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Americans are more afraid of clowns than climate change, terrorism, and ... death

Zachary Crockett / Vox

We live in scary times.

In 2016, we’ve seen hundreds of mass shootings. We’ve watched the gap between rich and poor Americans widen. We’ve witnessed the fulminant rise of Donald Trump, whose nomination left Vox editor in chief Ezra Klein truly afraid for the first time in American politics.

But in the eyes of our citizens, there is a graver threat at hand: clowns.

In a poll we conducted with Morning Consult last week, 42 percent of Americans said they were, in some capacity, afraid of clowns. Among voters ages 18 to 29, nearly one in three admitted to at least a minor case of coulrophobia — fear of clowns.

The poll, conducted October 15 to 17, comes amid the great clown scare of 2016: Since August, more than 100 “suspicious” clown sightings have been reported across the US, from Seattle to Bangor, Maine.

We get it: Clowns are creepy. Especially when lingering in empty parking lots at 3:30 in the morning, holding black balloons. But are they scarier than real threats, like climate change, economic hardship, or the death of loved ones?

According to Americans, yes. Yes, they are.

We compared the results of our poll with a poll recently conducted by Chapman University, which asked 1,511 Americans to identify their greatest fears from a list of topics. Clowns outranked every single fear, save for “government corruption.” (Note that our poll and the Chapman poll had slightly different answer options: Chapman’s had “very afraid,” “afraid,” and “a little afraid,” while our poll had “very afraid,” “somewhat afraid,” and “a little afraid.”)

Americans — at least, those surveyed in our poll — are more afraid of clowns than a possible terrorist attack, a family member dying, climate change, biological warfare, and the always-terrifying Obamacare.

Clowns also handily surpass classic fears like heights, needles, and ghosts. Oh, and dying. Because the threat of a clown is scarier than death itself.

Two-thirds of Americans want a government crackdown on clowns

In fact, Americans are so utterly petrified by clowns that they overwhelmingly support some kind of government or police-led takedown of any that roam the streets.

When asked if various police or government forces should stop the great clown scare, two out of three respondents expressed that they’d like to see more intervention. And not just from local agencies: 36 percent wanted to see “much more” or “somewhat more” action on behalf of the FBI.

Just to clarify, more than one-third of Americans want the FBI to invest its time and resources into investigating clowns.

In a recent conference, White House press secretary Josh Earnest seemed to agree: “Obviously, this is a situation that local law enforcement authorities take quite seriously,” he told a reporter. “They should thoroughly review perceived threats to the safety of the community.”

Americans are afraid of nearly all clowns

It should be noted that this fear of clowns is not limited to the legitimately terrifying costumed pranksters who’ve recently emerged.

We sent 1,999 Americans a variety of clown pictures and asked them to rate how creepy each one was, from “very creepy” to “not creepy at all.” The majority of respondents found most of the clowns to be scarier than things like needles and snakes.

The two street clown images — both screencaps pulled from recent news footage — evoked the most fear: 91 percent of people found the images at least a little creepy. But even classics like a Cirque du Soleil clown (79 percent creepy), opera singer Luciano Pavarotti as a clown (62 percent creepy), and Bozo the Clown (48 percent creepy) — characters intended to be approachable, not scary — fared poorly.

Ronald McDonald was the lone exception: Only one-third of respondents deemed the fast-food mascot creepy, and a mere 8 percent marked him as “very creepy.” Respondents determined a crappy MS Paint illustration (“cartoon clown”) to be creepier.

But even Ronald wasn’t immune to the great clown scare. Last week, McDonald’s decided to cancel all of his public appearances until further notice — the first time that’s happened since the character’s 1963 debut.

"McDonald's [is] mindful of the current climate around clown sightings in communities,” a spokesperson said in a press release, “and as such is being thoughtful in respect to Ronald McDonald's participation in community events for the time being.”

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