When I was a kid, maybe eight or nine years old, I was enrolled in the “Big Brother, Big Sister” program. Coming from a family in which I was the only sister to my three younger brothers, I really appreciated my “big sister”. Lisa was in college at St. Thomas and we did things like drink Diet Coke and play truth or dare. Lisa also liked to buy me little keepsakes, mostly journals and books. I liked the journals and books; I loved to read and write.
A few months into our budding sisterhood, for some reason that I cannot fathom now, my sister Lisa started buying me these dolls. I don’t recall having a particular fondness for dolls and these were no ordinary Barbie or Raggedy Ann dolls. They were these elaborately painted ceramic clowns with ornate satin costumes. In retrospect, I would call the dolls “noir”, in a way. They were not happy clowns. Their faces were lifelike, but weary, as if they had already seen too much of the world. They were certainly not meant to be played with. At my age, I had never really experienced the idea of a toy to not play with.
The dolls also came with individual display stands inside their large and partially transparent boxes. The clowns ranged in size from about 8 inches to more than a foot and a half. This was the 1980’s, I don’t remember if there was a sad clown doll fad or not, but I think I remember being with Lisa in the mall one day and seeing such a clown in an upscale gift shop and Lisa asking me if I liked it and I must have said yes or had some sort of positive reaction. To be agreeable, of course. As it turns out, I should have been honest and said “they’re a bit creepy”, but how was I to know what would follow? To be honest, I may have manufactured that memory in order to make sense of how these clown dolls ended up becoming such a bane to my existence.
It was not very long until I found myself the reluctant recipient of one such decorative clown. After receipt of the first clown, I brushed it off as a curious but isolated incident. However, I must have too enthusiastically accepted and given her the impression that I was a serious collector because the clowns became a regular gift, almost as regular as the diaries. I recall liking one clown. It was very feminine with bubblegum pink paint and white and pastel pink ruffles. Even as a child, I could appreciate couture to some level. Perhaps that was the first clown, because they progressively became larger and more frightening from then on.
I could not tell Lisa that the clowns scared me. After accepting a half dozen of them with false enthusiasm, I was too deep into it. I didn’t consciously make the connection between these garish porcelain clowns and the evil child-eating clown portrayed by Tim Curry in the Stephen King movie “It”, which I had recently seen with my elderly Persian grandmother. However, I did notice that I had begun to develop anxiety around these clown dolls. The clowns were stored out of sight in a closet, buried underneath things I would never have a use for. I hoped that the clowns would go away on their own, but that hope remained unfulfilled as apparently, the mother of all decorative clowns was soon to be bestowed upon me. A reckoning was coming.
The final clown I got from Lisa was the largest yet. I don’t know where she found these dolls, but this one must have been nearly half my height. The most imposing stationary clown I had ever seen in person. Real people dressed as clowns had never frightened me that I can recall. It was the glassy eyes and the ivory, motionless skin of the dolls that awoke a sense of fear. The possibility of demonic possession seemed very real in some of the more sinister looking clowns.
The night that Lisa had gotten me the clown doll to trump all others, I was sleeping in her dorm room (as I often did), in the living room on a couch-alone. The clown was stationed directly across the room from me; I was right in its line of sight. The clown appeared to be watching me out of the corner of one painted eye across the room. I tried not to make eye contact and a couple times looked away, and then glanced back to find that it seemed to have crept a millimeter closer to me. I was almost in a state of panic. I felt imminently in danger and could not turn my back to this clown. I didn’t even want to breathe too heavily for fear that it would notice me, come to life, and attack. I was not sure exactly what the clown would do to me in terms of physical harm, but it was obviously menacing. Who knows what these clowns are capable of? And did I really want to find out?
I lay rigid and sleepless most of the night on the couch, uncomfortably aware of my potential assailant in the corner resting (waiting?) against its display stand. At some point, Lisa came out of her room, noticed that I was wide awake and managed to pry the truth out of me. The charade was over. Somehow, Lisa made the connection between me having seen “IT” at the age of 8 and my fear of clowns.
You see, my grandmother had shown my three younger brothers and I the IT entire mini-series on tape. Bless her heart, she sincerely believed that because there was a clown in the movie, it was funny and appropriate for small children. She truly thought that we would love it. I am not sure about my brothers, but for me, not a single night passed for the next several years that I was not plagued by dreams of murderous clowns of every variety. Almost thirty years later, I remember the details of some of these nightmares.
When I confessed my embarrassing secret to Lisa that not only was I afraid of clowns at the time, but I had also been afraid of them for awhile, Lisa realized that pretty much all of the clown dolls she had given me were resulting in anxiety and nightmares, and thankfully, she was very understanding about my white lies. I was ashamed that not only had I been lying to her by pretending to like the clowns for months, but I was also old enough to know that porcelain dolls really don’t come to life and kill people- in theory. I was embarrassed about it for quite awhile, so much so that I avoided her for some weeks afterwards. Despite the fact that she had also seen the movie and insisted that I was definitely not ridiculous at all for being terrorized by a collectible clown, I remained a bit ashamed for years. In retrospect, it must have been pretty comical for her to realize that with her limited college student finances, she had spent a moderate amount of money on accidentally scaring the hell out of me. How could she have possibly known that my clueless, foreign grandmother would show a Stephen King movie to little kids? Even at the time, I recall my grandmother being confounded that we children were frightened by the evil clown that lured children into the sewer, severed limbs, ate them and could emerge from any water pipe it desired, not to mention a career defining performance by Tim Curry that helped bring the movie to life. When I revealed to my mother that my grandmother had subjected all four of us children to this four part bloodbath, my mother was furious. Many expletives in Farsi ensued.
I received no further clowns following the revelation that what I felt for them was the opposite of gratefulness. If there was a lesson to be learned from this, perhaps it would be that one should not pretend to like a gift, for that gift may become a curse. Or maybe the lesson is that it’s better not to let a person who thinks Stephen King is appropriate for children babysit your kids carte blanche for extended lengths of time? I suppose I learned both.