‘Why so serious?’ asks Heath Ledger’s incarnation of The Joker, inviting us to not only look on the bright side of death but to join him and a whole clown-car of other cinematic and literary characters in their macabre revolution, their ruthful uprising, the infectious madness of their monstrous carnival. Concealing and revealing in equal amounts, the figure of the clown skips back and forth across ideological and thematic boundaries in the twenty-first century, alternating between horrifying and amusing, turning order into chaos, and earning a remarkable following as they do so. But long before Heath Ledger and Bill Skarsgård were helping The Dark Knight (2008) and IT (2017) rake in critical acclaim and millions of dollars, the clown was already a figure of controversy, fascinating contradiction, and – unsurprisingly – the subject of extensive critical attention. This paper will explore the significant popularity of the clown figure in twenty-first century main-stream cinema. By utilising the theories of Noël Carroll, Schopenhauer and Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, it will argue that this cinematic clown ‘fetish’ is symptomatic of a society riddled with disillusionment and dissatisfaction; one increasingly obsessed with characters who embody the philosophical amalgamation of Horror and Humour in their very appearance, motivation, and maniacal disruption of the status quo.

About the speaker

Oliver Rendle is a graduate of Glasgow University’s Fantasy MLitt program; his research interests include Pessimism, Horror, Humour and Children’s Literature. He has presented papers at Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations, Lancaster University’s Fantastika Conference and Tales of Terror at the University of Warwick.

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