Stop clowning around: bold filmmaking and internet folklore
Image: Levi Saunders via Unpslash
Click here to watch the 2019 Comedy/Horror Documentary “Wrinkles the Clown”.
In November 2014, a YouTube channel uploaded this video depicting something truly frightening. It starts with a child sleeping soundly in her bedroom, cosied up with blankets and stuffed toys. Albeit through the fuzz of a security camera, this tranquil setting is disturbed by a slight movement of a drawer underneath her bed. The drawer opens and a gloved hand reaches out. Out slides a tall figure, dressed head to toe in a clown costume. It climbs out, regards the undisturbed child, and swiftly moves towards the camera. The last frame we see is the murky face of the masked clown. Before the fate of this poor girl is revealed, the video stops.
If you want an experience like this for your child, call: 407-734-0254. At one point, this number would have led you to the voicemail of one “Wrinkles the Clown.” For a fee of “a few hundred dollars,” you can arrange for Wrinkles to come over to your home to scare your errant child into good behaviour. Aside from the lifetime of future therapy this poor child will have in store, at least they’ll think twice when they misbehave. Such is the premise of the documentary Wrinkles the Clown (2019) directed by Michael Beach Nichols. It “follows” (I’ll explain “this” later) Wrinkles’ alter ego: the man behind the mask. It turns out that he is a retiree who spends his days living in his dingy caravan in Floridian swamps. The lonely individual is only able to fund his existence by scaring kids for cash.
The documentary also consults a small number of individuals, mainly children, who offer their own take on who they think the clown is. Although they have been fortunate enough never to meet Wrinkles in person, they too saw the videos of him on YouTube. Their imaginations, and presumably nightmares, have since run wild at the thought of a nocturnal visitation by this unwanted guest.
Through the eyes of these children, we witness how the clown is mythologised into the stuff of legend. It’s a look into how internet folklore is born, much like other online boogiemen such as Slenderman or Momo. To these children, Wrinkles is a real, very real, demonic entity known to abduct and slay children who refuse to behave.
The viewer knows that this is all bogus. Wrinkles is just a lonely sixty-something-year-old man. Right? Well, that is until about a third of the way through when a major twist interrupts this convenient narrative. Spoilers ahead.
Wrinkles is not a man in a swamp. In reality, Wrinkles is the work of an unnamed performance artist who has invented the character. Whilst he answers the occasional voicemail, he doesn’t visit the houses of naughty children: all the videos of him are staged. His so-called “Wrinkles Project” has successfully gone viral.
The film, therefore, is a look into how myths are made in the Internet Age, primarily focusing on the minds of children who spread stories and transmit folklore. Although the opportunity to further explore the ethics of scaring children is missed, it’s an intriguing premise for a film. I admire Nichols’ bold move by having us participate in the mythmaking, but I cannot help but feel unsatisfied with the end result. By revealing the real nature of Wrinkles the Clown with 28 minutes of runtime left, the film plays about with the documentary format: in an instant, expectations of reality are reversed and the implicit trust is broken. It leaves the audience feeling entertained, but quietly cheated.