This week new blogger Tim Schipke comments on the archetypal dimensions of a creepy character showing up in our cultural psyche – and in real life – this time of year…
Something deeply unsettling is stirring in the collective psyche this Halloween. After starting in 2014 in California, “creepy clown” sightings have recently resurfaced in South Carolina and Wisconsin in August. Now the creepy clown sightings have spread globally to the United Kingdom and Australia. The cause of the recent rash of sightings, according to the New York Times, remains a mystery. However, from the perspectives of myth and depth psychology, these sighting are neither a mystery nor surprising; rather they are the most recent example of the eternal, ongoing, and mythic expression of the collective unconscious. Whenever the collective unconscious becomes enlivened and activated, often due to stressful or unsettling events and changes, it presents mythic symbolism to the collective consciousness in a sort of balancing in fulfillment cultural psychological needs.
Clowns go back over 4,500 years to Egypt’s Old Kingdom 5th dynasty. They filled a Chinese ruler’s courts 4,000 years ago. Clown societies among the Pueblos, in Ancient Greece, and in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries have continued an unbroken, cross-cultural expression of the archetypal psychological energies represented by the clown. The clown, as archetype, can be considered an expression of the more basic mythic Trickster figure. The Trickster, like all aspects, is dualistic, composed of both shadow and light. As a shadow figure, Trickster expresses those traits that individually or collectively, we would rather disown and leave unacknowledged.
In the Catholic Feast of Fools, a festival popular from the 12th to 17th centuries, the Holy Mass was mocked and blasphemed. The altar was profanely decorated as a table for eating, drinking, and playing dice, and, in role reversal mirroring the Roman festival of Saturnalia, the lower clergy mocked and threw out the higher clergy and took over for the time of the feast.
Likewise, clowns, sharing both light and dark aspects (but clearly the recent clown sightings are expressing the darker aspect of the figure), make fun of and mock the existing order. They ridicule ruling authorities and express uncomfortable truths behind their dark clown veneer, taking into account the denied shadow aspects of the collective. They are known in German cultures as Widersachers, opposing counsel that speak for the other side, the left-handed reflection of the right. In this way the clown performs the compensatory and transformational function of the Trickster.
The clown is the Lord of Disorder, as the devil was called in medieval times, a social outcast, and a misfit. The clown breaks taboos and stands outside of the social order, in service of the shadow power that is the declared enemy of well-behaved and ordered society. Serving a quasi-religious function, the creepy clown ultimately points out that there is, in fact, no separate Lord of Disorder; the Lords of Order and Disorder, of Shadow and Light, are in fact an expression of the same transpersonal power.
The clown has again resurfaced from the collective unconscious for a contemporary rebirth, beginning to make his ordering and disordering energies felt in new, more personal ways. As Jung observed, direct encounters with the unconscious can be overwhelming, disturbing, and terrifying for those who have turned their back or unfamiliar with the unconscious as a sovereign power and have no relationship to it as an autonomous entity. The modern creepy clown sightings have instilled fear in those that have come face to face with it.
Current events, particularly the ever-growing dysfunction of the political system, have become a source of deep anxiety for the collective, particularly in Anglophone societies. The New York Times reported that some mental health therapists are reporting that three-quarters of their patients are mentioning significant election-related anxiety. An American Psychological Association study found that more than half of all Americans are very or somewhat stressed by this race. Not a few politicians, both here and in the United Kingdom, are behaving like creepy clowns. At worst, they themselves may actually be possessed by the creepy clown figure as psychological complex, unconsciously fermenting chaos and disorder unwittingly in service of this transpersonal power.
The creepy clown has reappeared to fulfill its age-old role of expressing and exposing the unacknowledged shadow side of the collective order. Perhaps the creepiness of this menacing clown potentially masks a deeper state of sadness and despondency in the collective at the current chaotic state of political and cultural affairs. In any case, the clown comes to remind us that Chaos and Disorder too have their place in the scheme of things.
Tim Schipke is a Ph.D. student in East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is interested in Jungian and archetypal psychology, particularly mythic archetypes and how they manifest in the contemporary collective psyche.