The horror of It: Creepy clown phobia forces Edmonton festival to re-brand

A maniacal clown created by horror writer Stephen King is returning to the silver screen, prompting an outbreak of coulrophobia.

'It's clear that clowns have this negative connotation of being creepy,' says festival's artistic director

It, a new adaption of a Stephen King novel, is stirring up clown phobia in Edmonton. (Warner Bros)

A maniacal clown created by horror writer Stephen King is returning to the silver screen, prompting an outbreak of coulrophobia.

Yes, fear of clowns is a thing — and It, a film remake based on one of King's creepiest works, is only adding to the phobia around the pancake-faced jesters.

The creepy clown stereotype has reached such an extreme, it's forced an Edmonton festival to change its name.

The Edmonton Clown Festival is returning this season as Play the Fool Festival.

"It's clear that clowns have this negative connotation of being creepy," said Christine Lesiak, the new artistic director for the festival, which runs from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1.

The clown paranoia has been especially powerful in recent months as promotion for the remake of It gears up in advance of its international release on Sept. 8.

Pennywise, the film's villain, is a real monster. The shape-shifting predator lurks in city sewer pipes, terrorizing and murdering neighbourhood children with abandon.While horror fans are excited about the remake, those already suffering from a paralyzing fear of clowns are not happy to see Pennywise make a comeback.

Neither are the people who play friendly, lovable clowns.

The Edmonton clown festival decided to distance itself from those connotations after last year's inaugural season, Lesiak said.

"The word clown can be quite triggering for people," said Lesiak, who is also a clown performer. "There is a certain perception of big shoes, big hair, wigs, grotesque makeup and Stephen King's It that comes to mind with the word clown.

"The corruption of the innocent, it's the classic horror movie trope. I mean are people afraid of dolls now because of the Chucky film? Probably."

Pennywise is not the first creepy clown. People have been making villains of them for generations.  

But the stereotype ignores the diversity in clowning, said Lesiak.

There are trapeze artists, musicians and make-up free characters like Mr. Bean who all fit the clown category.

They're not all white-faced, red-nosed horrors.

"That classic look comes out of a very old tradition of the American circus clown and you can imagine yourself in a ring of thousands of people and you needed big hair and big make-up to be able to be seen by your audience

"Yes, there are clowns that are horror clowns, but that would be one per cent."

Red-nosed horrors and reluctant ringleaders 

Aytahn Ross, who will perform at the festival as The Great Balanzo, sports a moustache and dresses like an old ringmaster.

He is reluctant to describe himself as a clown.

"I've just acknowledged that sometimes I'm a clown. I will sometimes refer to myself as an aging middle-aged clown, but that's just my real life persona," Ross said with a chuckle. 

"I'm a contemporary clown, I like to use that word." 

Ross said pop culture is stuck in a "Ronald McDonald clown era," and friendly clowns need to work hard to fight those deep-seated stereotypes. 

"We just have to expand that concept," he said. "I think it's amazing because it's such a powerful concept and image in our society and our collective consciousness.

"It's a powerful image and we just have to be careful not to fall into clichés."