Black Balloons: Cosmic Nihilism in Gags the Clown (2019)
Caution: Spoilers to follow for Gags the Clown (2019), which you can currently watch on Amazon Prime.
When you get right down to it, the crux of much of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is that his fiction’s conception of the universe is not an anthropocentric one. Humankind does not hold some exalted place in the cosmos. Not only is the universe vastly bigger than us, we are but a rung on an evolutionary ladder, and there are countless beings out there who are older, smarter, and better versed in how things really work than we will ever be.
But while Lovecraft’s name may be synonymous with cosmic horror, he didn’t invent it, and his formulation of it isn’t the only one that has been put forth over the years. Before him, writers like Machen, Blackwood, Hodgson, and others were already exploring these same themes, and since then, plenty of other authors have put their own imprint on the field.
Ligotti’s cosmic nihilism, for example, frequently holds forth a different central view than Lovecraft’s. For Ligotti, humans are unique in the cosmos, in that we are uniquely aware that the universal order is fundamentally meaningless. That there is nothing more to existence than a series of cellular and chemical accidents, and all of our searches for meaning are not only doomed to fail, they are the result of an intrinsic defect in our nature that will make us miserable for as long as we do survive.
When we think cosmic horror on film, we tend to err more on the Lovecraftian side. Psychedelic visuals and writhing shapes from beyond the stars. But Ligotti’s fiction—and Lovecraft’s, if we’re fair—is as likely to find terror in our own mirrors and backyards as it is in the dark between the stars. And, given that much of Ligotti’s cosmology posits that human consciousness is, itself, all one big joke—albeit one with no author—it should come as no surprise that Ligotti’s fiction has its fair share of clowns.
Though born out of a series of real-life viral news stories about creepy clown sightings—remember the fifteen minutes a few years ago when that was going on?—Gags is a spiritual successor to the “Scream”-faced “freaks” in Ligotti’s “Last Feast of Harlequin,” just as one example.
It’s tempting to write off the phenomena presented in Gags the Clown as a thematically-unique but otherwise routine haunting. The clues are all there—the story about a carnival that burned down back in the ‘70s, the message that, “The forgotten are no laughing matter” scrawled in graffiti on the wall near Gags’ inner sanctum.
But if the events of Gags are a haunting, they are a haunting that spreads like an illness, infecting people via the white powder (shades of Machen?) contained in Gags’ ubiquitous black balloons, driving them to self-mutilation and ultimately to a kind of veneration of Gags himself.
Similarly, Gags’ powers are clearly much vaster and more surreal than those of any typical slasher villain. Even the “dream demon” Freddy Krueger saw his powers limited to the realm of Morpheus, where Gags seems to exhibit similarly reality-bending abilities in the waking world.
In his scope and his form, he is more reminiscent of Pennywise, the “dancing clown” identity that the eponymously nameless creature takes in Stephen King’s doorstopper of a novel, It. But while the creature in It is given an ultimately more Lovecraftian explanation—it came from beyond the stars, or another dimension—who or what Gags is remains unknown, even as the credits roll.
If he is a ghost, his grudge is more reminiscent of the sodden specters that haunt J-horror, their own curses spiraling out mimetically to ensnare anyone who has the misfortune of coming too close. Transforming their minds and then their bodies—forcing them to become messengers of this same rot that eats away at the world a bit at a time, for no reason that we are ever allowed to understand.
“Clowns have often had ambiguous and sometimes contradictory roles to play,” as Ligotti points out in “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” an observation that is reflected in Gags in the form of the reactions of the various different characters to the eponymous clown. While most are afraid of him, some regard him with scorn, while others dismiss him out of hand.
Still others react with a kind of idolatry—even before the climactic scene, in which Gags takes center stage in what is both a sideshow ten-in-one and an uncanny tent revival meeting. The TV cameraman Dale, played by Wyatt Kuether, calls Gags a “hero,” while the film’s teenage cast spend their night dressing up one of their number in a clown costume and playing pranks on people, inspired by Gags’ exploits.
“Sometimes,” Ligotti writes, “a cheerless jester” is needed to draw our attention to “the forces of disorder in the world.” However Gags is perceived by the other characters in the film, to those of us in the audience, he is indisputably this “cheerless jester,” his seemingly random acts of senseless devastation all part of the cosmic joke that is attempting to find any order in a fundamentally orderless universe.
It is notable that Gags is far from the antic clown of even King’s Pennywise. When he shows up on screen, it is rarely front-and-center. More often, he is spotted for a frame and then gone again. On the occasion that he does linger, he remains almost entirely stock still, standing in the same pose, holding his clutch of black balloons. He could be a snapshot.
His actions, then, convey neither amusement nor malice. He simply is—as inexorable as cancer, as unmotivated as a car crash, as blameless as the slow creep of time.Orrin Grey
In the film’s final scene of surreal terror, Gags appears before the anchor Heather Duprey, who has been pursuing him for most of the film. He lets go of his black balloons, and hands her, instead, a balloon that’s shaped like herself. She begins to laugh before she, rather than the balloon, pops.
That this is both utterly senseless and surreal to such a degree that it becomes laughable is not beside the point—it is the point.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.