He’s written factual studies about the mythical chupacabra, about spooky New Mexico folklore like the tales of La Llorona, of monsters who live in lakes. But in his latest book, New Mexico author Benjamin Radford turns his attention to a subject that for some people is much scarier than any of those legendary creatures:
Clowns. Evil clowns. Scary clowns. Creepy clowns. Sleazy clowns. Bad clowns.
While most people don’t think much about clowns — finding them at worst corny or mildly annoying — images in recent decades of serial killer John Wayne Gacy and Stephen King’s character Pennywise, and frightening film portrayals of Batman’s old enemy The Joker by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger have creeped many people out.
So the ground was fertile for a mind like Radford’s. And thus was born his latest book, Bad Clowns, published earlier this year by University of New Mexico Press. As he points out in the introduction of the book, “Bad Clowns have — much to the irritation of good clowns — over the years become the most recognizable type of clown.”
“It is an unusual topic, even for me,” he said in a recent interview at his Rio Rancho home. His kitchen table was a colorful spread of scary clown masks, including one his father recently brought him from Peru, a jack-in-the-box in which a demonic Bozo was ready to spring; plastic toys of The Joker, Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons and other bad clown memorabilia. It’s obvious that Radford is not a victim of coulrophobia — fear of clowns, which he points out in the book is not an actual clinical diagnosis. Nor did he yearn to run away and join the circus as a child growing up in Corrales.
“I tend to seek out topics that haven’t been done before,” he said. “I’m not going to do a book on the history of New Mexico, I’m not going to do a book on NASCAR, I’m not going to do a book on JFK. I’ve been fortunate in my writing life to more or less choose my own topics. For me, that’s important because if I’m going to spend years of my life researching and writing stuff, I have to care about it. It needs to be something that intrigues me enough to get into it.
“That was the thing with Bad Clowns as well as the chupacabra book,” Radford said, referring to his 2011 work Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore. “A lot of people were talking about it, it was well known, but nobody had actually looked at it seriously, even in a semi-scholarly, academic point of view. … It’s really interesting when you start looking at the nuances and the different clowns in real life and in pop culture. … There are lots of fascinating angles into it. You have folklore, you have history, you have pop culture, you have psychology. So that was what really intrigued me. It’s such a rich vein that’s not immediately obvious.”
In this book, Radford explores all sorts of “bad” pop culture clowns: Captain Spaulding from the Rob Zombie movies, Homie the Clown from In Living Color, the 1988 cult movie Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Obnoxio the Clown from Crazy magazine, old Wall of Voodoo album covers and the Insane Clown Posse’s “Juggalo” followers.
But even more satisfying are chapters on other “bad clown” phenomena, such as the “phantom clown” scare of 1981, when children in several cities reported terrifying encounters with clowns, some who were carrying guns or machetes, who tried to abduct them. (Though some kids or their parents reported this to police, there was never any actual evidence that such crimes ever took place. No children were actually harmed, and at least some of the kids reporting such incidents later recanted their wild stories.)
More recently, there have been reports of sinister “clown stalkers” in England, New York and California. Some of these creepy clowns turned out to be part of art projects, and the clowns didn’t try to kidnap children. They just silently skulked around and scared decent citizens. Radford also wrote about these in a recent issue of The Skeptical Inquirer, a bimonthly national publication.
For research on the book, Radford spent time at the New Mexico State Fair midway, interviewing a professional dunk-tank clown who talked about the art of insulting passers-by who pay to throw baseballs at a target in order to make him fall into a huge tank of water.
Bad Clowns even has a chapter called “The Carnal Carnival: Buffoon Boffing and Clown Sex” (“I’m especially proud of that title,” he said) in which Radford interviewed Ouchy the S&M Clown of San Francisco and called attention to a little-known First Amendment case that forced the Nebraska Supreme Court to view a film of a lewd clown in action. Some of his interviews go back 10 years.
And, as Radford alluded to, there is history. “Bad clowns” actually is not a recent phenomenon. “There’s an incorrect notion that clowns were once always happy and jolly and that the evil clown is a new turn on that. In fact, clowns have always been fairly ambiguous characters. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad. Sometimes they’re trickster figures. … Sometimes they’re making people laugh, sometimes they’re scaring the hell out of people.”
The book delves into historical clowns including Harlequins, court jesters, Punch & Judy shows, white-faced Pagliachi committing double homicide in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera. Bobcat Goldthwait’s 1991 movie Shakes the Clown was hardly the first portrayal of an alcoholic clown. Charles Dickens edited the memoirs of a tragic, real-life British clown named Joseph Grimaldi, who died in 1837.
Radford has written eight previous books, “usually along the lines of skepticism, critical thinking.” Besides the work on el chupacabra, his other titles include Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment (2014); The Martians Have Landed! A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes (2011, co-authored with Robert Bartholomew) and Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries (2010).
Radford’s “day job” is right in line with all of this. He makes most of his living as a deputy editor of The Skeptical Inquirer. He’s worked for the publication since the 1990s, shortly after he graduated from The University of New Mexico. He fell in love with the publication ever since he stumbled upon a copy in a used bookstore in Utah. That copy, he said, had a story by magician and skeptic James Randi debunking the prophetic powers of Nostradamus.
Radford is listed as a research fellow for the magazine’s parent organization, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He also works as a “paranormal investigator.” For instance, in 2007, when a ghostlike image appeared on security footage at the old First District courthouse in Santa Fe — and became a YouTube sensation — Radford was the party pooper who conducted a series of experiments on the camera and concluded the mysterious spirit was likely an insect.
Writing is in his blood. Radford is the son of a journalist, Jeff Radford, who founded The Corrales Comment in 1982. Besides his work at the Inquirer, the younger Radford is a contributor to Discovery News and LiveScience.com. He’s frequently called upon for television appearances.
“Basically, whenever there is a subject that’s sort of weird, and they want someone credible,” he said. “… For example, I was on Good Morning America [talking about] the Loch Ness Monster. There had been a new sighting.”
Radford always is busy looking for new book topics. And he’s already thinking about what to add if there is a second edition of Bad Clowns.
“Every time I write a book, especially with something like clowns, basically the day after my book comes out, some clown stabs somebody in Iowa.” He said he has a file folder called “Bad Clown Updates.” Already, he said, he has four or five items, so if and when it goes to a second edition, he’ll be ready.