Between American Horror Story: Cult (premiering tonight) and the new It (out Friday), there seems to be an epidemic of scary clowns going on in pop culture right now. Hell, there’s even a movie called Clowntergeist heading to VOD later this month. Truly, there’s no better time to rank the scariest, most evil movie clowns of all time.
Jack Attack isn’t even the ultimate evil plaything in 1992's Demonic Toys—you gotta give that honor to Baby Oopsy Daisy, who makes Annabelle look like Malibu Barbie. However, Jack Attack is still incredibly unnerving, and though there’s also a more traditional clown doll in the mix, Jack’s got those blood-stained, Pennywise-esque chompers, and a chilling laugh that will make you never, ever want to turn the crank on a jack-in-the-box again.
When a circus performer is wrongfully accused of a terrible crime, he turns the tables on everyone by going on a gleefully gory rampage. The fact that he carries out his vengeance in full clown drag only enhances this energetically sleazy indie from 2007, which appears to have spent most of its sub-$100,000 budget on rivers and rivers of stage blood.
Like many a classic ‘80s slasher film, The House on Sorority Row begins when a prank goes horribly wrong, and those involved start getting picked off by a mysterious someone who’s hellbent on revenge. In this case, the killer stealthily targets the party girls of Theta Pi—but emerges for the final showdown dressed as a red-and-green harlequin. The costume mirrors an eerie music box that pops up throughout the movie, but even without that bit of synergy, it would be more than memorably ghoulish.
In this 2015 horror-comedy, the Engel family is having a serious Christmas-spirit crisis, so the legendary demon Krampus pays them a visit, and he doesn’t show up alone. Like Demonic Toys’ Jack Attack, Der Klown is a jack-in-the-box; he’s got tremendously awful jaws and plenty of ill intent (there’s a good reason he gets the last scare in the above trailer), but also manages to be weirdly jolly, too. Shudder-inducing, to say the least.
Cult oddity Xtro is about a father named Sam who’s abducted by aliens and returns rather changed. One of Sam’s fun new talents is being able to transform toys—like, say, his kid’s toy clown—into living objects, which he uses to help carry out his nefarious scheme. (Spoiler: Sam is actually an alien, who’s come to Earth with “powers of black magic from deep space.”) The clown isn’t the strangest part of this frequently gross 1982 scifi film, not by a long shot; he’s baaaarely in this mind-freak of a trailer. But once you see him... he will haunt you. Forever.
Yeah, these Klowns are schlocky. But they’re also heavily armed—with popcorn guns, cotton-candy cocoons, deranged balloon animals, deadly magic tricks, pies, Jojo the Klownzilla, etc.—and killing is their business. And somehow, the movie’s goofily vulgar tone, combined with the rubbery grins of its villains, adds up to something that has seemingly crept from the depths of your darkest nightmares.
No list of scary clowns is complete without Pogo, the alter ego of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. This 2003 biopic—in which Gacy is played by Mark Holton, who’s probably best-known as Frances the bike thief in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure—is at a distinct disadvantage, because the true story is far more sinister than anything a movie could conjure. But Gacy plays up the clown angle (the DVD cover features Holton in full make-up), and it’s easy to understand why; the combo of mass murderer and clown automatically elevates this story from docudrama to pure horror.
A few years before he made Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts directed this effectively alarming blend of clown horror and body horror in 2014. When the kiddie entertainment is a no-show at his son’s birthday party, nice guy Kent McCoy tries to do the right thing by putting on an old clown costume he finds in a basement. Unfortunately, the thing is cursed; not only can he not take it off, it starts turning him into an ancient demon that hungers for children—leading to an amazing scene in which Kent the Clown turns a Chuck E. Cheese’s into a grim hunting ground.
“What’s the matter, kid... don’t ya like clowns?” Rob Zombie’s horror movies can be polarizing, but one of the best things to emerge from his cinematic oeuvre is Sid Haig’s portrayal of Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses and its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects. Haig was already a veteran exploitation actor when signed on to play the foul-mouthed, happily psychotic patriarch of the Firefly family. Spaulding’s greasepaint gets grimier and grimer as the films progress, but he never completely leaves his clown aesthetic behind—which might be the freakiest thing about him.
It stands to reason that future serial maniac Michael Myers would slash up his first victim—his older sister—on his favorite holiday. It also stands to reason that he’d do the deed while dressed as you see above, proving that even pint-sized clowns can be as deadly dangerous as their adult counterparts. John Carpenter’s impressive POV opening sequence includes a shot of Michael’s hand reaching down to grab a red-nosed mask, foreshadowing the older Michael’s fondness for killing with his face covered.
By the time we get to Zombieland’s final act, the characters have been seen almost everything. Fighting zombies has become a way of life and they’re focused on survival. But dorky hero Columbus isn’t as jaded as he thinks he is when he encounters a drooling, fright-wigged zombie clown during the film’s climactic carnival scene. It’s played for laughs, but damn that dude is disturbing-looking. “Fuck this clown!” indeed.
There’s lots to fear in the unassuming suburban home occupied by the Freeling family: the TV people, the hungry tree outside, the skeleton-infested swimming pool, take your pick. Though tiny Carol Anne is the target of the home’s ghostly kidnappers, her older brother Robbie features in one of Poltergeist’s most unforgettably intense sequences. Robbie’s got a pretty typical toy collection for a kid his age (trucks, Star Wars stuff), but for some reason, he also owns possibly the most shudder-inducing clown doll of all time. Even sitting on a chair, it looks like it’s about to come alive and eat someone—which it very nearly ends up doing.
Bill Skarsgård’s frilly spin on Pennywise looks uniquely terrifying, as seen in the image at the top of this post. But until we see the new movie, O.G. Pennywise Tim Curry—the terror of Derry, who petrified the Losers Club so much as kids they all grew up to be worrisomely damaged adults, and did a number on anyone watching at home, too—holds the top spot. The make-up (and those pointy teeth) are undeniably scary, but Curry’s wonderfully oversized performance is what takes Pennywise over the top. Also, what’s the only thing worse than a monster that preys on your greatest fears? A monster that preys on your greatest fears... while dressed as a clown.