This post contains spoilers for Stephen King’s It and last week’s American Horror Story, but not this week’s, because I haven’t watched it yet. I don’t mind if you spoil it when making comments, though.
American Horror Story has made me sad. They had such a great thing going with that clown. But they ruined it. No no, not by killing him. I mean, I’m kind of bummed about that too, because it’s too early in the season to lose their best feature, but I could have handled that.
But first they had to give him an origin story, and that’s where it all went wrong. Horror rule, you guys: leave the clown alone. Resist the urge to mess with the clown.
Do you remember when you read It, and Pennywise was just the most terrifying thing? And then the makeup came off and it was just, like, a big bug? That was such a letdown. The only thing that kept it from ruining the book was that the rest of it was so damned scary that you could forgive even that big a flaw. American Horror Story just made the same mistake, and they haven’t got Stephen King’s skill to talk their way out of it. (Don’t feel bad, Ryan Murphy and friends. Nobody does.)
Because you have two kinds of villains: villains who are uncomfortably like the rest of us, and monsters. The former are relatable, and that makes them both scary and tragic. You might hate them, but you get it, how they became what they did, the things that make us crack, the darkness within all of us. Nobody likes to look too long into that darkness, and these villains work because somewhere in the back of your mind you’re afraid that, given the same circumstances, that could be you.
These are good candidates for origin stories and mask removal. We need to know their motivations and we need to understand them. They need character arcs of their own. They don’t work otherwise, and they come off flat.
But monsters work the opposite way. They must be mysterious. The source of their terror is their otherness, their inhumanity, the sense of something bigger and badder than any of us. It’s great for them to be disguised as something familiar, especially if it’s something related to childhood, like a clown or a doll. That only adds to the effect. But you must make me imagine something awful under there without ever, under any circumstances, showing it to me. Take off the mask and give me a big spider, or a sad man who hasn’t got the capacity to judge the right or wrong of his actions, and you’ve just replaced the mystique with something I can deal with, even something mundane. The trick to the monster is understanding that you can’t scare someone better than they can scare themselves.
Where American Horror Story went wrong is that they started with a monster and then at the last second tried to swap it for the human kind of villain. Once you’ve put someone in a clown suit, he is not that kind of villain. He is unequivocally a monster, and there’s nothing you can show me under his makeup that will be scarier than him with it on.
Okay, fine, maybe they didn’t want him to be scary anymore. But why not? Why ruin all that terror momentum they had going, just on the off chance that they could use a few minutes before they killed him off, after we’ve been watching a monster for weeks, to make us see a sad man instead, and feel sorry for him?
There’s no point to that, and also, it didn’t work. The origin story wasn’t interesting or good. And going for the cheap gross-out with that jaw? Totally ruined a perfectly good evil clown. It’s like Pennywise all over again.
Just leave the clown alone.
Props for getting Wes Bentley though, AHS.