Grimaldi's Ghost

What's the one thing creepier than a clown?

By , Columnist

If clowns scare you then it's probably best to avoid Denmark this week. Answering the summons of whatever sinister power calls to them, clowns from across the planet are gathering in Svendborg for the 13th International Clown Festival.

As disturbing as that thought is, the creepiest clown of all won't be attending the Festival. He doesn't travel far these days and the reason for that is the same tiny detail that makes him more unnerving than any of his fellow entertainers - although he apparently still shows his face from time to time he's also been dead for almost 174 years.

Joseph Grimaldi was born on 18 December 1778 and he made his stage debut while only two or three years old. His first performance was at London's Sadler's Wells theatre with his father, an Italian also named Joseph but known as "Iron Legs" on account of his prodigious strength. Joseph junior went on to develop a white-faced character -- part simple-minded innocent and part cunning rogue -- that would inspire generation after generation of entertainers that followed him and would win him lasting fame as the "father" of modern clowns. (Some might say he has a lot to answer for.)

Grimaldi gave regular performances at Sadler's Wells and during the early years of the nineteenth century he was the theatre's star performer. According to one tale, a deaf and dumb man sitting in the audience at one show in July 1807 found Grimaldi so incredibly hilarious that his lost power of speech was shocked back into him and he cried out: "What a damned funny fellow!"

An amazing athlete with a genius for comic timing, Grimaldi could reduce audiences to tears of laughter with his pratfalls, tumbling tricks and slapstick comedy. But his highly physical performances eventually took their toll on his body and failing health forced him to retire.

He gave his final performance on 28 June 1828. No longer able to stand, Grimaldi was carried on stage in a chair in which he remained seated for the entire show, yet despite this handicap he made his audience cry with joy and he entered into retirement in triumph.

This raises an interesting question: if clowns are so "damned funny" then why are so many people afraid of them? Fear of clowns (known as "coulrophobia") has never been more fashionable it seems, and celebrities including rapper and music producer Sean Combs, actor and director Billy Bob Thornton, and Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe have all admitted that clowns scare them.

Perhaps it is the clown's mask that encourages distrust. The corpse-white make-up, blood-red nose and so on serve to hide the clown's true identity, and those painted features -- typically showing exaggerated glee or sadness -- conceal the clown's true emotions. Our potent fear of the unknown thus makes us wary of what lies beneath that fake surface.

These anxieties may well be reinforced by media images of characters such as The Joker in Batman, and Pennywise in Stephen King's It, as well as the knowledge that serial killer John Wayne Gacy performed at fundraising events and children's parties as "Pogo the Clown".

Clearly then, anyone who finds clowns scary shouldn't be embarrassed by it, but at least the clowns you see in circuses and at parties are flesh and blood beneath their outlandish outfits. Imagine meeting a phantom clown!

After Grimaldi died on 31 May 1837 he was buried in St James's churchyard on Pentonville Road, a short walk east from King's Cross railway station. The churchyard was later deconsecrated and today a part of it survives as the Joseph Grimaldi Park. Grimaldi's grave survives there also, where it can be easily identified by the hollow-eyed Comedy and Tragedy masks attached to the railings. As for Grimaldi's spirit, that supposedly lingers as well.

Tales from both Sadler's Wells theatre and the Theatre Royal in London's Drury Lane state that Grimaldi's face, eerily painted in his white make-up, has been seen to appear in those theatres' boxes. He reportedly gazes down on the stage, watching the performance over the shoulders of audience members as they sit in the dark, unaware of the apparition silently floating just behind them.

Grimaldi's ghost may also haunt his grave. A few years ago, Chris Halton from Haunted Earth, visited the grave and recorded what he thought might be the spirit voice of the great clown himself. Personally, I'm not convinced but you can make up your own mind by listening to the recording:

It's a close call but on balance I'd guess that encountering a spectral clown would be even more unsettling than meeting any of the living variety. Perhaps that Clown Festival doesn't sound so bad after all.

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James Clark is a freelance writer based in deepest, darkest south London, UK. His latest book, "Haunted Lambeth", exploring ghosts and legends from the London Borough of Lambeth, is due out in February 2013.

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