Coulrophobia is defined as having an abnormal fear of clowns. When it comes to Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights (HHN), it’s a fear that has become warranted. If you look back on the history of the event there is one being that has appeared time and again to reign carnage and chaos on its patrons. A being with a malicious face done up with the white and green greasepaint, a red nose, and fiery hair of a clown.
This year marks 30 years of fears for HHN at Universal Orlando Resort, making it a twisted celebration of the last three decades of the event. In addition to continuing to bring in some of the biggest names of the horror genre as haunted houses and scare zones, the creative Entertainment teams are also bringing back your favorite original characters and icons, including Jack the Clown. Love him or hate him (like my friend who can’t even look at pictures of him because she dislikes clowns so much), it’s only appropriate that Jack is amongst those returning. After all, he was the first original icon that was created for HHN and has grown to become recognized as the unofficial “face” of the event.
I met with two of the minds who have helped mold this infamous persona into what you see today, Senior Director of Creative Development Michael Aiello and James Keaton, the performer who has embodied Jack since the start. To truly celebrate and understand the mayhem of Jack, we’ll rewind and start from the beginning.
“What do people fear? What do they want to see, what don’t they want to see?” Michael Aiello begins. “We used to do surveys and we always got fear of spiders, the dark, and clowns. Clowns were always number one. The Art & Design team at the time took that thought and the rest they say is history. But nobody knew Jack would become what Jack is now.”
For 20 years Jack the Clown has been tormenting visitors to Halloween Horror Nights, making his first appearance back in 2000. His full backstory is quite extensive and dark, which hinders me from sharing his whole history, but here’s the abbreviated version. (You can easily do a search online and find the full story if you’d like.)
Jack Schmidt was a carnival performer who was part of a circus troupe led by a gentleman named Dr. Oddfellow. Turns out Jack was a clown with murderous tendencies (shocker), which typically doesn’t bode well for a show that is supposed to make families laugh. Jack confided in Oddfellow about his heinous actions and — long story short — Oddfellow betrayed Jack, murdered him, and kept his body inside a Jack in the Box for years until he was later accidentally released, unleashing something even more evil and diabolically powerful. He exacted vengeance on Oddfellow and then became the ringmaster of his own traveling circus, Carnival of Carnage.
On paper, the story of Jack the Clown is evidence enough that our Entertainment team’s interpretation of coulrophobia was going to be successful. But the next challenging step was to bring this original character to life. No small feat considering Universal Studios is known for creating the most iconic monsters in the horror genre.
Creating an Icon
One of the challenges the Art & Design team had to think through was how to create a scary clown who was different from the clowns guests were seeing in the movies at that time, but still evoked that same uncomfortable and terrifying feeling. You’ve seen them, the clown with the red balloon and a particular comic book villain who fancied purple suits.
The first step, design the look.
“Physicality was all about that makeup, wig, and the nails,” says James Keaton. “The sculpts started real ornate with big cheekbones and chin and these sharp nails. I always carefully place my hands as I think of them as his killing tools.”
Jack’s makeup and wardrobe would change with his various appearances throughout the years; his makeup became more decayed while his wardrobe a little sleeker (more on this later). However, the base look was there with the angular face sculpting matched with the unique coloring of his face paint and wild hair. To complete the look, a set of demonic eyes peered out through the paint while grotesque teeth filled an unnerving grin.
“At the time, the teeth kind of dictated some of the speech,” explains Keaton. “I do sort of my own natural nasalness, which kind of became the basis of the voice. And then the laugh was the only thing I really came up with.”
OK, guys. If there’s one thing that is the most iconic part of Jack, it’s his laugh. Being able to sit in a room and hear from Keaton how he created it AND THEN perform it for you!? These are the moments my little HHN fangirl heart lives for that I’m sure many of you can relate to. Anyway, back to Keaton…
“Most of the time the initial beginning [of the laugh] is like a roar,” Keaton demonstrates. “I always pictured that it was a blast of anger and then it would trickle into a clown laugh. I figured that makes him a little different with more of a beastial, guttural roar.”
Now Keaton may say the only thing he really came up with is Jack’s laugh but according to Aiello, he’s just being humble. If you are continuously asked to come back and play a character, there’s more than just a laugh that you’re bringing to the table.
“The minute you saw him [Keaton] on camera you knew he was Jack,” says Aiello. “When we’re thinking about new backstories and ways to evolve the character, the first thing that pops up is what would James do? How would James react if we put this element in there? There is no other person that can really play Jack the way James plays Jack.”
The stage is set. You have the character’s story and look created. The right talented individual has been cast to bring him to life. Jack’s first appearance was a massive success, creating the first of what would become known as the HHN icons. Now the question comes down to how do you continue to grow and evolve a persona fans have come to love without overusing them?
“It’s not are you, it’s when?” explains Aiello. “When are you bringing Jack back? What’s he going to do next? We’re never just going to throw him out there and let him do what he does. There’s always a reason and a story to back up why he’s appeared.”
After his grand debut in 2000, Jack the Clown popped up a few more times, most notably in 2007 when he first invited us to his Carnival of Carnage and in 2015 when he brought his carnival back for the 25th anniversary. For the HHN super fans, yes, I know he has shown up more, but I specifically call out these three years because they are when we see his three stages of evolution thus far: the vengeful clown, the carnival ringmaster, and the demonic rockstar.
“In year one of Jack he was just a massively chaotic and creepy clown,” Keaton recalls. “At first, he was just a scary clown, right? I didn’t really find Jack until I was let loose around the streets of downtown [Orlando] that first year.”
Keaton shared some hilarious stories from when he stalked innocent pedestrians and, in character, delivered Jack in the Boxes to news media outlets. This included one station that refused to take the box from him and he threw it on the floor, kicked the door open, and ran through the fountain outside of their office before hopping in a van.
“I wasn’t intimidated. I wasn’t an actor. I was just pure Jack,” laughs Keaton. “Jack is unpredictable because he wants you to enjoy his show but at the same time he’s debating in his head on how to end you.”
As Jack continued to appear at HHN, his story matured going from a scary clown to creating his own carnival troupe with Keaton personifying him every step of the way.
“If you look at the Carnage show in 2007, he was way more into being funny and entertaining because he was still a clown,” explains Keaton. “Then for 2015, the show was much more about how disturbing and cunning he’s become. It wasn’t about the laughs, it was about the fact that the audience is there cheering him on and enjoying it.”
“The fun part becomes, OK, so he’s existed, what are the new ways we can present him?” Aiello elaborates. “What are some of the story attributes that we can create that evolve him just enough to show progression without changing or eliminating what people love about the character.”
Going back to that thought, Aiello shared that the people’s love for Jack is what truly made 2015 a pivotal story point for the character. First off, his physical appearance changed significantly, donning a new coat (Jack looks great in coats) and overall appearing more aged and decayed — a look that Aiello said took three iterations until they perfected a version that showed a lot more of Keaton’s subtle mannerisms. But the standout difference in 2015 was Jack’s persona shift into what Keaton described as becoming a cult-like leader.
“I [Jack] was more the engine of the show while the audience is the actual brawn,” says Keaton. “I didn’t have to get my hands dirty because they were going to do the work. That’s where the chaos is where I’m smarter than you all and I know it and I can make you want to do the evil deed yourself.”
“If he’s had the circus for that long, how would he reinvent himself?” asks Aiello. “The maniacal and murderous qualities are still there, but now there’s the recognition of the showman aspect that he knows you like to watch.”
There’s something about Jack that makes you both want to run in the other direction but at the same time sit down and grab a drink with him. Maybe it’s his sadistic yet hilarious jokes that draw people to him or the cool confidence he exudes on the stage amongst the raging chaos, but he’s developed a cult following appropriately named Jack’s Maniacs.
“Not only is he maniacal and chaotic, but he is someone you kind of want to hang out with,” chuckles Aiello. “I think that’s one of the most interesting qualities about him that sets him apart from the other icons.”
“The fans have been really cool,” Keaton shares. “I’ll meet people like this one couple who said they moved down here because of Horror Nights and I’m just like, ‘Whoa!’ Because to me, it’s a job like the other jobs I do here, but then I hear something like that and it’s rewarding.”
The 25th anniversary made Jack’s Maniacs official and at the helm was his first original follower and protege Chance. We were first introduced to Chance back in 2007 when she joined Jack as part of his Carnival of Carnage troupe. And I’d hate to burst your bubble, but there’s nothing romantic about this twisted partnership.
“My take on it is that it’s much more like I’m a mentor and this is my next protege,” says Keaton. “There’s something demented about her that he relates to and he trained her over the years. You really saw it in 2015 when I leaned on her to run the show.”
The following year saw Chance taking the spotlight in a mind-blowing performance, but lurking in the shadows was the lingering presence of Jack and the burning question of when will we see him return?
Scrying Jack’s Future
“To get real geeky and complex, I look at 30 as sort of a comic book annual,” Aiello explains about this year’s event. “It’s a collection of everything you love about Halloween Horror Nights and celebrating all these original characters and stories.”
For those who aren’t familiar with the comic book analogy, an annual is a special extra issue published in a series. A lot of times annuals are out of continuity of the series or sometimes they’re standalone stories, which is a similar case with Jack this year. It’s more of a celebration of this beloved character, so you’ll see all three of his forms pop up throughout the event.
“It’s not about the next evolution for him [this year],” Keaton says. “It’s kind of a separate story that’s not part of the ongoing series. So enjoy it, and then when you see him next time, maybe we’ll see what’s next for him.”
Maybe he’ll take a long hiatus from his touring carnival or venture over to one of the other Universal parks like he’s done in the past. Keaton and Aiello kicked around some fun story ideas like exploring more about Oddfellow or even his time before he was a clown, diving into his relationship with his brother Eddie, or my personal favorite, baby Jack (probably not even feasible but it’s a pretty funny mental picture!).
No matter when or where, it’s a safe bet that he’ll be making a triumphant return at some point. It will always be for a purpose, Aiello promises, whether there’s a new story hook or a way to represent him with a new texture or tone that pervades the rest of the event.
“I think there’s an ownership and a love for that character that is gonna keep him alive,” Aiello finishes. “I like when fans come to me and go, ‘you know what you should have done or what you shouldn’t have done?’. We’re simply a caretaker for these characters, and I think the fans are the same way because they love it so much. I’ll never say every idea we do is a great idea, but every idea I can say is done out of love and respect for these characters.”
“It’s always fun exploring something new,” Keaton says. “I’m very lucky to have gotten to be this character that has had such a big personality. And with a whole new generation of fans who have never met Jack, it will be fun for them to see him.”
Are you ready to get jacked up? The countdown is on for Halloween Horror Nights 30 at Universal Orlando Resort. Get your tickets now and sign up to receive email updates on announcements, deals, behind-the-scenes stories, and more.