The Phantom Clown’s Kin Part 1

Greetings readers, aka innocent bystanders! So, it’s been a little while, and now I’m back with more about “phantom clowns”. Having previously provided a casual survey of what blogosphere scholarship there is on the “phantom clown” phenomenon, I felt like it’s time to try to make some of my own contributions. I have decided that it would be especially valuable to look at the possible “roots” of the phantom clown phenomenon. This will be done as a survey of two parts. The first part will be covering, not Fortean phenomena, but the cultural and anthropological background of the figure of the clown. Hopefully, this will provide an armchair scholarly insight into the evolution of the clowning costume and profession, and it just might give us a clue why the same cultural archetype would be recapitulated in the curious taxonomy of Fortean entities. So, without further ado, here’s a rogues’ gallery of clowns and other costumed rogues you would definitely not want at your kid’s birthday party…


The native American figure of Kokopelli has become a familiar part of popular culture, especially in the southwest. According to the native mythology, Kokopelli is a being who brings fertility to the land, including human babies he is said to carry in a hump on his back (characteristically omitted from pop culture representations). He also has a darker side, as a mischief maker and even a tempter who may entice people to break the moral laws of their tribe. He may even have served as a representation of death: Given that many native tribes believe in some form of reincarnation, his role as bringer of the unborn may be inferred to extend to traffic in the other direction! Due to this complex background, many native Americans have stated in no uncertain terms that they are not comfortable with the way in which Kokopelli’s image has been used. So, one may ask, what does a fertility spirit have to do with clowns. Because, I am going to go out on a limb and present a theory, that Kokopelli is the foundation of one of the strangest traditions of clowning, the “pueblo clowns”.

Multiple lines of evidence point to this connection: First, kachina costumes said to represent Kokopelli are dominated by uncharacteristically somber black and white, the same colors used in the costumes of those weird clowns. Second and even more tellingly, typical representations of Kokopelli show a headdress which, allowing for stylization and perspective, corresponds with a forked headdress which is characteristic of a pueblo clown costume. (This also provides convincing evidence for the antiquity of the clown tradition and costume, and makes it all the more interesting that the headdress is very similar to that of the familiar European clown/jester.) Finally and most strikingly, the ceremonial activities of the clowns match very well with the attributes of Kokopelli: Whatever the tribe considers appropriate, decent, or just plain common sense, the clowns willfully, outrageously and grotesquely reversed. By the Indians’ accounts, these antics are supposed to show the folly of taboo-breaking and the wisdom and virtue of the kachina spirits embodied by other performers. But it is rather hard not to suspect a more complex symbolic conflict, in which the clowns, like Kokopelli, represent a necessary but volatile part of the forces of nature.

The Harlequin

The tradition of the clown can unquestionably be traced to that of the Medieval jester/ fool, as evidenced particularly by the recurring use of the forked or multilobed headdress. (This is as good a point as any to mention a little pet theory of mine, that the murky word “coulrophobia” might be derived from “cowl”, variously meaning a hood, mask or hooded robe, which could broadly apply to this traditional headdress.) In the intervening centuries, the broad tradition can be seen to go through many variations, of which the most famous is the “Harlequins” introduced in the Renaissance. The harlequin is especially significant as evidence of a transition in the style of performance: Where a jester could literally rely on jests, the harlequins were very physical. This opened up the possibilities of “slapstick”, but also for displays of genuine athletic prowess, especially through acrobatics and even staged heroics. The harlequins also marked a significant transition in costume: While the harlequins’ characteristically colorful costumes were definitely in continuity with that of the earlier fool, the telltale headdress was often if not characteristically absent. Also, in the earliest accounts and actual visual representations, the harlequins wore masks. Later use of face paint and artificial noses by harlequins and clowns can be regarded as an evolution of the mask, probably influenced in no small part by simple cost-cutting. But then, there is the kicker: In the harlequins’ combination of physical prowess, colorful costume, and mask, we surely have the archetype of the comic-book superhero!

“The Plague Doctor

Up to at least the 19th century, European clown costumes formed a recognizable continuity. But the fool may not be the only Medieval precursor of the later clown suit. Through the Medieval period, doctors were evidently in the habit of wearing masks, on the theory that it would protect them from the plague. (Given the dismal state of their medicine, there may have been more value in protecting them from reprisals.) The most familiar example is a costume featuring a birdlike mask. Unfortunately, this costume was evidently invented by one Charles Delorme in or around 1619, leaving it uncertain if not entirely doubtful whether anything like it was actually fielded in the Middle Ages. In my opinion, the form of the mask does strongly suggest that Delorme’s “invention” was only an evolution of something older. Spectacle markings around the eyepieces point to a decorative or ceremonial aspect of the costume, which may have been purposefully minimized in the ostensibly enlightened seventeenth century. One might well take note at this point that the harlequins also wore masks, and that these masks often featured long noses. Then there is that bizarre bird’s beak, which calls to mind nothing so much as a shamanistic priest’s costume- and, as we have seen with the pueblo clowns, there is a connection between clowning and animistic religion that must run very deep.

Baron Samedi

Often, it is tricky to separate artistry from authentic history, and this is especially egregious for anything to do with the Afro-Carribean religions. Still, this is one example too good to pass up. Baron Samedi is an unquestionably authentic figure of Haitian vodou, who had the debatable distinction of being immortalized as a character in the James Bond film Live and Let Die. As represented by self-identifying vodou practitioners (see for example a contemporary altar doll), Samedi appears as a figure in a dark suit and top hat, with a face that is either white, or an actual skull. As immortalized by Geoffrey Holder in the Bond movie, Baron Samedi is a witch doctor who appears in his biggest scene in a dark suit with top hat and white face paint in the form of a stylized skull. While the film offers no pretense of attention to authenticity, the scenes with Baron Samedi are surprisingly convincing from an anthropological standpoint. And it is surely of at least passing interest that the central figure of Baron Samedi could be a dead ringer for a subset of phantom clown reports involving dark clothing, such as the egregious “leaping mime” incident!

The Pied Piper

One would be hard-pressed to find a treatment of the phantom clown phenomenon that does not mention this ultimate cultural archetype. Per the lore, the Pied Piper of Hamelin was a strangely-clad traveler who used the power of his pipes to rid a town of rodents, then, on being refused payment, rid the town of children too. Any nucleus of documented fact is bound up in two rather cryptic manuscripts. First, a single passage from Hamelin’s records dated 1384 states, “It is one hundred years since our children left.” Second, according to another manuscript written in ca. 1450, on June 26, 1284, a “piper” with clothing of “many colors” “seduced” 130 children from Hamelin, who were than “lost” at a “place of execution”. The church of Hamelin is supposed to have had a stained-glass window representing the Pied Piper. Unfortunately, the window was destroyed in 1660.

Much ink has been spilled trying to construct some real historical event out of this. In the cold light of day, all they have really shown is that there is very little chance that there is any such foundation to be found. The two manuscripts point to one of two prosaic scenarios: Either a number of the town’s residents emigrated to settle another area, possibly against their will, or there was an uprising against clerical and/or political authorities which likely ended in a massacre by said authorities. (I consider the fact that the 15th-century manuscript lends itself to the latter interpretation the one particularly good reason to take it seriously.) As for the stained glass window, granting that it existed at one time, it’s entirely possible that its supposed connection with the legend is simply an interpretation imposed upon a pre-existing, likely symbolic work of art. In summary, if anything happened in the village of Hamelin on or around June 1284, the story passed down about it is nothing but a red herring. Yet, saying as much will bring us no closer to solving what is, from the folklorists’ perspective, the central problem simply, why the legend as we have it took the form it has.

That brings us to the best visual artifact we have, a 1592 painting representing the Pied Piper and an intelligible outline of the legend. It has been speculated that it was based upon the lost window, but if this was the case, there were almost certainly major interpolations, including what appears to be the drowning of the rats. But at least two elements invite serious attention. First, there is the subtly odd foreground figure of the piper. The most striking thing about the figure, and the strongest hint of some deeper archetype, is the that the costume is actually surprisingly plain. The colors are red, green, yellow and white, and the pattern is simple vertical stripes, which in comparison to the harlequins that would have been contemporary with the painter is simple and even subdued. The face is pale, and may be painted. Then there is the hat, another subtly strange detail. It looks very different from any well-known Renaissance or Medieval headgear, being exaggerated in comparison to the utilitarian hats of the peasantry, but far less elaborate than typical specimens from the aristocracy. Curiously, the closest counterparts to the design are mitres worn by priests!

Then there is the most prominent background image, clearly representing the legend’s climax in which the piper leads the children into a mysterious door or cavern in the side of a hill. And what is it with that hill?? Actually, it’s reasonably consistent with a real model: the tumulus burial mounds that dot many parts of the world. Several are known to exist in the same region as Hamelin, Lower Saxony. This association would reinforce the theory that the Piper is an allegorical representation of death. On the other hand, it should readily come to the Fortean’s mind that ancient mounds have frequently been correlated with virtually all forms of paranormal phenomena. Might it not be just conceivable that the “real” Pied Piper was such an apparition?

Phantom clowns as atavisms

I propose, from these examples, a significant conclusion about phantom clowns: Whatever they may be, a significant part of what they represent is a recapitulation of different phases in the cultural evolution that led to what we know as the clown. A number of recurring features in “phantom clown” reports become intelligible in these terms:

  1. Dark or black and white clothing.
  2. Plain white or “blackface” makeup.
  3. Displays of unusual if not superhuman acrobatic ability.
  4. Relatively traditional or archaic clown costumes, as indicated by use of headdresses and especially masks, with parallels to ancient priestly garments.
  5. Appearances in abandoned, neglected or unpopulated areas, including woodlands.

The next logical step is to consider, where else do we see these features in the gallery of Fortean entities? That will have to wait for next time…

David N. Brown

Mesa, Arizona

Bibliography and further reading

Clowns and Tricksters: An Encyclopedia of Tradition and Culture.   Kimberly A. Christen and Sam Gill (eds).

Reincarnation Beliefs of Native American Tribes.” Gary R. Varner.

“Jester: A Fool and His Clothing.”

“Hamelin’s Children”  Mike Culpepper.


One Response to “The Phantom Clown’s Kin Part 1”

  1. […] long-overdue second part of my study of the roots of the Fortean “phantom clown” phenomenon! The last installment featured five cultural precursors to the clowns we know and love to hate, and their parallels to […]

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