Fabricating a Phobia – Meeting the Chiodo Brothers

I hate clowns…

There. I said it.

Okay, okay, maybe hate is a strong word. I strongly, strongly dislike clowns. And it’s always just inherently… been a thing, about me, as far back as I can remember. I recall distinctly, as a REALLY young kid, having one of those generic “insert your kids name here” books that parents love, with the really super bright and colorful illustrations including plain-featured everyboy or everygirl to accommodate the story. Mine was of generic Chris enjoying a day at the circus. And as one would expect, ya know, it featured a damn clown. As a recurring character. On like… every page.

And to be fair… he was a really friendly looking clown. This was well before I’d had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting the likes of Pennywise, or Twisty, or Art the Clown. This was just a regular ol’, run-o-the-mill clown with a big round red nose and even bigger shit-eating grin. The jerk. I still recall just having this unexplainable aversion to this oddly colorful, big shoed adult man waving balloons around. He was just creepy.

Have you ever seen a vintage photo of a clown? No? Do me a favor and open a new tab and Google “1800’s clowns.” Yeah. You’re welcome. Have fun sleeping tonight. Does this kid look stoked?

Yeah don’t look like it to me.

So, I’m not alone! Ha! Yeah! Take that, everyone currently reading this and giggling thus far.

Coulrophobia, while not an “official” phobia as deemed by the World Health Organisation, is widely known and accepted as meaning the fear of clowns, and is a young entry among the list of true and pseudo-phobias, having only existed as long as clowns themselves have. Long story short, there’s not a ton of pre-existing study out there to pull real statistics from, but its estimated something like 12% of American adults suffer from this same aversion, and some studies have shown that kids are more prone to not just avoid, but fear clowns. So, as a someone who’s basically an 11-year-old in a 30-year-old’s body, I’ll take my place in the 12%, bare thine giggles, jam my thumbs in my ears and twist my open hands to and fro shouting “NER NER NER NER NER”.

So, let’s fast forward a few years to what I now recall as being my first experience to really amplify clowns from “creepy” to flat out “aww hell no”, my older sister sitting me down to watch a movie. I’m sure some of you had that older sibling growing up who loved to expose you to stuff you prooooobably weren’t quite old enough to be exposed to just yet, and my sister was really, really good at this (Jaime I love you and you might have single-handedly instilled a love of horror in me but, you were a snot and you know it). Little did I know this movie would stick with me to this very day as one of the single most terrifying things I’d ever seen. Or… ya know… that my sister would continue to exploit that fear for her own amusement for years to come, though I probably should’ve seen that comin’.

That movie was Killer Klowns from Outer Space.

Now, as an adult—and admittedly it’s been a few years since I’ve seen this flick but c’mon man, its clowns—this movie is a dark-but-comedic cult classic boasting perhaps one of my favorite artistic visions of any movie of this era, existing in a realm I like to draw from in my own creations, somewhere between real life and cartoon-level fantasy. But… as a kid, I wanted to claw my eyes out. Fast enough to start a friction fire. So I could set the TV ablaze so this wretched film could never hurt anyone again.

I don’t remember a ton from that first watch aside from being scared out of my wits by it. I remember thinking the ship was fantastical, but in an ominous way—part of me wanted to go play in it, and part of me knew if I did I wasn’t leaving. The clowns to me, inertly terrifying just for being clowns to begin with, were exaggerated physically and in oddity to the Nth degree, taking everything terrifying I already knew about the idea of a clown up that scale with it. They didn’t really speak, they didn’t need to, the evil bastards. But the cocoons… the big cotton candy cocoons, I had nightmares about for weeks. This movie had fully solidified my fear of clowns.

You’re… you’re giggling again… guys… okay, let’s… let’s just press on.

Fast forward again to a few months back, at Klive’s house and he’s reading me the list of celebrities to appear at this past weekend’s Monster Mania 39 in Cherry Hill. Klive’s a close personal friend so he’s, let’s say, encountered my aversion to clowns on more than one occasion in the past, and grinned devilishly as he said “…oh YOU’RE gonna love this one, ready for this?” The Chiodo Brothers themselves, the creators of these creatures which served as the seed that’d grow into a lifelong phobia, were going to be live in the flesh doing signings and meet-and-greets, with, supposedly a ton of props from the film AND a Saturday Q&A. I was equally mortified and excited. I believe my exact response was a scathingly sarcastic “Oh GREEEEEEEEAT…” squeezed through gritted teeth and a worried smile.

I’ve never been the type to come to these sorts of events for the celebrity meet and greets. I love conventions for the environment, I love the vendors—particularly the art and creators booths, being a creator myself, and to be fair I do enjoy just being in the same room as some of these folks and listening to their Q & A panels, hearing their story about pursuing their crafts and seeing them interact with fans. When Klive, Naya and myself have gone to these kinds of events in the past, typically I’m the dude hanging out beside the line with the camera waiting to snap a good couple shots of THEIR interactions meeting some of their favorites. But on Friday night, as the convention was coming to a close for the first night and we realized we were in probably our last room for the evening, even I hopped in the line for what I’m now calling Killer Klown Alley.

As we walked in I immediately zeroed in on a mask. A familiar looking mask. A clown mask. Even the thought of a decapitated clown made my stomach flip. Quickly I came to realize that the entire back length of the wall of one of the smaller signing rooms, along with another two booths down the side, were set up the cast and crew behind Killer Klowns, including Suzanne Snyder, Grant Cramer, Mike Martinez, Harrod Blank, and the Chiodo Brothers, Stephen, Edward and Charlie. Klive hopped in line for Suzanne as I nervously eyed up the various props from the film around the room.

Klive finished up his chat with Suzanne, we snapped a couple photos and he snagged her signature on his Klowns BluRay, and we quickly shuffled over to the Chiodo brothers line and THAT’S when they got me. I noticed a large binder full of what looked like large art prints, and some pink books strewn across their lengthy set of tables. The line was slow but my interest was piqued and anxiety at least muffled by the promise of soon flipping through this huge book of art.

Now, I didn’t know a whole lot about the Chiodo brothers before this event, to be quite honest. I was aware that all 3 had a background in special effects work and creature/character creation across various films (you might’ve seen their work in Critters, Team America, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and Ernest Scared Stupid as well to name a few—thanks for that damn troll too guys, really, 10 year old me REALLY appreciates that one too), but I had zero idea that the initial fever-dreams behind the Klowns would be on display that night in the signing room, in the form of sketches—presumably penned with some demon-bird’s quill dipped in hell-scorpion venom—from the hands of Charlie Chiodo, specifically.

Once the line had finally inched far enough that I felt comfortable enough to butt in front of Naya to get my paws on this binder full of prints I did just that, and dove in headlong into sketch after sketch of clown after clown, of all shapes and sizes and configurations of colors, several of which were done in a very messy, conceptual, stylistic kind of way that reminded me of how I often like to do my sketches, just… much more refined and stylized. I wanted to buy them all, but at what I feel was a very fair 40 dollars a piece (they were fairly large, and signed, prints), my wallet wasn’t with it.

So instead I just opted to browse from cover to cover and back again, presumably with a massive grin on my face, and while we were still nowhere near the front of the line, I guess that my artsy fanboying caught the attention of Charlie, who strolled down to our end of the table and struck up a conversion about his pieces. He explained how this sketch was an adaptation of this clown character from the film, or how this sketch later went on to become a rendering which then became the actual interior of the ship set you see in the movie. I was enthralled at the process and method and story behind each one of these images. And maybe more-so, at how Charlie lit up like a kid on Christmas sharing his behind-the-scenes take on his creations.

So enthralled actually that I didn’t get a whole lot of shots of any of those prints, although I don’t think that the artist in me would share them here anyway. But I emplore you, if you’re into the art style of Killer Klowns, go and search out Charlie’s stuff.

Charlie did sell me on one of those pink books I mentioned earlier though, which turned out to be one of the coolest published sketchbooks I’ve ever seen an artist put out, titled “Invasion of the Clown Clones”. It’s basically a series of preliminary and then more finalized sketches of pop culture icons (ranging from H.P. Lovecraft to King Kong and beyond) lending from the Killer Klowns aesthetic. Each spread features a QR code, which can be scanned to land the user at a video of Charlie actually working through the sketches for that page. I thought this was one of the coolest concepts I’ve ever seen in a published book of sketches, and potentially one of the best uses I’ve ever seen of a QR code… maybe EVER… as well, if I’m being honest. He was selling the book for $25, and offered to sign it with his brothers as well. Given that a signature alone was 30 bucks, and that I was in love with this art, I couldn’t pass it up. Charlie personalized his signature before passing the book down the table to his brothers, with a note reading:

“To Chris,
Imagination and art are always best when shared!”

Once we’d arrived at our the main table for the brothers, we got to chat with all 3 of them a bit more about their films and their affinity for dreaming up particularly twisted looking and unsettling creatures, characters, props and more. All of them were extremely genuine, down to earth and easy to speak to, and seemed more than happy to engage with their fans. I got to tell them how much their stuff messed me up as a kid, which, as a creature creator for spooky flicks I gotta think is a huge compliment. They certainly seemed very pleased. I thanked Charlie again for the book, telling him as an artist how much I love to see this kind of stuff, and as we went to leave, he stopped me and said “hey, find me on Facebook man, I’d love to see your stuff.” 

So giggle all you like—this long-winded article has all been a set-up, really, to a wholehearted thank you to the Chiodo brothers. Thank you for screwing me up as a kid and being a huge early influence into my obsession with exposing myself to fear and horror. Thanks for being perhaps one of the coolest and most humbling celebrity meet-and-greet experiences I’ve ever had at any event. And thank you for inspiring a fellow artist to share.

Even if it’s sharing a grotesque nightmare.

 

Check out the Chiodo Brothers & their twisted creations here: www.ChiodoBros.com

Oh and for all you fellow coulrophobes, keep your eyes and ears peeled for an upcoming clown-themed episode of the Horror Headquarters Podcast. Might just hear yours truly as a guest speaker.

c.