This post is the second part of a two part analysis of the subtle link between clowns and sexual predation in the life and work of Victor Salva. Read part one here.
After 15 months in prison, Clownhouse writer/director Victor Salva was paroled from a 3 year sentence on 5 different charges of child sexual abuse related to his victimization of Nathan Forrest Winters... a sentence totaling about 1/3 of the period of time he'd been molesting the child actor, beginning at age 8.
At this point, he might well have sunken into obscurity, a registered sex offender stripped of all respectability and career. This is often the case for convicted pedophiles.
But not so much in Hollywood, where seemingly any act short of the sin of losing money, can be forgiven. Upon his release, Francis Ford Coppola, whose company had produced Salva's first film Clownhouse, gave him $5,000 to get by on his first year out of prison. Coppola has continued to defend and work with Salva since then, producing a number of his films.
"I didn't know of anything improper going on, although I witnessed some things that caused me to raise an eyebrow," he says of Clownhouse, partially filmed in his home. "Only in retrospect did things really add up. You have to remember, while this was a tragedy, that the difference in age between Victor and the boy was very small — Victor was practically a child himself." (Salva was 29, Winters 12)
Salva had a directing hiatus of about four years, during which time he worked as a telemarketer and wrote scripts on the weekend, then went back to filming. In 1995, Disney released the film Powder, to lackluster reception by both critics and box office, along with protest activity launched by Winters and his family.
"He paid for his crime, he paid his debt to society," countered producer Robert Birnbaum. "What happened eight years ago has nothing to do with this movie."
"How deeply I regret my actions. I payed for my mistakes dearly," said Salva in a statement released around the film's debut, saying he wanted to move on and contribute positively to society as a film maker.
Yet it is especially difficult to forget, when his films themselves continue to exhibit these subtle reminders of his background and disturbing thought process.
In this film, curiously, the curiously pre-pubescent boy figure is also the Clown figure, in a sense, though of a different sort. Powder, an all-white, hairless high school youth gifted with special powers, stands in for a different kind of clown role, that of the "innocent primitive," or savant Fool.
This somewhat older, but even more childlike and innocent boy character, who just happens to lack the secondary sex characteristics of a normal high school youth of his age, also spends a goodly portion of the film shirtless, when he is not being stripped completely naked in a vicious hazing scene by other stronger youths.
In another scene that seems strange even for many who don't know the filmmaker's past history, a school teacher played by Jeff Goldblum discusses his sexual arousal and intimately strokes the pale young boy's face and bald head. Odd enough on its own, but in light of Salva's known predilections, the adult authority figure's overtures offering friendship and seemingly orgasmic facial expressions as the boy's touch "electrifies" him... take on something distinctly macabre.
By far, Salva's largest commercial successes have been the two Jeepers Creepers films, released in 2001 and 2003. The appearance of such questionable hints into Salva's underlying interests are more toned down in these blockbusters, but palpable traces remain. In Jeepers, a demonic creature relentlessly stalks a boyish college youth (played by 23 year old Justin Long), in one scene even stopping to sniff his underwear. In the end, he hauls off Long, leaving his sister behind, to playfully mutilate his naked body, a lingering sweep of which concludes the film.
|Obligatory shirtless scene|
A sequel, more annoying and devoid of worthwhile cinematic attributes than the first, continues to play out Salva's obsession with the torment of young boys, starting off with the opening scene, where the creature hunts and flies off with an adolescent male. Throughout the rest of the film he proceeds with the successive slaughter of a group of high school athletes, consuming portions of their body while preserving others- all in between bizarrely long scenes of their urination, and lingering camera shots of their smooth bare chests.
In 2006, Salva released Rosewood Lane, wherein a psychotic paperboy terrorizes a radio talk show psychiatrist played by Rose McGowan. Since producers are not doubt reluctant to let Salva, who will spend the rest of his life as a registered sex offender, work with underage actors, he set about casting most youthful-looking prettyboy he could find as the villainous paperboy antagonist. Then-22-year old Daniel Ross Owens proceeds to spend the film buzzing about on his BMX being creepy, despite his clearly apparent adulthood, still being gratuitously referred to throughout the film as a "boy," a "kid," and "a minor."
And in a departure from previous films, the "boy" is no longer the protagonist, but the sociopathic evil driving the piece. I cannot help but wonder if this marks a certain psychological change in Salva, a vengeant bitterness toward the boy victim, from whose molestation he is finding it increasingly hard to distance himself with the continued growth and ultimate inescapability of the internet- a fact that has clearly contributed to his steadily shrinking film sales and progressively smaller budgets.
His next, even lower budget release, Dark House again returns the young male main character to the role of protagonist (albeit a thoroughly unlikable one)... but it's too hard to try to identify any clear pathology at work, because this film is such a godawful hodge-podge of mismatched nonsense that it seems the story was simply an attempt to stuff every possible type of horror movie cliche into one film without the slightest hint of irony or parody.
...Meanwhile, some horror fans have continued to wait anxiously (for some reason that completely eludes me) for the long delayed filming of Jeepers Creepers 3, which as rumors have it is creeping closer to production after more than a decade of inertia. Until that time, if it ever arrives, we will just have to wait and see what new and disturbing torments and mutilations Salva has dreamed up for a new batch of young boy victims at the hands of his ambiguously demonic and vaguely pervy monster.
Evolution of a Latent Fear
Aside from the continuation of the film industry's long tradition of patronizing sex offenders, the saga of Victor Salva is interesting to me because it represents the convergence of a sexually predative child abuser with a keen understanding of what makes evil clowns scary to the modern American mind.
Over the years, I have long charted the curious connection between clowning and sexual taboo-breaking in multiple cultures, along with the repetition of sex crimes in the history of clowns-gone-bad in modern criminology.
In my 2004 paper, Coulrophobia and the Trickster, I noted that a theme of wildly uninhibited sexuality, sexual deviance and intentional sex-taboo-breaking is a theme commonly shared in the clowning practices of many traditional societies, particularly among those studied in indigenous North American cultures, and also one of the defining characteristics of their thematic and spiritual parents among archetypal Trickster figures worldwide.
In modern times, clown rapists, child molesters, and child pornographers are a recurring reality- my file of news articles collected over the years contains at least a hundred such instances over the past thirty years or so.
Prominent exposes such as the documentary Capturing the Friedmans and coverage of the Fells Acre scandal in Massachusetts also underline this theme of a link, as do the the exploits of the two most prominent real life "killer clowns" - John Wayne Gacy and Emmett Kelly III.
In the case of the urban legend of clowns-in-vans or "Phantom Clowns" that has reappeared in dozens of cities since the early 1980s, fears of clowns become inescapably associated with the child predator "stranger danger" concept that plagued the same generation, and persists today.
Hence, while the connection between clowns and outlandish and even criminal sexual behavior dates back thousands of years, it has seemed to reach an apex in the modern era of coulrophobia, crystallizing into a more pronounced theme of direct victimization, particularly of children.
It is therefore noteworthy that Salva's first film, for all its low budget and high camp flaws, is keenly perceptive with regards to the key aspects of what is found to be scary about clowns (see Part 1), when his own personal life and film-making motifs so clearly underline his lustful desire to terrorize young boys, a miniaturized, semi-sublimated version of the very drives which characterized the brutal killing spree of Pogo the Clown (aka Gacy).
His noteworthy 1980s addition to the evil clown genre of cinema, followed soon after by his highly publicized conviction, no doubt helped cement this very association in the evolving figure of the "evil clown."