Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Case of (and for) Coulrophobia

NB: This is from a Facebook post I made in 2013. I'm reposting it here so a friend who couldn't see it on Facebook can see it here.

Coulrophobia is a fear of clowns.

Let's face it. Clowns are goddamned creepy as hell. The white face, the big gaping red smiles, the weird hair and clothing... what's to love about that?

I get a bit creeped out by clowns but I have a damned good reason beyond their general creepiness.

When I was a kid, my grandmother dragged my sister and me to funerals. She was a funeral junkie and we had to go with her. I was about 5 when I saw my first corpse in a box. Sometimes, the relationship with the dearly departed might be tenuous at best. One time, I got dragged to the funeral of the uncle of my Cub Scout denmother because my grandmother thought I should attend.

When I was about seven or so, her brother-in-law died so she schlepped us to his funeral. At the gathering afterwards, my sister and I sat bored. We knew most of the people but they were there to talk grown up talk. Nobody really noticed two bored kids.

Then we spotted her. We didn't know who she was.

She wore what looked like a square dance dress but it was black with white polka dots. This was accented with white petticoats, white gloves with lace at the wrists, patent red leather pumps with a matching purse, black fishnet stockings and a black pillbox hat with a small veil. Her face was made-up with thick, white pancake makeup. The stubble of her shaved eyebrows showed through this. With an eyebrow pencil, she had drawn in high, arching eyebrows that made her eyes look like a McDonald's sign. Her eyeshadow faded from pale green to purple. She had a perfect circle of red rouge on each cheek. Her lipstick had been applied outside her lip line to form a cupid's bow. Her hair stuck out from under the hat in what looked like a bright orange Brillo pad. When she smiled, she revealed crooked teeth stained yellow from years of smoking.

Based on her appearance, the question my sister asked her seemed natural.

"Are you the kind of clown who does funny tricks or magic tricks?"

The woman screamed at us, "Get away from me, you little bastards!"

This was Nell, who was married to my grandmother's brother, Ashley.

About six months later, we'd hear of Nell again. What follows is from the police report I read in 1981.

One evening, Ashley fell asleep in his recliner watching the 10:00 news. Nell came up behind him and pulverized his head with a two pound blacksmith's hammer. The report I read said that she was probably aware of what she was doing when she delivered the first blow but the next 50 or so, she was just swinging.

She then doused his body with cooking oil, set him on fire and left the house.

Neighbors called the fire department when they saw smoke pouring from one of the windows of Nell and Ashley's house. The first fireman in the door vomited on the floor. The fire had pretty much burned out to reveal what was left of Ashley Gilson in the metal frame of his recliner. A streak of blood, skull and brain matter ran across the ceiling and wall behind his chair. His head was gone. His fingerprints had been burned away. The closest anyone ever got to making a positive ID on his body was when my great-grandmother identified his wedding ring.

Nell was found at a local bar, drinking beer and acting like there wasn't a problem in the world. An officer approached her and told her that her husband was dead.

Without putting her beer down, she replied, "Must have been suicide."

The officer said, "Mrs. Gilson, what really happened?"

After this "intense" questioning, she related the whole story then lead the police to the place she had hidden the hammer, a copse in a tombstone at a nearby cemetery.

She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental hospital near Salem, Oregon. From time to time, they'd call my grandmother to tell her that Nell had made another attempt at suicide.

After about 8 years, Nell was released and nobody ever knew what became of her. I'm sure she's dead by now. If not, she'd be 105 or so.

Until I reached my teen years, I'd see her in my dreams. She'd be in her funeral get-up and carrying a bloody hammer.

I think my fear of clowns is reasonable.


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