Fear and laughter are often two sides of the same coin and the best shows are adept at getting us to feel both, often within the same episode. Some of Supernatural’s scariest episodes were often some it’s funniest and Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie s a perfect example of laughing to keep from crying (out in fear.)
The fear of clowns is called Clourophobia and we know, from past episodes, that Sam has a pretty bad case. The link between fear and laughter is never better illustrated than with people’s fear of them. Clowns are supposed to be fun, funny, happy creatures, but at some point in some children’s development, this gets flipped to fear, so that clowns become menacing and evil figures, that they cannot trust. So, when we open this particular episode with images of Sam being chased by laughing, but vaguely malicious clowns, we wonder: How the Hell did we reach this point?
Backtrack to Sam and Dean making Dick Roman jokes, and move from one form of humor to another (slapstick) and another form of fear, that the brothers are laughing at. They make Dick Roman jokes because he is the unknown. They know nothing about him, or what his purpose or ultimate goals are. All they know is that he’s not human and he’s bad for humanity. But he’s not being very blatant or obvious in his goals, so what they have are vague, unformed fears that they can do nothing about, because they know nothing.
So they laugh at him.
The brothers are investigating a series of murders of adults being killed by the greatest fears of their children. The Octopus Closet Monster, The Unicorn with a Rainbow Flying out of its Butt, The Landshark. All of these sound kind of funny but are pretty frightening concepts for children. The villain of this episode believes he’s helping these children by eliminating parents he thinks are mean to their children. But really, what he’s doing is depriving these children of the safety their parents provide and punishing others for his inability to deal with his own guilt and fear in his past.
He makes the argument that he’s saving the children and that they’d be better off without their neglectful parents, but his mistake is that he knows nothing about these people. He has captured these parents, in a moment of public weakness, and has made the mistake of believing that’s all these people are. He doesn’t know what they’re really like with their children and he’s willing to deprive these children of their primary caregivers, (and in one case, make one of them an orphan), on the basis of a moment of human weakness.
Like Sam and Dean, you have a older/younger brother scenario, but unlike Dean, this older brother was unable to save his little brother, who suffered the unextraordinary death of drowning, while on his big brother’s watch. This is something Howard has been carrying around and displacing onto parents, including his own. This parallels Dean’s fear of being able to save Sam and is also an indictment against John for putting Dean in that position. Even well into the seventh season, we’re still dealing with the brother’s daddy issues.
Through his actions, the villain is saying that no child so young should ever be put in the position of feeling responsible for the life of their sibling. He was and he failed. This is a callback to Something Wicked, when John held Dean responsible for not saving Sam from the Witch he was hunting. It is a burden Dean has carried for a long time. Unlike Howard, however, he’s dealt with this much more productively.
The brother’s conversations in this episode are interesting. At one point, Dean apologizes for leaving Sam alone, to fend for himself, as a child. He shouldn’t have to apologize for that, as he should never have been in the position of being his little brothers caregiver. Children are children. They make mistakes because they’re supposed to do that and it is the parents job to see that they can explore the world, make those mistakes and survive them. Parents are supposed to be their safety net.
The humor in this episode isn’t completely divorced from the theme, either. Many of the murders are committed by monsters which Sam and Dean make fun of, but upon closer inspection, are actually pretty terrifying, and not just to children. Certainly, a giant vampire octopus, slowly crawling out of you daughter’s closet, has got to be a pantswetting event, for anyone. Being eaten alive by a creature that was never meant to walk on land, is pretty fricking scary, despite Dean’s jokes about Vamptopi and ball washers. But it’s much easier to laugh at these things than to seriously imagine being chased down and maliciously impaled by a creature you loved as a child.
Its also interesting to note the water themes in this episode. Out of all the themes Howard had to choose from, he picked two of the most frightening marine creatures, paralleling his own waterborne fears, over the loss of his brother. The Plucky restaurants have a semi-therapeutic wall o’ fear, where children can draw their greatest fears, get them out in the open, confront them and acknowledge them. Which sounds plausible enough because look at what happens to those who don’t deal with their fears, at all. Perhaps Howard should have done some drawings of his own for the wall.
I don’t know what Dean is thinking when he confronts Howard. He’s in no position to save Howard as Howard is drowning in his own fear. The little boy who does it, isn’t actually real. He’s a figment of Howard’s imagination and Dean is unable to save him from his inability to deal with his own fear and guilt, but he does at least, save Sam, yet again. It only looks like Sam is alone and fighting his worst fears, but once again, Dean has got his back.
The humor isnt actually my favorite moment of Plucky’s. My favorite is when they exchange their gifts at the end. Earlier Dean expressed an interest in procuring a giant slinky. Now, at no point during the episode, do we see him mention this to Sam but Sam, of course, knows about it, and gives Dean a giant Slinky.
Dean, because he just enjoys being a dickish older brother, gives Sam a clown doll. Unlike Howard who never dealt with the fear that ultimately killed him, Sam has faced and fought his. He’s never going to like clowns but, unlike Howard, it’s not something that will kill him.