WRINKLES THE CLOWN is the latest documentary from filmmaker Michael Beach Nichols (Welcome to Leith), co-written by Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, which centers around the infamous Wrinkles that became a viral sensation after parents discovered they could call him to reprimand their naughty children. The film had its World Premiere at the 2019 Fantastic Fest.
To best describe the film, I’ll turn to the official synopsis: “It started with a silent black and white surveillance video uploaded to YouTube, in 2014, that depicted a child sleeping peacefully, until a disheveled old man, disguised as a clown, slid out from beneath her bed. Afterwards, similar videos started appearing online, showing the clown pushing a cart in a parking lot, waving alongside a busy highway, and holding balloons in front of a suburban home. The unsettling clips, which immediately went viral, launched Wrinkles The Clown to internet infamy. Soon, cryptic stickers with his eerie visage and a phone number were plastered on telephone poles and in bathrooms all over Florida promising to terrify misbehaving children. A staggering 312,000 voicemails have been left.”
When I decided to take on this film, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I am not a fan of clowns, having watched too many clown films in my youth (I’m looking at you Killer Klowns From Outer Space). The thought of an unidentified man dressed as a clown terrorizing children who were naughty sent an honest chill down my spine, especially after seeing the viral CCTV footage of Wrinkles appearing from beneath a child’s bed. However, upon watching this documentary, I learned that Wrinkles The Clown is much more than his viral videos and random sightings, as the film dives into the creation of a digital folklore, exploring how the legend of Wrinkles came to be and the cultural effects it has had, especially on young kids in the digital landscape that is Youtube.
As interesting and mysterious as Wrinkles is, the most fascinating aspect of this documentary, at least for me, was the psychological effects that Wrinkles actions have had along with how digital media has made Wrinkles into its own urban legend. One of the biggest questions that director Michael Beach Nichols poses is could there damage done to kids whose parents call Wrinkles, and, furthermore, is this a sound approach to disciplining a child. Throughout the series of interviews, in which both kids and parents, talk about Wrinkles impact of their life, Antonio Harris proudly admits to calling Wrinkles and/or threatining to call Wrinkles when his daughter begins acting up. He would go so far as to tell her that Wrinkles would eat her if she didn’t stop misbehaving. Harris goes on to explain that he doesn’t consider calling Wrinkles to be a form of abuse, instead stating that he finds it more effective than spanking. However, George Holden, Professor & Chair of Psychology at SMU, feels the complete opposite stating that he believes parents calling Wrinkles and terrifying their children is misguided and can be a form of maltreatment.
Speaking of kids, Nichols made sure to speak with a lot of them, especially ones who have actually called and/or spoken to Wrinkles themselves. It’s here where the digital folklore surrounding Wrinkles starts to come to life as kids would call the number and post their reactions on YouTube. This has propelled some of kids to develop a deep fascination with Wrinkles, so much so that it’s been a catalyst for their own creativity. Thirteen-year-old Sean Whitaker, from Wichita Falls, TX, explained how he used to feel intense paranoia and fear towards Wrinkles but has since been able to move past that and has now started making clown videos on his own YouTube channel. Meanwhile, ten-year-old Rena Sellars from Georgia, believed that Wrinkles was straight up killing kids but has since become less fearful of him and has even started wearing clown makeup. It’s interesting to view how so many kids have been able to find inspiration through their fear of Wrinkles, while simultaneously using their own narrative and beliefs in spreading the story of Wrinkles The Clown.
When the time comes for us to actually hear from the man himself, it’s done in a way in which his identity is kept secret. As his story unfolds, the truth about the creation of Wrinkles is revealed making it easy to understand why he would want to stay anonymous. Besides the videos of Wrinkles The Clown going viral, Wrinkles has also received his fair share of death threats and verbal assaults – from both kids and adults. I will admit, the most disturbing aspect of this is that the majority of these threats are coming from children. Wrinkles goes on to explain that everyone has an assumption of who he is under the mask and that the reasoning behind not revealing himself is because not only would it ruin the experience but it preserves the mystery. Also, he doesn’t want to deal with death threats in his personal life. He also talks about how Wrinkles The Clown was the catalyst for all the clown sightings that took the nation by storm. What started as something fun, for him, quickly became the opposite of what anyone expected. Copy-cats started following in the footsteps of Wrinkles, but going even more extreme by luring kids into the woods and/or terrorizing people with a machete while dressed as a clown. It even got so bad that in 2016, a 16-year-old in Pennsylvania died after an individual in a clown mask stabbed him. As the chaos of clown sightings grew and the seriousness of the situation became worse, it was a sign that Wrinkles needed to pull back. Since then, Wrinkles The Clown has since gone back to making viral videos but makes it clear that people who reach out to him are testing their boundaries.
WRINKLES THE CLOWN is a documentary that I didn’t know I needed in my life and as a fan of folklore, this was one of the best examples of how these type of stories come to fruition. I wish I could give a definitive stance on if I think using Wrinkles as a form of discipline towards kids, but I unfortunately can’t. On the outside it looks funny, but if a clown ever surprised me at my house to tell me I was naughty, I would probably lose my shit. That said, WRINKLES THE CLOWN is a documentary that is absolutely worth watching as it’s not only entertaining but it also gives the viewer something substantial to think about, especially if they’re a parent. WRINKLES THE CLOWN arrives in theaters and On Demand October 4.
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