A Peek Under the Mask

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All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

—Shakespeare, As You Like It, Ac2, Sc7

Before I began my thirty-year study of the Meditation (Sanskrit dhyana, Chinese chan, Japanese zen), I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers.  When I came to know it more intimately, I realised that mountains are not mountains, nor are rivers rivers.  But now that I have reached its core, my mind is settled; for I again see that mountains are mountains, and rivers are rivers.

Qingyuan Weixin [Buddhist master, Tang dynasty]
(cf. Lopez, Donald S.: Buddhism & Science:
A Guide for the Perplexed
, p227)

Remember when the circus came to town and you were frightened by the clown?”  Australian vocalist Helen Reddy posed this question in her song You and Me Against the WorldCoulrophobia, or the irrational(?) fear of clowns, is not uncommon in children.  When (as other issues often do for autistics) this phobia spills into adult life (as it did for me in Disneyland back in 1978 when family members taunted me over my meltdown in front of a couple of cast members in Chip + Dale costumes), the results can be devastating not only for the sufferer but to those about them (I can almost imagine a couple of not-so-happy cast members from “the Happiest Place on Earth” consulting with the park counselor about seeing an almost 21-year-old who was in an absolute panic over them).  That trauma didn’t need to happen to me—and it shouldn’t happen to any autistic!  The following information about how autistics may perceive clowns (or their cousins, event mascots) and how this information may be used to help autistics deal with such actors can make their interaction at least tolerable if not necessarily pleasant.

Here you might want to send any small children or other emotionally sensitive individuals out to play—maybe even join them to make sure they tucker out sufficiently if you can spare the time:  Among some of the issues autistics may face with clowns or mascots involve poor differentiation between real and pretend.  Here, understanding the factors defining the trade can be helpful.  The presented character, with whom the client primarily interacts, can be divided into a channel or conduit, who portrays the character, and often an at least informal canon, which dictates how the character behaves, particularly to keep consistent with how the character is depicted in any official literature, like comic books, movies or television.  Even an informal canon can help reduce any risk of inconsistency which might threaten the “suspension of disbelief” crucial to the character’s work, especially in venues like theme parks where a number of channels may represent one and the same character.  However, inconsistency may still creep into the situation, as when a character whose canon renders them unable to shut the **** up is saddled with character mutism to avoid any off voicing.  Add to this the possibility of a character’s accessories (such as noisemakers or overly garish colouring) overstimulating the autistic, and interactions can go straight to “the naughty place”.

For various clientele, how the character, channel and canon are perceived can interplay in different ways.  Much as Master Qingyang “saw mountains as mountains” before his studies, the true believer takes the character pretty much at face value.  The channel, even when known or suspected (as an elderly male relative in a Santa Claus costume), is generally dismissed as irrelevant while the canon is just the way the character behaves.  Later on, when the client discovers that “mountains are not mountains” and becomes a sophisticate, the channel is taken as reality and the character becomes at best a harmless pretense and at worst blatant dishonesty, the latter case reflected in the word hypocrite, derived from Greek «ὑποκϱιτης» (plural «ὑποκϱιται»), an actor in classic Greek theatre who often wore a face mask both to indicate the rôle they played and to amplify their voices on stage.

However, both the perspectives of the true believer and the sophisticate are at best half-truths.  A somewhat more accurate perspective (under which Qingyang’s “mountains are again mountains”) considers the character and channel as separate facets of one and the same reality.  This clarification can prove to be quite useful.  For example, in early 1961, it inspired a medic at UCLA Hospital to bring Warner Brothers’ voice actor Melvin J. Blanc out of a near-fatal coma by calling for Bugs Bunny, letting Mr. Blanc channel a few other characters until he was lucid enough to respond as himself.  While character and channel share the same body (much like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Jekyll-er), their natures can still be quite different and both have more or less separate lives.  In addition, a professional (or at least a decent amateur) mascot has a vested interest in exercising discretion in their actions and (especially when retained by a sponsor) presenting their events in a positive light.  In my case, understanding these interests emboldened me in March 2017 to come out to the event mascot and his less disguised co-host at a local shopping mall children’s event with my issues—a decision which I feel substantially helped mitigate my unease with Chip + Dale in a way that teasing or other “conversion therapies” never could.

The moral I draw from having come clean with the event cast can be no less than that a proper understanding of the dynamic between a mascot’s character and channel helped to clear the path for a personal betterment of which I could have barely dreamt.  Recognising the issues I faced and how actual situations had helped stack the deck in my favour after all enabled me to surmount the mythology of true belief and cold comfort of sophistication, enabling me to face my own dæmons and come out as what St Paul tributed as “more than a victor” (NT: Romans 8.37).