A Grease-Painted Face in the Crowd: A Report from the All-Clown IT Screening
It’s about 11 PM on Friday night. I feel like I should probably start winding down, make sure the dishes are done and the laundry’s off the floor. When suddenly, a cold sweat panic hits me—I don’t have any sponges to apply the white cream makeup that will be taking up most of my face, and I don’t have any brushes for the fine work of dark eye makeup!
It’s the night before the All-Clown Screening of It at my local Alamo Drafthouse. I doubted the chances of the All Clown screening coming to my local Drafthouse in Phoenix after an All-Women Screening of Wonder Women failed to make it’s way here earlier this summer. But the moment the notice went up on our local film club Facebook group, I snapped up 4 tickets and made plans to have the evening free, movie quality or creepy clowns be damned.
The night before the screening, as I trudged to the local all-purpose big box store, debating if my current makeup purchases would be enough to cover the large, semi-globe-like mass that included my rapidly receding and greying hairline, I thought back to how I got into this situation. I was never going to see It; when the first preview images were released late last year, my wife made it clear that, not only did she have no interest in the movie, she had no interest in any peripheral material related to it. She had been traumatized by a showing of the original TV movie It and a scare with a clown mask perpetrated by her older brother’s friend when she was younger. This was her hardline in horror; even the brief, bullet-ridden clown advancing like a juggernaut at the speed of a dirge in The Cabin In the Woods freaked her out on every rewatch. This was our dynamic in our relationship with horror movies—Deanna hated horror that dealt with the cruelty and perversion of (mostly) regular people, like It’s twisting of the imagery of the clown, or the terror of home invasion movies like The Strangers. My fears are in a very specific kind of supernatural—exorcisms, possession, those based around the legends and the history of religious organizations, and the Catholic church.
We never really had a fight about if we’d be seeing It or not. Life, to paraphrase the classic quote, got in the way. My wife was diagnosed with cancer in April, and just two months later it took her life. It was cruelly fast, painful, and heartbreaking to watch your partner go through that, and I spent a month in seclusion, off work, out of the theater, and on Twitter giving long ,threaded soliloquies about the nature of grief and what it means. Since going back to work in August, I’m getting closer to some version of ‘a new normal’. I started going to movies again on the weekend, made a priority to see my friends when I could, and am now trying to be supportive of people that might need me.
Going to see It at an all-clown screening felt like an automatic way to be with a friend who had done a lot for me. My friend Felicia was the first person outside of my family and my work I let know about our illness. The first night in the hospital, needing something to distract me while my wife rested, I started up b.s. sessions with Felicia about creepypastas and things that go bump in the night, and why hospitals creeped us out in general. Felicia has an obsession with clowns—shelves of them line her house, amongst other oddities. Felicia would be dragging her husband, Will, with us. I knew with Felicia’s love of clowns, my original costume plan—a take on the classic Captain Spaulding makeup from House of 1000 Corpses with a bit of a dirtbag Otis Driftwood style clothing—wouldn't be enough.
So, back at my 24/7 corporate conglomerate store of choice, I found my makeup supplies and then went to the Halloween area and grabbed some more face paints and a huge rainbow wig. I then made a quick beeline through the men’s department, thinking I could find some cheap ‘workman's wear’ style clothing to flush out my Spaulding look. Instead, I found a seasonal rack of men’s costume hoodies, the full zip up through the hood kind that make a mask and a face, featuring Deadpool, a NASA astronaut… and a creepy clown with a white skull, bright blue sleeves, and jagged teeth.
I ditched the wig and knew what my new costume base would be.
The psychology of clowns and why they scare people is more simple than you’d expect - It’s an adverse reaction to the Uncanny Valley, the psychological recognition of a human face in a non-human being. Clown are in a continuum with zombies and dead bodies—it’s a human, but its expression has been changed. The sad clown makeup, juxtaposed by the happy activities clowns are often associated with and their generally jovial nature, make clowns seem ‘off’ in our minds, and our response should be to be repulsed by them.
It’s 5:45 PM. I have an hour and 15 minutes left on my shift. Immediately after leaving work, I have 21 minutes to make it to the Alamo Drafthouse for their classic pre-show. I’ve brought a hand mirror, and I stole a paper bowl and a wad of paper towels from the breakroom. I balance the mirror, like a Victoria’s Secret catalogue in the days of old, on a tissue box under the best light at my desk. With paint, I dab my forehead to the hairline and beyond, back down my nose, my cheeks, and fill in to my jaw.
It’s splotchy as shit and it’s going to need another pass. A few more layers of makeup, as well as a few Instagram stories and a live tweet later—oh, and 3 phone calls from customers—I’m mostly done. I gotta clean up the part of my face that my work headset was covering, and I throw the hoodie on.
Shit. I’ve gotta walk past the security guards like this.
Man, that seems quaint, doesn't it?
Or the Juggalo Freedom March after Juggalos were classified as a gang by the FBI under the Obama administration, and how Juggalos have shown up as allies in the fight against Nazis. I mean, figging Juggalos(?!?!) vs. Nazis(?!?!?!)? Who’d have thought it?
2017’s been weird, man.
It’s 7:34 PM. There was traffic.
I find parking way in the back, and flip my phone over and check my texts.
Felicia: "Here I think."
Me: "Walking up now."
Felicia: "K. See no other clowns."
The cold panic from the other night is back, doubly so. Oh no. What if we are the only jackasses to take this thing seriously?
We meet in front of the bulb-lined Drafthouse sign. I haven’t seen Felicia since Deanna’s memorial service, and I haven’t seen Will in even longer. We hug, careful to not smear our makeup, and make our way to the automated box office. The Chandler Drafthouse has a Willy Wonka theme, befitting its location in the suburbs with a few more families on most days. Will and Felicia hop in the photobooth in the lobby as I enter the authorization code for the tickets, I see a red item with a string attached to it on the table. It’s a rock, bright red, shaped like a balloon, the back adorned with a message from a local outfit known as the Kindness Rock movement; they had made special editions of rocks made just for movie theaters for this opening weekend. Will comes out of the photobooth and Felicia and I take a turn, creeping out the photobooth's lens as we follow the on-screen prompts en español.
We make our way to our theater and even the waiters and servers have gotten in on the screening's vibe; there’s a Harley Quinn (classic), makeup and noses galore. The actual clowns attending the screening veer a little less ‘Commedia Dell'arte’ or ‘Ringling Brothers’ and a lot more on the ‘Twisted Metal’, ‘Heath Ledger’, and ‘Killer Klown’ side of clown-dom. I make my way to my assigned seat and sit next to a clown in fishnets, heels, a nurse's outfit, and his wife, whose color palette and makeup evoke Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Conversations pop up around us, and it’s clear that the participants in tonight's screen have less a love for the Art of Clowning, and more for the Art of the Horror Film. The commitment levels range wildly, and I’m firmly in the middle. There’s a few ‘normies’ (that’s what we clowns call people that came to the All-Clown It screening and didn’t wear anything), and there are a few classical, floppy ties, and oversized feet types.
A brief introduction to Alamo, the concept and the rules of order, were provided by Lauren Knight, the creative director for the Phoenix location. It was emphasized that this was a screening, not a movie party, so rowdy, rambunctious behavior was discouraged—a bit of a bummer, but probably best for the roughly quarter of the crowd that was here for the first time. A group photo followed, and then the film rolled.
As a film, It is an enjoyable romp. It’s a distinct version of the '80s that movies forget, somewhere between the neon highlights of movies like Valley Girl and the peak Amblin-Spielberg sensibilities of other filmmakers. Director Andy Muschietti is an excellent explorer of family traumas, and I’m equally a fan of his exploration of those themes in this film as I am of those in his feature film debut, Mama. The film blends its score, soundtrack (big ups for the XTC ‘Dear God’ beat on the soundtrack), visual effects, and production design for a well-rounded horror experience for seasoned fans of the genre and those looking for a entry point to exploring horror films more. Every cast member shines, but especially Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise, Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, and Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier, who takes the opportunity to relish in a role after being pushed to the sidelines in season one of Stranger Things. The film is dense, an effort to load as much of the source material into the film as they can, but that leads to a bit of a breakdown for the sake of story drama in the lead up to the third act. The finale of the film also suffers from a feeling of inevitability, with a feeling of a lack of real consequences to the members of the Losers' Club, but the start of the credits offer a welcome possibility for the future of the story.
Everyone at the screening behaved, and after a very enjoyable onscreen experience, a parade of clowns made their way past the people waiting for the next show. Slightly terrified looks met my eyes and an "OH, HELL NO!" echoed through the hallway. Patrons waiting at the bar had their cameras ready as we made our way to the lobby for more pictures.
Felicia, Will and I said our goodbyes, and I hopped in the car, makeup slightly flakey, with the itchest nose I’ve ever had. Driving home alone, I was eager to make eye contact with other drivers—the experience of being part of a crowd of horror fans unafraid to take on the visage of their villainous anti-hero made me feel a little more mischievous than usual. No other drivers would turn to me at stop lights, so I went home reflecting on the joy of watching a movie surrounded by not just lovers of the genre, but committed fans of the art of film. Outside of the energy of a midnight showing or a convention like Comic-Con, it’s nothing like I’ve ever experienced, and not something you’d expect on a Saturday night in the far south suburbs of Phoenix.
And as I walked into the house, I was reminded by my dogs, who had not seen me in about 14 hours, that I was wearing makeup that obscured my true identity.
It took me damn near 10 minutes to talk them down that it was me.