Vienna, Austria – June 2012
Sundown at Prater amusement park. The lights of the various attractions flicker on as if in welcome.
My husband looks at everything with a bleary-eyed bewilderment. He wasn’t able to sleep last night or on the train from Budapest this morning. He grew up on a remote South Pacific island. The idea of amusement parks is an alien one. He stops in front of a ride called the Black Mamba. He stares up, mouth open in wonder, as a group of people are whipped viciously around and upside down. We are directly under them, and therefore targets for anything that might fly out of their mouths.
“Uh, we probably want to move to the side.” I pull on his arm.
He nods, and we move on.
The kiddie rides have shut down, and the arcades are eerily vacant. Teenagers begin to trickle into the park. Groups of girls and boys suited up in their coolest attire and attitudes. I smile. I used to be like them.
Every year in July, my hometown of Auburn, Michigan welcomes the Corn Festival. Carneys roll into town. Rides are assembled. People from all over descend upon the small town, mostly for the legendary beer tent.
In the mid 1980’s, I was one of the teenagers who congregated on the midway. We flaunted our tans and our disdain. We would duck behind the tents and take swigs of Boone’s Farm and MD 20/20 “wine”. Later, some would stagger behind the tents to barf.
I haven’t been to the Cornfest in over 25 years. I wonder if the same rides are there – the Zipper, the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Rock ‘n Roll. The people I used to know are surely beer tent regulars. It would be strange to go after all of these years. My perceptions have been so distorted by the outside world.
Deeper into the depths of Prater, we come upon some sculptures. Contorted faces of infants peer up from a flower as a black-suited man approaches them with a watering can. Other figures – banal and surreal – look on. I can’t decide if the scene is creepy or cute.
We turn down another alley. I stop in my tracks. The Hall of Mirrors. I walk up to it, slowly. The clown in the window leers back at me. A shrill, wheezing cackle emanates from the vintage speakers.
The giggle that it provokes in me is just as diabolical. The skeletal fingers, the purple Granny dress, the almost bald skull. Obnoxious and brilliant! How many coulrophobes* is this thing responsible for?
I like clowns. There, I said it. It’s not that I think they’re cute. They’re mysterious. I want to know what hides behind the fervent hilarity. Because no one can possibly be that happy.
I want to go inside. I turn to speak to my husband. He is stretched out on a bench, snoring. I gently touch his shoulder. “C’mon. Let’s go. You need to sleep.”
As we walk away, I cast one last glance over my shoulder. I’ll be back.
**coulrophobia is fear of clowns**