As someone who watches a lot of horror movies, you would think I’ve seen it all, but nothing this year has terrified me more than CCTV footage of a person in a clown mask emerging from underneath a a sleeping child’s bed. What I came to find out was that this viral video, which was released on YouTube in 2014, featured the infamous Wrinkles the Clown. Since then, his phone number and clown face have been plastered on stickers throughout Florida which has allowed parents to hire him for “behavioral services” when their kids misbehave. Wrinkles eventually became internet lore as more and more videos surfaced and children tested their boundaries by calling and leaving voicemails in hopes that Wrinkles would contact them back.
During Fantastic Fest, I had the opportunity to talk with director/co-writer Michael Beach Nichols about bringing this digital clown lore to life in his latest documentary, WRINKLES THE CLOWN. As we sat and talked, Michael discussed everything from Wrinkles anonymity to the disciplinary actions parents use by calling Wrinkles, as well as the creation of a new type of folklore.
What I’m dying to know, as someone who definitely has a fear of clowns, is what prompted this documentary?
Michael Beach Nichols: It just had a lot of elements that I think were really fascinating to me. I think the fact that no one knows who Wrinkles is, that sort of anonymous person behind the mask, there’s a great power and mystique in that. There was the fact that these cryptic videos went super viral and got tons of views as well as having these talk show hosts talking about it, along with these insane archives of voicemails that had been left. Then there was the fact that he was in Florida, which is a weird, weird place, and he was playing on this fear of clowns that a lot of people have. There were just a lot of ingredients. I’m a documentary filmmaker but I like making documentaries that are kind of scary. My last film was very scary, but this was a totally different type of scary thing. It just felt like a really interesting challenge that would also be really fun.
What was it about Wrinkles the Clown himself that interested you?
Michael Beach Nichols: I was incredibly fascinated when I first saw [Wrinkles] crawling out from beneath the bed [in the CCTV footage]. It taps into all these fears of the monster underneath the bed, the boogeyman, it’s almost nightmare fuel. For me, I just thought it was absolutely terrifying and kind of funny and I loved that you didn’t know who Wrinkles was, I thought that was really interesting.
Originally, there was a Kickstarter that happened where a filmmaker was trying to do a film about Wrinkles. I had done four Kickstarters for my previous films and had been successful with them so I had reached out to the filmmaker because he wasn’t doing well with the campaign. I had donated but there was only a week left and he had barely raised any money. I reached out told him I was from Florida as well and asked if he gone on reddit or done other things that I had found success with. He wrote me back and we kind of had a little correspondence but, unfortunately, the Kickstarter was not successful. I was talking with some of my filmmaking collaboratives about reaching out to the filmmaker to see if he was going to do the film and, if not, if he could introduce us to Wrinkles, but we felt a little weird about it so we didn’t and just dropped it. It was just totally fortuitous that 6 months later our manager told us about a Wrinkles the Clown project that was looking for a director and we were like, “Yes, please!” So we had heard about it, thought it was amazing, didn’t think it was ever going to happen, and then a production company in L.A., called Crushed Pictures, reached out to the filmmaker. They told him they could still help him with it and since he already had the trust with Wrinkles, he was able to bring us into the mix which we were so excited about.
Since Wrinkles wanted to stay anonymous, how difficult was it to create a film that centered on him without having him reveal who he is?
Michael Beach Nichols: Because Wrinkles wanted to remain anonymous we basically had to figure out a way to have him be a steady presence through the entire film. Because he wasn’t actually doing the scares, there wasn’t a ton of action that would be happening in the costume, so it was a little bit of a challenge we had to figure out. Initially, I had wanted to have him do this master interview in character and place him in different places that people imagined Wrinkles to live in – whether that was in the woods or in his van or under a bridge – try to figure out fun places to put him in that people had talked about. It was really important for us to keep this in the documentary world and visually represent the ideas that real people had of Wrinkles. Because Wrinkles himself didn’t really like the idea of being in the costume all the time and doing these interviews in character with the mask on, it was just sort of necessary that we had to figure out a way for Wrinkles to be a presence throughout the film. The solution was to basically use the idea that people had and the idea that he had put out that he was a 65-year-old retiree from Rhode Island. He had put that out in an interview with NBC 2 News and he was sort of whetted to that because that was the information that was out there. Since that was sort of the parameter, that he was this older man that was a retiree, we had to sort of just use an actor for that and then basically use the Wrinkles master interview in voice form only.
Many could argue that what Wrinkles is doing, by scaring “naughty” kids on the phone, might be traumatic. What are your thoughts about parents calling him to help discipline their children?
Michael Beach Nichols: I think it’s case by case. I think some kids can not handle it and a lot of the voicemails that we have heard sounded like kids that couldn’t handle it. I think that’s not cool and messed up, but I think I could have handled it. I really liked scary things as a kid, I was really into it and I liked being afraid. I really think that parents have to make that call and I hope they know their child well enough…or maybe they do it once for the first time and their kid starts crying, but they don’t do it 9 more times like some of these callers did. A lot of these parents that called did it many, many times.
The documentary does a great job of diving into the idea of digital folklore. What I found interesting is that unlike Slenderman, Wrinkles the Clown is a real person who has dealt with some real harassment from people calling him. Was it interesting to meld the two ideas together – the folklore portion and the actual person?
Michael Beach Nichols: It was really fascinating. For us, folklore was something that was really interesting and this idea of digital folklore, in the way that it’s transmitted so quickly now because of the internet, was something that I think Wrinkles himself wasn’t expecting to have taken off like that. He did not think that it would be what it ultimately became. For him, it was sort of very overwhelming to have this influx of calls, some of which were very disturbing. Wrinkles doesn’t actually go out and scare misbehaving children, there’s something sort of special and strange and disturbing about that. Even though he’s not doing it, he is doing it, and there is something that’s really terrifying still about this phone number that you can call with a human being that’s going to listen to that voicemail who might call you back, you just don’t know what’s going to happen. I think for him, he just wants to keep the integrity of the mask being the only thing you can really wrap your head around as well as the voice that he does. He could lose his job too, it’s one of those things that there are definitely consequences if people found out who he is and about this weird thing that he did and how it potentially helped to contribute to this clown craze that happened in 2016.
This film happened to be done at the same time as the sequel to IT and then Joker, so I will not be at all surprised if a lot of kids are wearing clown costumes this Halloween. Who knows what will happen this Fall as far as clowns go and if there is another wave of clown sightings. It’s been really interesting to see him create this myth that now sort of has a life of its own. Now, in a meta way, having a documentary about it and it reaching a lot more people, they are going to find out it’s not really real and I wonder if that will effect the way that they play with the phone number and the way that they respond to the videos. I’m sure it will, I don’t know if it will completely ruin it for some of them, I think there is still something interesting about reaching out to this person cause you don’t know who he is. I think if you exposed who he is, I think that would sort of be the end of it. It would not be that interesting.
WRINKLES THE CLOWN is now in theaters and On Demand.