he wanted from her. His hand came down on her shoulder and she turned back, almost hoping he wanted something more. Perhaps another caressing touch. It had been so long since she’d been touched that way, she flushed with embarrassment that a clown had been the first one to reach out and connect with her physically.

It is certainly a night of firsts.

He leaned into her under the shadows of the trees. “You were frightened of me?” He whispered in a rusty voice that sounded as if it were barely ever used. “Are you now?”

She shook her head, her body shivering with arousal at the husky timber of his voice. “I am no longer afraid of you, either. Thank you for helping me overcome my fear of…humans.” He confessed as he turned and strolled off into the crowd.


  1. Great short story! I know a lot of people who are afraid of clowns, it's one of the things that never frightened me.

    The public art, did you look at the other post? None of these are painted it's almost like a billboard technique. Now I'll have to drive to Miami to see the cats.... This is the first time I've seen the soldiers. Actually if you think about the two they are both soldiers...

  2. Yeah, those might be done with enlarged photos, they were certainly photo realistic. My son is an art major and it's common to ge a city's approval and then do a project such as that. In Miami, the cats are painted all over benches and walls and they look like they're climbing up storm drains and stuff. They're very pretty and nicely painted and it's pretty endearing. Looks like cats took over the town.

  3. I do an "over-the-top" Halloween display as my hobby. I once considered doing a "Dark Carnival" theme, and began to learn a lot about carnivals and circuses. This story is truly creepy, and captures the feel of an October carnival perfectly. If you ever want to revisit the theme of a carnival, feel free! It's great spooky theme!

  4. Hey Halloweenut! I just sent you an email and hope you got it. I was thinking you'd love to follow this blog
    He does videos showing how he's making huge props for Halloween. He does the most over-the-top Halloween stuff at his home imaginable. It's fascinating to watch him building his angel of death for this next Halloween. I am seriously into Halloween and props and makeup too. Am doing a zombie walk this year as Amelia Earhart zombie. Yeah, I'm a big kid. Glad to see you join the flock. You're number 200--that makes you special, buddy!

  5. Thanks! I've known about Season of Shadows for a long time. I've e-mailed John a couple times too! Nice Guy. Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. Great story...I do like your twist at the end. I'm not too afraid of clowns but they do give me the willies. You just don't know who is under the makeup.