Everyday Horror: Clown Around the Corner

mcevil10

As I was walking up from the train station at night, through the long, steep and winding path back to my house I was a little scared not only because it was night (with the deep shadows lurking in the woods flanking the path), but because I was warily anticipating the appearance of that most disturbing of creatures, the clown. The recent clown craze has created an atmosphere of paranoid hysteria, first in the States, then in Britain, and apparently now in Australia (at least that’s what I think is the chronology, but I’ve seen differing reports). What is going on? What does this mean? Most news outlets refer to it as ‘clown pranks’, a practice of scaring and intimidating people (mostly children) with creepy costumes and threatening behaviour. ‘Prank’, however, feels inaccurate. Pranks usually have an element of comedy, even when the main intent Is to scare someone – after the scare the victim quickly acknowledges the lack of danger/their own safety, and it’s laughed off. These clown sightings, though? No laughing matter. Children are traumatised, parents are paranoid, schools are shaken, police departments are taking action. Framing these events as ‘pranks’ suddenly seems wildly inappropriate.

So what could this mean? Is it a craze proliferated by social media? Most definitely. Do these people want to send any kind of message, political or otherwise? I’m not sure. Is this just a new form of delinquency? Perhaps, but that kind of anti-social behaviour is usually practiced in groups, the familiar and dreadful mob of ‘hoodies’ Cameron so eagerly wanted to hug. The clown craze is something altogether more unsettling, more horrifying than a group of threatening boys or girls. At least gangs can be explained; there is a simple logic of rebellion and power at work. But with the single, companionless clown? What possesses you to go out alone? What are you thinking as you stroll aimlessly at night? Why are you doing this? There lurks a mystery about the clown that’s absent in the traditional gang; and considering there’s more footage of gangs of people ‘hunting’ and attacking clowns, it creates a neat image of the rational violently suppressing the irrational. The ‘irrationality’ of it touches on why they are scary. It’s not just the anonymity and the grotesque exaggerations of the mask, it’s the horrible lack of context surrounding their presence. The horror of the clown derives from the absence of its proper context – amusement at a birthday party or a circus/carnival. The ridiculous juxtaposition of a clown costume and the woods near somewhere you live is jarring, especially if they are carrying a weapon. There exists an unreality behind them, that though we know them to be human, our brains can’t quite process this wholly.

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So, why does this fascinate me? Probably because we’re not talking about a horror film or game, but real life. At least in fiction we can analyse the design and intentions behind the horror, but not so much here. Are these people a collective? Do they share motives? Or is this a differentiated practice? Is it just a new pastime for bored teenagers? I wonder what China Miéville thinks of this phenomenon, considering he gave a talk on ‘Marxism and Halloween’ back in 2013 discussing the commodification of Halloween, and how it should be reclaimed for socialists. He talks about the value of fear and dread which can be used to conceive alternative futures, and how Halloween in its current form neuters these possibilities: ‘This is about the domestication of dread; the whole point of the model of dread that is constitutive of human consciousness is that it is ultimately ineffable, it cannot be quite contained’ (Miéville, 1013). I’m not sure if he would see any potentiality in the clown craze (especially when he later claims slasher films and torture porn films are not true horror), but I reckon he would have something interesting to say. They certainly are inspiring genuine dread.

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Maybe the clowns from Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984) can help. These clowns, sitting themselves to dinner, ‘possessed the formal lifelessness of death masks, as if, in some essential sense, they themselves were absent from the repast and left untenanted replicas behind’ (Carter, 116) So far, so creepy. It further confirms the idea of the clown as something which shifts between the real and unreal, and in this case between life and death. An even creepier description of the clowns comes from a conversation they have which suggests the autonomy of the clown mask:

Sometimes it seems […] that the faces exist of themselves, in a disembodied somewhere, waiting for the clown who will wear them, who will bring them to life. Faces that wait in the mirrors of unknown dressing-rooms, unseen in the depths of the glass like fish in dusty pools, fish that will rise up out of the obscure profundity when they spot the one who anxiously scrutinises his own reflection for the face it lacks, mean-eating fish waiting to gobble up your being and give you another instead (Carter, 122)

I think this haunting description applies to any form of identity creation. If we adopt postmodern conceptions of the self, then we’re always inspecting our own reflection for the face we lack, filling up this interminable void with a multiplicity of personae (but that’s a different discussion). As for the clowns, what void is this filling? Is there a ‘disembodied somewhere’ creating the real life clowns? Which Is to say, are there any overarching implications about this craze? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m strangely interested in this surreal rupture of the real which seems to be gaining global traction (although, like most crazes on social media, will be transient). For now, though, I feel like we’re currently living inside a J.G. Ballard novel, those worlds where bored, frustrated communities dip into a collective id – only now it’s in costume.

 

Bibliography

Carter, Angela. 1984, Nights at the Circus (Picador: London)

Miéville, China, 2013, ‘Marxism and Halloween’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paCqiY1jwqc

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Leisure as Labour?

Do you ever find the things you do for fun cease to be fun? Or, to put it another way, does your leisure ever become a task, a thing to complete, a chore to endure? If this sounds like the beginning of a self-help book it’s because I’ve never done this before, give me a chance. Maybe not. Maybe your leisure is safely well-adjusted and the demarcation between the two (labour/leisure) is stable. But several recent experiences of my own leisure and observations of the experiences of others’ forces me to call into question the relationship between labour and leisure, work and play. The best and probably the most alarming example would come from video games and their players. Gaming is one of the most popular leisure activities right now, and it’s associated (often negatively) with pure, cathartic play. The act of reading literature, while leisurely, has an air of intellectual sophistication that is presumed absent in the (‘thoughtless’) play of video games (although this perception has changed dramatically in the last few years, and the detractors continue to become old-fashioned and reactionary). Nevertheless, video games are still seen as an unproductive and wasteful diversion – the ultimate of leisure. But a recent phenomenon (as I like to think of it, anyway) has turned this situation quite perversely on its head.

There are a number of players who are quite obsessed with completion, whether that refers to the simple completion of any given game’s narrative, levels, stages, etc, or whether that refers to the more extreme and dedicated endeavour to collect achievements (a list of tasks set up by the developer which players might not usually consider doing). These achievements, once earned, pop up on the player’s screen with the triumphant notification of its completion. It’s not difficult to imagine how intoxicating this can be. So much so, in fact, that there are players who devote considerable amounts of time to the task of gaining ‘100%’ completion of  games. The amount of time and effort put into this completionist practice is such that the idea of playing these games as a leisurely reprieve from forms of labour becomes disturbingly unconvincing. Many players often express their frustration and boredom with this task, justifying their dire experience by thinking of the reward – 100%.

To me, this has unsettling implications about the structure of our leisure. Because this doesn’t just apply to those achievement fanatics, but to any player who’s ever had the urge to complete certain unattractive sidequests soley for the sense of conquering that particular part of the game’s code; it applies to readers slogging through a novel they dislike thoroughly because they can’t quit before seeing the life-affirming 100% on their Kindle; to those who cringe at skipping filler, mediocre songs on an album they love because to do so is to listen incompletely. If leisure shows signs of labour, then labour can dangerously mix aspects of leisure in sinister ways (although ‘leisure’ now, in this particular circumstance, is so precariously dialectic that the distinction bears little meaning). Consider the recent ‘gamification’ of marketing strategies, where consumers are rewarded with points (achievements?) for their loyalty, or when businesses ‘motivate’ their workers by setting up game-like feedback systems in which employees earn rewards (a Twix? Please, infantilise me more). In these situations, ‘completing the game’ becomes ‘being a loyal consumer’ or ‘being a loyal employee’ which, of course, is incredibly fun for the businesses, but for you? Well, as long as there’s a free cup of coffee after the 10 paid cups, or a Twix, who could complain?

So, returning back to the players themselves, why do they do this? Well, one answer is that the challenge, despite its often debilitating effects, is genuinely fun. I can believe this. There’s a reason why the masochistic play of Dark Souls became a phenomenon. And yet I know people who buy games they are not even particularly interested in because they include a short and easy list of achievements – in other words, a quick fix. Or people who play a game well beyond the point of enjoyment (genuine fun) simply to reach 100%. To me, this suggests the influence of a deeper framework. Another answer to the ‘why’ of obsessive completion is the fact that the virtues of completion and progression derive from the humanist ideals of the Enlightenment era. These values, despite the myriad historical disasters undermining them, still pervade our society. So that the desire to convert the unknown into the known (a kind of completion) is not dissimilar to the aggressive pursuit of 100%. That is, the ideal of the known world (a world subjected to or enslaved by complete ‘knowledge’), with the accompanying assumptions about the linear progression of humankind, is an ideal which comforts and encourages those chasing the 100%. It can be complete. I can be master. I dominate this space. In this context, the player is a kind of coloniser of the game world. And the capitalist assumptions which naturally develop from humanist, colonialist values are visible too: a player, rationalising his 100% obsession, once said ‘I just like to see the numbers go up’.

I’m not saying these players, or any other consumers with similar approaches to leisure media, are mindless, brainwashed droids. What I’m saying is that this behaviour, more than a quirk of personality or a form of OCD, is a symptom of something much larger.