Saarthak Johri/ MiC

I offered to drive my friend home the night after a small party in December. A little wary of the snow on the roads home, I took care to inspect my car to make sure we’d get back safely. We climbed in and took off, but I still felt like something was wrong. My friend and I were making conversation, but there was a stillness to the air conditioning, a chill creeping over my Honda. I saw a flash of movement in the rearview mirror, just under the reflection of the road. Slowly, I reached for the car light. Steadying myself with my hand on the wheel, I flicked the light and shouted to my friend at the sight of my backseat.

“HEY, WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT—” My friend jumped and cut me off with an exclamation of his own.

“HOLY SHIT!” I smirked at the reaction I got.

“Yeah, that’s my clown doll. Sorry, I wanted to fuck with you.” I flicked the light back off, and my friend sat in stunned disbelief. Slowly, he worked through it and then posed his question.


A week before this, my friends and I held what I dubbed “White Supremacist Elephant” because it was like White Elephant but shitty. Dollar Tree, gag store and kink shop gifts were the exchanges of choice: glow-in-the-dark condoms and phallic-shaped groceries were gifted. My friends seemed particularly excited when I chose my gift. Unwrapping it led me to the creepiest clown doll my friends could find at the Salvation Army. As I stared into its blue ceramic eyes highlighted with eyeliner and forehead-encompassing eyebrows, I listened to my friends react in horror and macabre delight. I pondered on the best course of action. Slowly but surely, I brought the clown closer to me and kissed the doll on its forehead (and eyebrows simultaneously, I guess). Turning it around to show everyone else, I lay back on the couch and held the doll in my arms, stroking its tiny red hat. My friends had a mix of reactions.

“Throw that outside! Throw that outside! You’re gonna unleash a curse!”

“Hey, maybe he’s nice, we’re making assumptions.”

“Jesus Christ.”

I slowly turned my head to meet my friends’ eyes.

“I don’t think He’s here anymore.”

This was all theatrics, of course, and my friends slowly stopped their overreacting as our party went on, but I still held the doll in my lap.

“And why is it in your car?”

I didn’t really have another place to put the doll. I figured it wouldn’t see anything if it were in my bedroom, and if I brought it to my apartment, I didn’t want to have to explain it to my roommates. What would I be explaining, though? 

Their name is Penny — a good gender-neutral name choice, paying proper homage to classic cursed clowns — and they haven’t caused any trouble, as far as I can tell. My friends still maintain their gripes whenever they get in the back seat and end up sitting next to my doll. I’ve shown it to my family, every other friend that gets in the car and even my sister’s friends when I have to give people rides. Maybe I think this is just a really funny ongoing bit. Maybe I empathize with Penny.


Y’know, I was never the best-behaved kid. I managed to negotiate my way out of time-outs as a small child. (“If you say ‘sit down and think about what you did,’ it only takes me a little to think about it, the rest is just wasted time, and I’M BORED.”) However, this just freed up more time for me to make trouble, to do all the things I vaguely knew were wrong (“Saaru beta, if you wanted to use scissors why did you have to use them on the mesh of the crib we borrowed?”), but still wanted to try out for myself. It was a strange role to fill throughout primary school. My parents’ focus on my education made me studious and smart enough to coast by in class, but my constant diversion of focus landed me in trouble again and again. (“Saarthak, did you really burst out into laughter over the intercom before reading the Pledge of Allegiance because you thought introducing yourself in French was the funniest thing in the world?”)  

Maybe I was subverting stereotypes of the nerdy Indian kid I hadn’t yet learned about. The skinny Indian boy in a first-grade class of white kids read every chapter book in the classroom (often by reading under the desk and getting yelled at because he wasn’t paying attention to lessons) and then got his card flipped to red because he wanted to use his friend as a chair.

Teachers would pull me aside, and I’d never have any idea if I was going to be commended or criticized — though it usually was the latter. The guilt I’d create over my mistakes would feel unforgettable but I kept making them, continuing a pattern of what seemed to be self-sabotage well into my adulthood. I feel like I’ve gotten better, but it only takes one mistake to feel like a cursed kid again, staring at the blood-red result of my impulses.

“Cursed kid?”

Well, it’s the horror trope, you know? Kids that do odd things for indiscernible reasons, kids that are agents of chaos, kids that just have those vibes about them that creep people out. There are times I felt alienated in those ways. I got a superficial concussion early on in elementary school (“Saarthak, you can’t be so invested in ball tag. You don’t realize you’re stepping off the playscape”), and it led me to spend a few months of recess inside reading, for fear of contact sports. It was then I developed this on-and-off fixation with children’s horror: “Goosebumps,” “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” the “Weenies” stories, etc. To relate to kids, these stories often featured children as protagonists and as the horrific forces that drove the stories. The first “real” horror movie I saw (because the “Goosebumps” movie definitely doesn’t count) was “The Babadook,” which I only picked for its LGBTQ+ representation. That is another work, however, that presents an uncontrollable child — often torturing his grieving mother — that forms this emotional core of the terror inflicted upon them. So over and over, I’m drawn to stories of these creepy and cursed kids, and as an adult now, I feel this desire to restore their innocence that’s been perverted for horror.

Dolls definitely fall in this same line. “Goosebumps” with its iconic “Slappy the Dummy” introduced me to the trope, but it operates on the same logic — innocence twisted into abomination: the fictional Chucky, the real-life Annabelle, my little sister’s headless Barbies. When I started middle school (“Why did you start singing the ‘Phineas and Ferb’ theme while everyone was reading, and why did everyone else join in?”), I also got invested in stories about haunted video games, classic “creepypastas” about the games I grew up with being corrupted through ghoulish lenses. I’d argue that these are the modern versions of haunted dolls; playthings that symbolize dreams of innocence and childhood being twisted into nightmares. It speaks to another creepy aspect of these playthings too — the attempts at humanity that dolls make and the attempts at reality that video games make. Ultimately, twisting their aspects throws us off the peaks of our childhood into the uncanny valley. Imagination usually fills the gaps in playtime to bring our toys to life and breathes a bit of us into the experience, so it’s jarring when something else takes hold. These two tropes combined themselves into a pinnacle for me in college (“How did you land yourself in crutches the second week of in-person classes?”) when I played the psychological horror RPG, “OMORI.” I’ve kind of been working through restoring the innocence of what was considered horrifyingly unsalvageable my whole life, I guess.

“I guess so, too. Like, saving the innocence of creepy dolls and kids I can kind of get, but clowns are a different level of creepy, right?”

Are they? I don’t remember being scared of clowns before horror, and I didn’t really ever feel nervous about it until the 2016 “clown sightings” when I was in high school. (“Saarthak, I think you’re the reason why my hair is white.”) The revival of Stephen King’s “It” franchise and the legacy of serial killer John Wayne Gacy combined with a string of copycat creeps trying to clown the public en masse has still embedded itself into our public consciousness. What we found funny is now fearful, with the anonymity of clown makeup and the same uncanny valley representation of emotion through cartoonish exaggeration sending shivers down spines instead of laughs. I remember staring into the dark of our practice field with marching bandmates after a practice (“Saarthak, if you’re going to shout out the next direction we’re going in, you have to be sure it’s right, otherwise people CRASH”), trying to discern if the human-like figure in the distance was another clown. Exhausted high school students staring at a fencepost in abject fear — I think that’s a situation as funny as the best clown show can produce. But while the harm that the clown spree produced was minimal in crimes, the effect it had on clowns as a profession was much more severe — The World Clown Association spoke out against Stephen King and the sightings, citing the recent events as catalysts for the clowning industry’s decline. Children’s entertainers were twisted into horror tropes without their consent.

I think all of that flashed through my mind when I was staring at the gift I’d been assigned, and so I decided to treat my clown doll child as such — a gift instead of a curse.

I’ve brought my car to my apartment now, so Penny travels with me wherever I go: the highway commute between my hometown and college town, back and forth from my summer class where they sit waiting in the sun and for any long, winding drive I need to take to let off a little steam. They wait for me in the parking garage, possibly scaring anyone else who sees them sitting in the dark. I flip my rearview mirror, and they’re waiting right behind me. We ultimately fear what we don’t understand, and we come to love what we do understand — like my admittedly creepy clown doll. Maybe I’ll buy Penny a booster seat.

“Maybe I’ll buy it for you.”

MiC Columnist Saarthak Johri can be reached at