Across New York City, a troupe of clowns has made it their mission to bring their antics to the pediatric units of hospitals, where they entertain children and their families. Their presence lightens the atmosphere of the hospital, making it a happier environment for the kids, their families, and the medical providers. This article points out the numerous parallels between these clowns and the shamanistic healers of other cultures. For instance, like many shamans, the clowns frequently perform magic tricks for their audiences. This sleight of hand made spectators trust in the power of their spiritual healers; for the clown doctors, these magic tricks can either serve to captivate the children’s attention, or to build the confidence of children who see past the thinly veiled tricks. While the hospital atmosphere can make a child feel powerless, calling the bluff of a clown, or just laughing at his goofiness, can make a child feel in control of her situation. The wild clothing and make-up of the clowns is also similar to what traditional shamans wore. Both this and the characteristic odd behavior of clowns and shamans has allowed both to break the cultural expectations of their society. Ultimately, these clowns brighten the spirits of kids—allowing them to accept their situation and comply with treatment—as well as the spirits of medical workers, who may otherwise be fatigued from the bleak situations they see everyday. In this way, the clowns represent how blending elements of traditional healing with the Western medical system can lead to optimum outcomes.
Clowns are a traditional character in American society, as well as in many other cultures. Their society status is that of a bizarre, but staple, entertainer. While they are rarely respected as healers of any sort, a clown in performance has the power to manipulate his audience, and has a unique ability to completely break the rules of his society. The NYC clowns interact with their audience through music, magic tricks, puppetry, and jokes, all in an effort to create humor and distraction, and lightheartedly poke fun at the medical system, which can often seem intimidating to children. While clowns are anything but conventional, they do this work in conjunction with an established hospital system. These hospitals primarily operate through biomedical diagnosis and treatment, which requires licensed health professionals to define each disease through its biological symptoms and prescribe clinically proven treatment. The clowns’ healing powers are not an alternative to this, but instead, an addition to it.