Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Send out the clowns

I am 31 and afraid of clowns. I don’t remember the incident that sparked this fear, but my grandmother told me that I was two when she was with me in my living room, while my parents got ready for a Halloween party upstairs. When my father came down the steps, unrecognizable in clown makeup, I ran to the corner, screamed and cried.

Today, things aren’t much different. I’ve given up the screaming and crying, but when I see a clown or scary character at a party or bar, I dash for the nearest corner and cower. I need to put as much distance between me and the clowns. Walls and corners are the best protection, preventing surprises from behind. I think it’s a clown’s unpredictability and sudden movements that scare me most.

About eight years ago, I went to Fells Point for Halloween with friends. I dressed as a scarecrow, but soon realized I should have gone as the cowardly lion. I dreaded the experience, but wanted to see my friends, so I went. On the way, we picked up a couple my friends knew. When we got to their house, they were in the basement, getting ready. I knew the guy was going as something scary, but nothing more. I crept down the stairs into the dark basement behind my friends. A single red bulb in the bathroom provided the only light. When I saw the creature in question, I knew it was going to be a long night. Not only was he dressed as a clown, but an evil one. He had grown a Mohawk just for the holiday. His entire head, except for the black Mohawk was painted white, with a black evil smile painted in place, along with a black mask painted around the eyes and a perfect red circle on the tip of his nose. He wore a one-piece gray jumpsuit and carried a plastic meat cleaver. By the time we got there, he was painting a similar face on his girlfriend, who wore her long brown hair in two ponytails, one on either side of her head, like a child would. I was not as afraid of her, because she looked cute in a creepy sort of way.

He seemed friendly enough, even polite.

But when he stepped aside to let everyone go before him up the stairs, I stopped and shook my head.

“You have to go first,” I said.

I just couldn’t walk in front of him.

In the bars, I was able to stand closer to him, but had to know where he was at all times. I couldn’t relax knowing that he could surprise me from behind.

The fear of clowns carried over to anything in costume when I was a child. My parents had to spoil the tooth fairy for me when I lost my first tooth. I didn’t like the idea of something strange hovering around my bed while I slept. I can remember a couple years of not wanting to go to sleep on Christmas Eve for fear that Santa might decide to venture into my room. I never sat on his lap in the mall, but chose to tell him my wish list from a distance, through letters.

I still get that initial quiver in my chest when I first see the Oriole bird nearby, at a game, but then walk by him with ease once I remind myself that I am an adult.

I only went to Fells Point on Halloween once after the occasion with the evil clowns. I went early with friends and we staked out a spot in a corner on the second floor of a bar. We stayed a little too long and as we descended the stairs to leave, I felt the need to return to my corner. The first floor was packed with ghouls, skeletons, monsters and clowns. I gave myself an internal pep talk and held my breath as we pushed our way through the crowd to the door.

Last year, I went to dinner at a Canton corner bar. Of course our waiter had to be in clown makeup and we had a table in the middle of the floor, near the kitchen. He rushed by surprising me from behind all night. At first, I couldn’t concentrate on the menu, but as I reminded myself of my age and watched everyone else enjoying dinner, oblivious of the clown in the room, I began to relax.

I was almost proud of myself as I left the restaurant, glad to have gotten through an entire dinner, served by a scary clown. I thought I had conquered my fear, but a few months ago my friend and I went to McDonald’s for lunch. As we were walking through the parking lot, my friend said, “Oh, Ronald McDonald’s here today.”

I almost stopped in my tracks.

“You saw him. . . in there?” I asked looking at the restaurant.


“I don’t think I’ve ever told you, but I don’t like clowns.”

My friend looked at me and laughed a little. “Well, do you want to go somewhere else?”

Remembering my age again, I said “No, I’ll be alright.”

As we waited in line, he got closer and his sudden movements in those floppy shoes made me want to run, but I looked at him hard and could see the wrinkles that were accentuated by the white makeup caked on his face. I tried to imagine how old he was and determined mid-50s. Once I could see some of the human details beneath the makeup, I was fine. But I knew I had not completely conquered my fear.

This year I got invited to a lavish Halloween party in a big old house in Bolton Hill. I warned my friends that I get scared easily and hate Halloween.

“It’s OK. We can leave if you get scared,” my friend said.

“No, I won’t need to leave. I just might need to find a corner to survey the room from.”

It was the most enjoyable Halloween yet. There was not one clown or scary mask and the number of people in sleazy costumes had dwindled. Everyone put thought into their costume. I dressed as Julia Child and mingled easily with Abe Lincoln, Edgar Allen Poe, Frida Kahlo, and Rosie the Riveter. I envied Amelia Earhart for her boots and leather jacket.

I noticed everyone at the party was at least in their 30s and most worked for the Associated Press or the Baltimore Sun, which explained the more creative costumes. I may not have conquered my fears, but I have come of age - the age when my peers no longer want to dress sleazy or ghoulish for Halloween.


Vicky said...


I think it has to do with being startled, too. I am the same way about being "surprised," I hate that sudden shock feeling. I love how you name dropped all the costumes from the last party-and, you're right-they're waaay cooler than that other crap.


Sarah P said...

It's not unreasonable. Clowns are creepy and weird and eat children.
John Wayne Gacy. 'Nough said.

Jzaslow2 said...


Reading this made me remember that when my sister and I were about 5, we were so afraid of clowns and costumes that we'd eat dinner in the bedroom on Halloween.

Loved your descriptive account.