The It factor, Jim Jackson defends clowning 


You might recall just a year ago, those with a fear of clowns had real reason to be terrified. Evil clowns were sighted across the country. Referred to as “clown hysteria” and the “2016 clown panic” by media, the threat even made its way to Colorado Springs — as schools received empty threats of clowns coming to attack. And there was one violent incident last October when a couple walking a trail near Garden of the Gods Road were assaulted by someone wearing a clown mask.

Now, we have It fueling the coulrophia fire. (Yeah, you guessed it, coulrophia is the term for fear of clowns, though the translation from ancient Greek is more a fear of one who walks on stilts.) The movie, based on the 1986 Stephen King novel, was No. 1 at the box office during its first two weeks of release, falling only to the number two slot this past weekend. The story focuses on a murderous clown named Pennywise, who targets children. This isn’t the first time It has been brought to the screen; a TV miniseries aired in 1990, earning good reviews.

Despite the pop-culture hype, we know that not all clowns are killers. But widespread coulrophia remains. Last year the website Vox cited a poll that reported Americans are more afraid of clowns than climate change, terrorism and even death.

Wow — what a rodeo ride. But is it fair to lump all clowns together? No, says our kinder, gentler local clown Jim Jackson, co-founder of the Millibo Art Theatre.

When I reached Jackson, a clown for 40 years, and asked him to defend clowns, he laughed (he’s a clown, I’m guessing he laughs more often than not). “I would love to get up on a soapbox and do a defense.”

He says this year more than ever, clowning needs to be defended. Years ago, when he was in a circus, he did don full-face makeup, but says he was more of a mime than what we expect of a clown. It’s been years since he wore full makeup, now he just wears a red nose. As he puts his nose on during a show, he warns the audience, “Do not be afraid, I am going to put on the nose now.”

Jackson speaks of the history of clowning and masked theater. He has a voice that’s soothing and entertaining to listen to. He has a touch of an accent, but one I could not identify. It finally dawned on me, his accent is that of clown.
Our fear of clowns comes from that “mask”: He says so much of our initial reaction to people comes from facial recognition, and removing that recognition through layers of makeup and wigs can make us uneasy. I grew up going to Ringling Brothers circuses, which Jackson says had strict guidelines and expectations for how the clowns behaved and interacted with kids. And that’s probably why I don’t fear clowns. (But don’t leave me in a room with a team mascot, those things are truly terrifying.)

Being a clown isn’t always easy for Jackson, and he shared one of the more challenging times of his career. He was performing in full makeup with a traveling circus that stopped in John Wayne Gacy’s hometown at a time when serial killer Gacy, who created the character Pogo the Clown, was in the news. “It was really hard for us clowns in makeup to be out on the streets.”

Jackson says every clown has a personal answer to the question “what is clowning?”

“I’ve simplified it to: Clowns are funny,” he says. “For the 3-year-old, the 30-year-old and the 90-year-old, a real clown has that ability to be universal in age ranges and cultures.”

Jackson hasn’t seen It and doesn’t know if he will, though we giggle at the idea of organizing a theater full of clowns to see it. “Stephen King is not too far off,” Jackson says. “He just left out the humor part.”

Sure, you could go see It and embrace your coulrophia. Or you could face down your fears with a visit to the Millibo Art Theatre. The timing is perfect: MAT has a free day Sept. 30, when Jackson will be joined by Lola, a clown from South Sudan who has worked with Clowns Without Borders. And no, that’s not a group of clowns out to terrorize innocents; instead they work to bring humor to places that need it.

Though It may fuel a new generation of fear, clowns worldwide will stick to healing through laughter — true funny business.


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