How The Evil Clown Archetype Got Started
In the pantheon of fictional malefactors and ne'er-do-wells, the "evil clown" character trope certainly feels like a newer thing, attributable to maybe the Joker in the 1940s, or Pennywise in the '80s, or even the Great Clown Panic of 2016, when college kids in costumes stalked the shadows of the land.
But, it turns out that the first notable murder-clown was actually created in the 1800s by none other than Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe's short story "Hop-Frog," first published in Boston's The Flag of Our Union in 1849, features a court jester with dwarfism – the titular Hop-Frog – getting revenge on an ableist king. In true Poe fashion, he does this through trickery and gruesomely described death, and all in five short pages crapped out specifically for the money.
The story starts with an unnamed king, shockingly, acting like a dick to everyone who isn't also a king. He employs both Hop-Frog, a "motley fool" in "caps and bells," and a dancer, Trippetta, also a dwarf, and then proceeds to torment them, mocking them and laughing at them (for non-jester reasons) and forcing Hop-Frog to get drunk to the point of violent illness.
But it's when the king throws a goblet of wine at Trippetta that Hop-Frog truly decides he's had enough and begins his revenge. With a masquerade approaching, the jester convinces the king and his minions to dress up as orangutans, slathering them in tar and flax because Party City hadn't been invented yet. He then chains them all together because the king is remarkably trusting for a guy who regularly insults everyone.
Anyway, as the king and his fellow jerks enter the court, Trippetta hooks a, uh, hook, to their chains and dangles them from the ceiling. Hop-Frog, meanwhile, sets about publicly lighting them on fire before laughing maniacally in triumph and escaping into the night. Poe spends a full paragraph describing their charred corpses.
And thus was the murder-clown born.
The incident was, unbelievably, based on the Bal des Ardents, a real-life costumed inferno at the court of France's King Charles VI in 1393. But that's not the story's only inspiration: "Hop-Frog" has also been flagged as a personal revenge story against Elizabeth F. Ellet, an author and occasionally literary critic, who didn't like the dirty letters Poe was sending to another woman.
The incident was the start of a lifelong feud – well, a three-year feud; everyone involved died pretty quickly thereafter – that included Poe's wife/cousin Virginia actually blaming Ellet for her death from tuberculosis. Poe, meanwhile, worked through his grief in true Poe fashion by turning Ellet into a shitty king and himself into a homicidal jester.
And here we all just thought clowns were creepy.
Eirik Gumeny is the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series, a five-book saga of slacker superheroes, fart jokes, and assorted B-movie monsters, and he recently added werewolves and assassins to The Great Gatsby. He’s also on Twitter a bunch.
Top Image: Warner Bros.