One of my favorite films out of Fantastic Feast 2019 was the documentary Wrinkles the Clown. As opposed to Pennywise, Art the Clown, and the legion of grease-painted villains haunting the horror genre, Wrinkles is real. No seriously. You can call him right now at 407-734-0254 (although you’ll most likely get his voicemail).
Wrinkles offers a unique service: Unlike your typical birthday clowns, he can be hired to scare naughty children. He’s sort of like a modern, real-life Krampus, though not bound to a specific season. He advertises his services guerilla style: By tagging with stickers. Wrinkles went viral after nanny-cam footage of him emerging from under a sleeping child’s bed hit the internet.
Dread Central was lucky enough to talk to Wrinkles the Clown director/documentarian Michael Beach Nichols about legend building in the Internet Age, the ethics of inflicting fear, and the viral fiend’s future. Peruse or conversation below.
In Florida, parents can hire Wrinkles the Clown to scare their misbehaving children.
Wrinkles the Clown is now streaming on VOD.
Dread Central: I love the fact that you told a true story that still managed to have a really big twist; it’s genius. Is that something you really struggled with: How tell a true story and still give the audience a surprise?
Michael Beach Nichols: Yeah, definitely, it was something that, because Wrinkles wanted to stay anonymous, we were sort of stuck in this position where, because that’s a natural thing to do, right? You’re with this person in a mask and you don’t know who it is. But because he didn’t want to be revealed we had to figure out a way to tell the story. It was an interesting process because you’re shooting a film where you can’t really show anyone’s face, so it’s a very different process as a shooter. So, you’re in the film for about fifty minutes and then finally being able to show a face and have that sort of mean something, it felt really powerful. We thought we might do it but didn’t know a hundred percent during production.
DC: I didn’t know a ton going into it, and I’m in the horror community so I’m literally inundated with screeners and trailers. But creepy clowns will always catch my attention. Last night in the theater I sat down next to a couple of women and they were really excited and I was like, “So, is this a mockumentary or a documentary?” and they’re all like, “It’s a documentary, you can hire this guy to go and scare your kids!” I don’t want to give anything away, and I understand the film is about legend building in the Internet Age but does part of you feel like you’re pulling the curtain too far back?
MBN: Parents have figured out a way to use Wrinkles to scare their kids, and so they’re using a voicemail and these incredibly visceral and disturbing messages so their children think it’s completely real, or their child thinks they’re talking to the boogeyman! So the parents have figured out a way to make Wrinkles nightmare fuel for their kids. There’s something really interesting about that, the power of an active voice mail.
DC: Are you a little bit worried that people are going to walk away from the film liking Wrinkles less after learning the “true” truth?
MBN: Yeah, I think it’s interesting because Wrinkles himself was worried about that too. Any sort of exposure in terms of what he actually does or doesn’t do, it was sort of taking away from his power. So yeah, I guess there is an element that people will watch this and it will be just a totally different relationship with Wrinkles, but to me it’s sort of fascinating to be with someone in real-time as they’re sort of orchestrating this myth but having it bolstered by children and random people on the internet and have them weigh in and have their say about what they think Wrinkles is. So I’m hoping there might be a little bit of grey area there for some people.
DC: So, let’s talk about child abuse because that’s another really interesting element of your film. We live in this era of safe spaces and I was kind of relating it to experiences in my own life. I remember, when I was in kindergarten, there was this older girl who told me that Dracula was her uncle and she was going to get him to come and suck my blood in the middle of the night, and I didn’t sleep at all that night. But I did have a psychiatrist in my corner saying, “That girl abused you! She subjected you to mental abuse!” It made me realize most kids think monsters are real and figuring out they’re not is a natural part of growing up. Do you think the child psychologist in your film is overreacting?
MBN: Yeah it’s funny, I’m not a father but I have a nephew and I love scary movies, and I loved being scared when I was younger. I sometimes scare my sister’s kids more than she’s comfortable with because I liked it when I was a kid and I feel like it helped me really appreciate horror things, scary things. But yeah, it’s not for every kid but for me it may cross the line if it’s done repeatedly. They’re would be eight calls from the same phone number, over and over and over again and with the example of Antonio in the film, his calls were sort of spread out over six months. We met his daughter and she sort of thought it was funny but also, she’s so young, I don’t know what a three-year-old is thinking and how it’s necessarily going to affect her. So yeah, I’m sort of more in the middle: I don’t necessarily think its outright child abuse but I guess it also depends on how your child reacts. If your child is wailing in the background and absolutely losing it, I think that crosses a line. I think some kids though, I think I could have handled it. I would have been scared but would have gotten a thrill from it, so I think it’s very much case by case.
DC: You talked to the one kid who was so afraid of Wrinkles, he took his box spring out of his room so no one could hide under his bed. But then he talks about how he faced his fears and now, he wants to be a filmmaker himself! That’s fantastic because that’s the story of so many horror fans who saw Halloween on TV when they were way too young, and now they love scary movies.
MBN: No, yeah, I was watching scary movies when I was too young. I just got such a thrill out of it; it fucked me up but I’m grateful for it.
DC: Yeah, you’re saying it fucked you up and I’m telling you about experiences that fucked me up, but isn’t being fucked up part of childhood?
MBN: Yeah, I definitely think there’s a place for fear and darkness.
DC: One of my favorite parts of the film was when Wrinkles is just talking to some kids and they love him. They say, “I love you Wrinkles,” and you get to this point where Wrinkles isn’t scary. Wrinkles is just another misunderstood guy, making his way day by day. It’s almost like Wrinkles doesn’t know he’s scary.
MBN: Yeah, we were so fortunate to get those recordings. We wanted to do a thing where we just filmed him and see what happens and it didn’t take long for that to happen. Also, we found this one girl, her mother didn’t allow her to be filmed, but she called Wrinkles like 36 times, or something insane. She just thought he was really cool, like would sing him songs that she wrote, would talk about her artwork. I got her to email me some of the artwork she’s made of Wrinkles, so there’s definitely this really sort of sweet thing happening, where a lot of kids weren’t seeing the scary side. They were seeing the misunderstood, maybe kind of grouchy, funny old man…not really scary, just sort of fun. “I can talk to him, I can talk to his voice mail and he might hear it, he might text me back!”
DC: So I’m not going to press you on the identity of Wrinkles but is this a one-off or is he a working artist/filmmaker?
Michael: Yeah, he’s definitely very much in the arts scene. I can say that. Big time, he’s into making stuff.
DC: Well, I wish him all the best and I hope you can keep this going for years. How do you think your film will change Wrinkles’ urban legend, or do you think it will?
Michael: That’s a very good question and something Wrinkles is worried about. It definitely could take away some of the power. At the same time, the number is still there. I do think he is going to continue to make videos. It might just shift into this thing now where he becomes this famous clown because there is a movie made about him and, regardless of who’s behind the mask and because he’s anonymous, I think there’s some power there. We really don’t know who this person is. It might change that dynamic but I think it might still be fun and kind of creepy.
DC: I’m going to give you a gift here, a way to turn this into a franchise; I don’t want any writing credit or anything. You have to make a meta-movie where the “real” Wrinkles is so pissed off he kills you, the actor pretending to be Wrinkles, and the entire film crew!
MBN: Yeah, I like that.