I feel about clowns the same way I feel about spiders: It’s not an actual phobia, and I think the fear is overblown, but I regard them with a certain level of suspicion and would prefer to keep a healthy distance. Also, they’re much scarier in groups.
When I heard about the Alamo Drafthouse’s Sept. 9 clowns-only screening of It, I experienced a level of dread and nervous excitement I haven’t encountered since my bar mitzvah — and I was considerably more prepared for that than Stan Uris. An entire auditorium of clowns is an objectively distressing concept, whether or not you’re weirded out by clowns as a rule. At the same time, I loved the idea of seeing the movie again, this time among like-minded freaks — and maybe (dare I say it?) rooting for Pennywise. My friend Michael Tom had already snagged tickets, so I agreed to join him before I could really process the consequences. I did decide, however, that if I was going to be surrounded by clowns at a screening of a film starring fiction’s most notorious murder clown — I think John Wayne Gacy still holds the real-life title — I would have to fully commit to my clown look.
And I’d bring along a photographer because I don’t cake on layers of terrifying makeup for my health. (Although I’m told everything we used is nontoxic.)
Because It has already had a negative effect on the clown community, I decided to do my part for It-clown relations by having a professional clown design my look and do my makeup. We hired Sassi the Clown, who ended up being a total delight and thrillingly open-minded about the whole evil clown thing. It helped that she had just come from a kids’ birthday party and needed a break from doing princess face paint. Sassi was committed to the idea of turning me into the scariest clown possible, and she used the new Pennywise as inspiration for my makeover. I don’t have Bill Skarsgård’s Nordic cheekbones to work with, but she made do.
Sassi admitted that, yes, It can be bad for clown business. But she also said there’s a silver lining for her — she’s more often asked to do a “soft clown” look. This look consists of no white face paint, which I can now attest is a bitch to get off, because that’s a lot less confronting to Pennywise-scarred children. I found Sassi to be both insightful and informative about the realities of professional clowning, and she didn’t seem to mind that the photographer, Amy, and I asked so many questions. For example, did you know that there is a supposed rivalry between clowns and mimes? Sassi doesn’t think it’s as much of a conflict as some would have you believe.
It was Sassi’s idea to paint glowing yellow eyes on my eyelids, a fun little trick that made every blink total nightmare fodder to those around me. Listen, it’s not an entirely realistic effect, but it’s totally creepy, and not all of us have access to expensive CGI enhancements. (Also, I love my job, but I don’t “use color contacts” love my job. Life is about compromise.)
The part of the day I was most worried about was taking public transportation from my office in Union Square to the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn. But as it turns out, New Yorkers have seen much weirder shit on the Q, and no one really paid much attention to what Michael Tom and I were doing. With the exception of a teen who approached me to ask if I would help him scare his friend by walking over and hugging him while he filmed it on his phone. I declined, because I really didn’t feel like getting punched for the sake of someone else’s viral video. Oh, and one very sweet woman told us she doesn’t understand why people are afraid of clowns. I was weirdly touched? Like, thank you, kind stranger, for pretending I’m not horrifying.
We arrived at the theater without incident and made our way to the bar. There were red balloons everywhere — has anyone from the balloon community spoken out about the effect It is having on red balloon sales? — and a themed cocktail, the S.S. Georgie, described on a paper boat. Anyone who has read the book or seen the movie knows that Georgie and his boat meet a particularly unpleasant end. So while I was delighted enough by the cocktail (balloon garnish!) to Instagram it, I did make sure to caption the photo “too soon.”
We’d gotten to the Alamo Drafthouse early, so it took a while for the other clowns to arrive. I briefly worried that this whole thing was an elaborate prank designed to make me look like a goddamn idiot. But that would have been a really great prank — and my clown makeup was on point — so I couldn’t have even been that mad. Anyway, it was a moot point: I soon learned I was far from the only clown in attendance, as more and more started filing in. The looks ranged from the cute to the frightening to the (I’m just going to say it) awkwardly attractive. There were…a lot of hot clowns. Deal with it.
I don’t know what I really expected in terms of preshow festivities. Would we show off our clowning skills? Would we band together to eat children? But neither juggling nor murder was on the agenda. Instead, we just kind of milled about. It wasn’t exactly the dynamic clown party I’d hoped for-slash-feared, but it was an appropriately harrowing spectacle. You couldn’t throw a comically oversized shoe without hitting a clown in that place. And while I’d expected to feel seriously uncomfortable, I found myself enjoying the sense of community. I was among peers!
Still, the best thing about the clowns-only screening of It is that there were people at the Alamo Drafthouse who had not heard about the clowns-only screening of It. Imagine walking into a theater lobby and seeing 50 clowns staring back. I’m pretty sure I’ve had that actual nightmare. Ryan Murphy optioned it and turned it into American Horror Story: Cult. At one point, a little girl walked by shielding her eyes and repeating the mantra “Is it over? Is it over? Is it over?” I felt for that kid, but I’ll admit I was thrilled. What’s the point of dressing up like an evil clown if you can’t traumatize at least one child?
We eventually made our way into the theater, where the sheer volume of clowns became more apparent and I started to feel a tiny bit overwhelmed. I couldn’t help but think of the opening of Scream 2 — if one of these clowns started stabbing, would anyone intervene? I mean, who willingly signs up for this type of screening in a post–Scream 2 world? Did we learn nothing from Jada Pinkett Smith’s mistakes? But no, everyone really was just there to have a good time. There was a lot of joy and goodwill in that theater, and sensing that, I started to mellow out. Besides, an allergy attack had sent some of my face paint into my eyes — I had bigger concerns.
Ordering a Diet Coke helped. (Diet Coke always helps.) Sassi had advised me to be really careful when eating, and I’d already swallowed a substantial amount of paint at this point, so I abstained from my Drafthouse go-to, chips and queso. I did eat one of Michael Tom’s fries, but I managed to avoid touching my lips to it at all. Please do not try to picture what I looked like essentially sliding a french fry down my gullet. Thanks.
The clowns-only screening was an inspired idea, made better by its incredible origin story — the whole thing was ironically suggested by a troll who was pissed off about Alamo Drafthouse’s women-only screenings of Wonder Woman; the theater took the comment and ran with it. That is a level of pettiness I can only aspire to. But points to them for making it happen and taking it seriously — or, you know, as seriously as you can take an event at which clown makeup is considered mandatory.
As for the movie, I found that the clowns-only screening didn’t really change my opinion of It: I hoped I’d feel a new kinship with Pennywise, but I don’t feel any more intimately acquainted with him than before. Makeup or not, I have an Eddie Kaspbrak–like aversion to sewers and will never really relate to any creature that opts to hang out in poo-water. And while my nerves were a little heightened being surrounded by so many fully committed clowns, I still think the movie itself is more emotionally resonant than it is scary. Which is fine! I even got kind of teary this time! And then I got makeup in my eyes again. And then I cried a little more.
I’m fairly certain, though, that my days of being a clown are behind me. I saw how much work Sassi puts into her profession, and I don’t think it’s really fair of me to dabble. But I’m glad I got to try it out for a day — and I hope I didn’t do any lasting damage to a clown community that’s already dealing with a lot. But never say never, right? I mean, we all know there’s going to be a sequel.