Halloween Special: In Praise Of The Grotesque
The trickster who appears, causes havoc and vanishes is an ancient myth in most cultures.
The idea of a stranger sweeping in and unsettling the locals is especially connected to America’s geography. Unconnected towns joined by single highways made perfect targets when travelling salesmen, circuses and preachers came to visit. Tricksters got in and got out before the townsfolk could realise they’d been duped. I think of the upsetting short story ‘The Bingo Master’ by Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Elmer Gantry’ and ‘Leap of Faith’, ‘The Music Man’, the life of William Castle, and Dave Friedman’s book ‘A Youth In Babylon’, a great account of a team coming in to scam small-town America. Even in the giant conurbation of Los Angeles I had neighbours who would appear for a couple of weeks, rent a hotel room from which to sell fake watches or health supplements, then vanish. I once worked on the retitling of B movies for legendary showman Jerry Gross, who would open a film in different parts of just one state, Texas, variously billed after a couple of recuts as a comedy, a drama or an action movie.
I suspect Europeans find it harder to appreciate the idea that clowns can be terrifying. The book and film of ‘It’ left me cold because I couldn’t relate to a frightening circus figure, except perhaps for the McDonalds character. It’s a trope that has been around for a long time in US culture but not in the UK. You’d have to go to Central Europe to see the traditional ones now – although I do live near the delightful grave of a famous clown.
Our fears of ‘otherness’ were homelier – but there were things disturbing us which have stayed with us over the decades. Ventriloquists’ dummies, waxworks and models, for example. Many ‘jolly’ designs from the early 20th C are simply terrifying. I was always bothered by the Jolly Jack Tar on seaside piers that rocked back and forth with sinister laughter.
Jack Tar was a common English term used to refer to seafarers of the merchant marine and Royal Navy, particularly at the time when the British Empire was at its peak. ‘Jack’ was a generic term that identified the mass of common people, as in ‘I’m all right, Jack.’ ‘Tar’ is traceable to the 1600s, and became a popular term for a sailor, probably from ‘tarpaulin’, canvas coated with tar to make waterproof clothes. A sailor’s waterproof hat was also called a tarpaulin. Seafarers were stereotyped by their rolling gait and tarry trousers. Jack Tar was represented as a drunk and a womanizer, therefore a figure of fun because he was easy prey for street women, publicans and boarding house keepers.
Another ‘jolly’ character was the Laughing Policeman, also rather scary. He comes from a Charles Penrose music hall song of 1922, the music and melody of which are taken from The Laughing Song by George W Johnson, which was originally recorded in the 1890s. Interestingly Penrose’s pseudonym was Charles Jolly. ‘The Laughing Policeman’ is still remembered today, having sold over a million copies, and its popularity with children continued well into the 1970s, when policing stopped being about saying good morning to the corner bobby and became a serious business.
Pantomime dames were more knowingly bizarre. British murder mystery ‘The Impersonator’ (1961) features a murderous pantomime dame and is surprisingly disturbing for a low-budget British B-picture. The salacious nature of such impersonators, mixing lascivious jokes for the adults in front of the children, is an enduring British trope that has a long history, part of the idea that children should be introduced to the more raucous side of life at an early age. The working class clown, dressed as a grotesque female caricature, was taken up by every class of audience. Happily these figures have been recognised as theatrical stereotypes and remain as part of our cultural history.
The scatalogical and the grotesque feature largely in the British psyche, from early political cartoons showing flatulent politicians to ‘The League of Gentlemen’. American political cartoons tend to be more cerebral, clever rather than vulgar. Cartoons are losing their outrageous bite now, beset by extremists on all sides when many established newspapers are struggling to turn a profit. But 70 years ago, the Daily Express cartoonist Sidney Strube had an audience of three million a day, and a waxwork of him (and two other cartoonists) stood in Madame Tussauds.
The traditional idea of what is grotesque is changing. In Southampton University a giant 100 year-old mural dedicated to First World War heroes who left the college without gradating to fight, only to die in battle, has been the subject of controversy. Student Union president Emily Dawes tried to get the mural destroyed or painted over because it depicts too many white men (she is herself white). It subsequently transpired that she did not know why it was there. The traditional images of policemen and sailors, dames and clowns will be consigned to the bin by those who are ignorant of history.