Halloween Special: In Praise Of The Grotesque

Great Britain

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.




12 comments on “Halloween Special: In Praise Of The Grotesque”

  1. Martin Tolley says:

    Clowns can still freak people out, as this lad famously did in Northampton a little while ago.

  2. SimonB says:

    Yeah – I don’t know anyone who finds clowns amusing as opposed to scary.

    The dame is another figure that doesn’t seem to travel across the Atlantic. I’ve been following Mark Oshiro (at mark reads dot net) work his way through Terry Pratchett’s works and the offence he and some of the commenters find in the odd “bloke in a dress” joke that to me stems from panto is really confusing to me. I guess I can see why they find such references offensive, but they are such an ingrained part of entertainment here I don’t notice them.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    Jack Tar was because sailor’s used tar to stiffen their pigtails.

    Travelling fairgrounds were huge in the late 1800’s and I live in an area where a few small fairs appear seasonally in local villages as they have for over 100 years. I say villages – nowadays they have been subsumed by cardboard housing estates and urban spread. I still remember how well attended these fairs were in the 1960’s, remaining Teddy Boys hung around the waltzers, hippies stayed well away. Kids won goldfish in plastic bags which were usually dropped on the way home and probably never lived beyond the week. The difference with the US is that we didn’t have clowns at fairgrounds, although we did have dodgy sideshows of freaks, bearded ladies, fat/tall/thin/small/tattooed people – nowadays you see these all at the shopping centre.

  4. Brooke says:

    Dames settled quite nicely into US east coast working class cities and were typically visible on parade days, especially New Year’s Day. The Philadelphia Mummers parade is infamous for its clowns–men dressed as dames or in black face– who lead the parade.

    The trickster was a part of American culture long before towns and highways. All indigenous tribes have a trickster as part of the founding myth. Some still use clowns in celebrations to 1) recall the tribe’s history and 2) say things that the tribal community needed to hear. I attended on Navajo meeting long ago– scary if you are an outsider. Africans also brought their trickster to the United States, but he has been commercialized, appearing in diminished form at Mardi Gras, but the African version of clowns remains.

    “Unconnected towns joined by single highways made perfect targets when travelling salesmen, …” and politicians. “Tricksters got in and got out before the townsfolk could realise they’d been duped.” Great description of our current political situation.

  5. Porl says:

    Keep an eye out for my pal David Bramwell’s talkshow The History of the Trickster which he rolls out darn saaaarf on occasion! http://www.drbramwell.com/trickster/ – also his book”The Odditorium: The tricksters, eccentrics, deviants and inventors whose obsessions changed the world”

  6. Helen Martin says:

    The Mummers in Newfoundland did the same as the Philadelphia ones but there it was more outport people celebrating and it was house to house like carol singers. People masked their voices, too, like talking on the in-breath. The mummers were men because the women were at home handling the refreshments.
    Political cartoons. We had a party called Social Credit, although they never really advocated much of the original principles of the movement. They came across as very puritanical (the long time premier was teetotal) so a prominent cartoonist of the day drew them at first with halos, but then he started drawing them with hats to cover the halos. It looks odd having these recognizable politicians of the fifties and sixties wearing battered stovepipe hats. We like our cartoons to have some thoughtful comment when dealing with politics.Anyone can make a crude joke but a drawing that makes you think is a good thing.

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    To me, just about all models of humans, including dolls, are very creepy.

  8. Vivienne says:

    I always found clowns scary. I dreaded it when one of them would leave the circus ring and roam the audience to capture some child for involvement in the performance. Maybe they were astute enough to recognise tougher victims.

    There is a working Jolly Sailor in Portsmouth Museum. His cackles echo around the exhibits for quite a distance. Once heard, never forgotten.

    I like the idea of tarry pigtails. What with the salt water as well, they would presumably be a type of dreadlock.

  9. Brooke says:

    The grotesques are here: . not secure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCP2iiP7YTg Try also Hanson Robotics (Hong Kong)

  10. Ian Luck says:

    I do think that if you have ever watched the delicious Ealing Studios’ ‘Dead Of Night’, or the Anthony Hopkins starring ‘Magic’, then your attitude to the Ventriloquist’s Doll (never a Dummy) will be irrevocably changed. I never found clowns to be funny in any way, shape, or form, and from an early age found them to be rather sinister. The thriller writer John Connolly wrote a short story that is included in his brilliantly horrid ‘Nocturnes’ anthology, entitled: “Some Children Walk By Mistake” – and if you weren’t sure about just how sinister clowns are, this will make your mind up. A favourite t-shirt of mine depicts an early 1980’s electronic musician called ‘Fad Gadget’ (real name, Frank Tovey), who for an album cover (1982’s ‘Incontinent’) had himself made up as Mr Punch, hooked nose, and lantern jaw, and the effect is truly nightmarish. I have had comments when wearing it, that are usually on the lines of: “That’s cool/bloody terrifying/who is that?/where did you get it from?/oh god, that’s nightmare fuel” etc.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Clowns conceal themselves completely and the makeup is not even human looking so why wouldn’t they be terrifying? I wonder if they are bothersome to people raised in the Japanese culture where serious drama uses those features. I’ve read of churches featuring “clown communion” and have never understood the rationale.
    I really think it’s the concealment that bothers us most. It would explain why clowns turn up in murder mysteries.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    I should like to point out that I don’t condone damaging books. However, I have to admit to doing it in the distant past. When I was in my school’s sixth form, I acquired some tatty ‘Ladybird’ books from the school library’s bin. One was entitled ‘The Carnival’, and was embellished throughout, with ridiculous names, altered signs, and ‘Derek and Clive’ style surrealist filth. One page featured a ‘Laughing Man’ at the entrance to a funfair. This was changed, by the genius level intellect of several 17 year olds, to a ‘Farting Man’, with the text altered to read something on the lines of: “Outside the fair was Farting Man. He wasn’t a real man, but a dummy made of rubber. From inside him came the sound of a man farting. This attracted people, and made them fart, too.” Replace the colloquial terms for flautus with the words ‘laughing’ and ‘laugh’. Not big, not clever, but after a while, the book vanished, and was later returned by a teacher. The book had been doing the rounds of the Staff room, and I was told, by a teacher who I never had any lessons with, that it had made several members of staff, some senior, cry with laughter. That was in 1980. People are doing the same thing now, and getting paid for it. Gutted.

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