It’s not a good time to be coulrophobic. The tremendous success of director Andy Muschietti’s two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s It has killer clowns popping up everywhere you look these days, thanks to Bill Skarsgård’s memorable portrayal of Pennywise, a terrifying evil entity that takes the form of a red-haired, shape-changing clown.
Even if you think clowns have gotten a bad rap over the years, there’s no denying that Hollywood has given audiences plenty of reasons to be afraid of the red-nosed, floppy-shoed entertainers. From monstrous, supernatural creatures like Pennywise to twisted, all-too-human killers with an affinity for colorful makeup, movie and TV clowns have provided plenty of nightmare fuel. Here’s where Pennywise ranks among the scariest, fictional killer clowns to appear on the screen.
Bobcat Goldthwait made his directorial debut with 1991’s dark comedy Shakes the Clown, and although he starred as the movie’s titular, alcoholic clown who finds himself framed for murder, it was his character’s primary nemesis that is most memorable. The film featured Tom Kenny as Binky, a cocaine-fueled, foul-mouthed clown who savagely beats his boss to death with a juggling pin and arranges for Shakes (Goldthwait) to take the blame.
If you don’t recognize Kenny, you might recognize his voice, as the actor has portrayed cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants for more than a decade — a fact that somehow makes his psychotic character even more creepy.
John Leguizamo portrayed the clown-faced demon who torments the hero of this 1997 film — an adaptation of the wildly popular Image Comics series of the same name. Although he plays a supporting role in the story, appearing periodically to taunt the dark antihero Spawn, Violator manages to be both sinister and silly in equal measure. Behind all of the fart jokes and bad puns lurks a vicious, violent creature from the depths of Hell who more than lives up to his name, and Violator makes sure Spawn realizes that before the film is over.
Comedian Ross Noble played the title role in this 2012 film about a birthday clown who returns from the dead to exact revenge on the kids whose actions led to his untimely demise. The low-budget, Irish production earned positive buzz from horror fans for its campy, excessively gory murder scenes that featured Stitches dispatching his victims in gruesome ways that echoed typical clown tricks. You’ll never think of balloon animals the same way again after seeing this film.
This criminally under-appreciated 2015 holiday horror film paired an impressive cast — including Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and David Koechner, among others — with fantastic creature effects produced by Weta Workshop. The result was a movie as scary as it was funny, including one particularly terrifying monster that took the form of a children’s jack-in-box toy. As the film’s characters learn, the long-necked harlequin that pops out of the musical box hides a dangerous secret, making for one of the film’s scariest recurring threats to the poor family tormented by the titular holiday demon.
Before he directed Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home, Jon Watts helmed this 2014 horror film about a doting father who attempts to salvage his child’s birthday party by donning a strange clown suit he finds, only to become the victim of a curse that begins turning him into a child-devouring demon. Unlike most of the killer clowns in this list, Kent McCoy (as portrayed by Andy Powers) is actually a good person, making his transition into a murderous creature infinitely more tragic. The film was notable for setting a particularly grisly scene in a Chuck E. Cheese play area, with the demon-clown hunting for victims in a claustrophobic maze of tubes, tunnels, and ball pits.
Musician-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie has a knack for crafting scary visuals, and his 2003 gore-fest House of 1000 Corpses lived up to its sinister title. It also introduced actor Sid Haig as Captain Spaulding, the brutish, violent patriarch of the murderous Firefly family with a disturbing affinity for clown makeup. The character played only a brief role in 1000 Corpses, but Haig’s portrayal of him was so popular that he reprised the role for 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects, delivering a performance as the psychotic, clown-faced killer that earned him the “Best Actor” award at Fangoria Chainsaw Awards that year.
The only entry in this list confined to the small screen, Twisty the Clown was one of many murderous characters introduced in the American Horror Story anthology series, but he went on to become one of the show’s most memorable (and nightmare-fueling) creations. A killer clown whose trademark mask hides a grisly secret, Twisty’s origin story is as tragic as his crimes are terrifying, and actor John Carroll Lynch was reportedly so effective at playing the menacing character that crew members would leave the set when he shot his scenes. That’s saying a lot, given that three seasons of murderous characters and gory mayhem preceded his debut.
Another entry that manages to be both silly and scary, the villains of this 1988 horror comedy were alien creatures who took on the exaggerated appearance of clowns and menaced the residents of a small town with deadly cotton-candy guns and other ridiculous, clown-inspired weapons. The campy film has become a cult classic due in no small part to the iconic look of the title characters, with their cartoonishly enhanced, rubbery features, which hit all the right buttons for sparking a coulrophobic reaction.
It only made a brief appearance in director Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film, but the clown doll that attacks young Robbie Freeling (Oliver Robins) made enough of an impact for the scene to be ranked as one of the scariest movie moments of all time. Not only does the scene simultaneously tap into fears of both clowns and dolls, but it also offers a reminder why it’s never a good idea for the characters in horror movies to look under their beds.
Yes, despite all of the competition from killer clowns in this list, the villain of It reigns supreme as the scariest of the bunch. Whether you’re talking about the recent two-part film series with Skarsgård in the title role or the 1990 miniseries that cast Tim Curry as Pennywise (pictured), the dancing, demonic clown that terrorizes Derry, Maine, is not only a scary figure but a clever one — two qualities that make it infinitely more sinister than your average movie monster. It can look into your soul and bring your deepest fears to life, scarring you psychologically long before it sinks its teeth into your body. It isn’t easy to turn something as simple as a single red ballon into the stuff of nightmares, but that’s the enduring power of Pennywise.
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