By the time 500 people were angrily combing the streets on October 3, looking for dangerous cosplayers in what is now being called “the Penn State clown riot,” it was clear the nation had a serious clown problem on its hands.
But it’s not the one you think.
CLOWNS have caused riots and clown hunting at penn state this is the end pic.twitter.com/5rmRVTBLgT— Emma Karpinski (@Emmakarpinskiii) October 4, 2016
As reporters were quick to note in the case of the Penn State incident, no clowns were located in the clown hunt, and no evidence was found to suggest that evil clowns were ever there to begin with.
Let’s reemphasize this key fact, one you’ll need to remind yourself of as we continue through this maze of clown madness: The reported clowns don’t actually exist.
The clown hysteria seems to revolve around two nightmare scenarios. The first one is that a group of people dressed as clowns are preying on children. The second is that “evil” clowns — who seem to represent either people dressed as clowns or professionals who make it their job to dress as scary clowns (like this guy) — are somehow straying outside their professional purview and creepily wandering the streets. But there is no evidence anywhere that either of these scenarios is actually occurring. There is no evidence that a ring of people dressed as clowns are preying on children. There is no evidence that “evil” clowns exist and are currently taking to the streets.
That hasn’t stopped people from perpetuating and reacting to the hoax clown sightings across the country, possibly contributing to the fatal stabbing of a 16-year-old boy in possession of a clown mask.
People panicking over clowns that aren’t actually there forms the basic psychology behind the staggering tide of evil clown sightings that has swept the country in recent months. This pattern can be traced back to August, when a clown in Green Bay dubbed “Gags the Clown” began frightening passersby by standing on a corner and, well, looking really creepy.
Though the clown was real enough, the “gag” turned out to be a viral marketing stunt for a low-budget horror movie. Judging from the local reaction, it was quite viral indeed — and it seems to have set the tone for the clown-related madness that has beset the country ever since.
The Great Clown Panic of 2016 has been perpetuated by pretty much everyone except actual clowns
Local Wisconsin news reported that the Green Bay clown had prompted people to phone 911 to report its creepy presence, even though standing on a corner holding balloons isn’t actually a criminal offense. The fact that the clown was there seemed to be all it took to spark the wave of coulrophobia — fear of clowns.
It’s important to keep in mind that as far as we know, the Green Bay clown sighting was one of only a tiny number of cases in which an actual human being dressed up as a clown and did frightening things. All other reported clown sightings are more accurately clown hoaxes.
The next clown hoax was far more typical of the way such rumors usually go. In late August, multiple school children in Greenville, South Carolina, reported seeing a group of scary clowns “whispering” and “making strange noises” at the edge of a local wood. A police investigation into the reports turned up an utter lack of corroboration or evidence that the clowns had existed at all — further exacerbated by anonymous, likely hoax, phone calls.
Despite this, clown panic swept the city. In the process, the idea grew that the nonexistent clowns were trying to lure children into the woods. Within days, the clown hoaxes spread rapidly throughout the Carolinas, again via solely anonymous reports, and so on through the rest of the nation. In early September, a Winston-Salem man was arrested for falsifying a police report about a clown sighting. (Because, again, the clown sightings were never real.) Around the same time in Macon, Georgia, reports of clowns menacing children at a bus stop came to nothing, while yet another false report was filed.
The clown hoaxes spread regionally throughout the Southeast US, up the coast, and then west. The fearmongering grew, sometimes perpetuated by authorities themselves but largely by the media, which has tended to report the clown hoaxes with straight-faced solemnity.
Despite the hand-wringing, multiple clown sightings throughout Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington have all either come to nothing, been debunked, or resulted in more arrests from false reporting. By the end of September, the New York Times was calling the clown hoaxes “a contagion.”
Though some of the reports have been based in fact, none have actually involved clowns
Not all of the reports have been unsubstantiated. In Arizona, teens robbed two fast-food restaurants wearing clown masks, and in Tennessee, men disguised as clowns robbed a Memphis bank. These are standard gimmicks that follow famous fictional bank heists like the masked presidents in Point Break and clown masks used by bank robbers in The Dark Knight, and as such might not have any connection to the recent clown hoaxes.
Meanwhile, a much larger subset of pranksters have been apprehended by authorities for using the clown hoax as an excuse to scare people. Nine clown-related arrests in Alabama were the result of kids and adults either pranking or making “terrorist” clown threats. In Kentucky, a 20-year-old man was arrested in full clown regalia and charged with wearing a mask in a public place:
Apart from the robberies, viral clown sightings have mostly turned up videos of clowns standing and waving at people, like this waving car wash clown in Michigan and this friendly clown in Rhode Island. One video posted of a clown lurking creepily in the bushes in Florida racked up more than 1 million views on Facebook; but no corroboration of its authenticity has surfaced, and the poster, Caden Munro Parmalee, seems to be a fan of conspiracies.
The wave of hoaxes has led to growing alarm among school districts. Since the clown hoaxes began, schools in Dallas, Houston, Connecticut, Virginia, Philadelphia, DC, Missouri, New Jersey, Arizona, Kentucky, New York, and Baltimore have beefed up security due to clown-related threats to school districts or general clown panic. In New Haven, schools have banned all clown costumes for the entire month of October. In Georgia, an 11-year-old girl was arrested for bringing a knife to school to protect herself against clowns, while in Virginia, a high schooler asked someone posing as a clown on Facebook to commit murder. In Albany, school security increased after a “clown bomb threat” was reported to a number of schools, while in Missouri, a clown Facebook group promised “were [sic] killing the teachers and kidnapping the kids! WE ARE NOT PLAYING.”
Not every school is kowtowing to the hoaxes: A Las Vegas school district dismissed its hoaxes, and one Virginia school district issued an adamant proclamation reiterating that there is “no credible threat” posed by any of the clown-related rumors. They were joined by at least one police department reminding the public to stop freaking out over unsubstantiated clown rumors.
And this is the heart of the issue. Despite the hysteria, the few actual clown sightings have nothing to do with the rumors of scary child predators in vans or evil clowns roaming the woods and the streets. The occasional random kid in a clown mask is an individual looking to scare people; there’s no evidence to suggest these incidents are part of a dark clown-related conspiracy that is putting children at risk.
We know the vast majority of these rumors are hoaxes not only because the recent clowns sightings have essentially all come to nothing but because this isn’t the first time such hysteria has swept the country. There is, in fact, a long history of clown sightings and subsequent clown panics in the US, stretching back decades.
The US has a history of clown panics, and they’re always part of a larger social unease
American history is littered with creepy clown sightings, which at times have spread across the ocean to infect Europe. Documented public scares surrounding creepy clown sightings date back to May 1981 (a year before Poltergeist and a whole five years before the publication of Stephen King’s It), when a group of school children in Brookline, Massachusetts, reported seeing scary clowns in a black van. A police APB was issued, and a memo of caution was sent to Boston-area school administrators. Though police ultimately dismissed the reports when no adults were able to corroborate the sightings, the clown panic spread throughout multiple cities in the US during the summer of 1981. The phenomenon also gained a name: “phantom clowns.”
Since then, “phantom clowns” have caused scares in Boston, Providence, Omaha, and Arizona in 1985, in New Jersey and Chicago in 1991, DC and Maryland in 1994, Honduras in 1995, Wisconsin in 2000, Chicago in 2008, Northampton, England, in 2013, France in 2014, California in 2014, Wisconsin and Chicago again in 2015, and Florida earlier in 2016. And these are just the highlights.
Ben Radford is a folklore and urban legends researcher with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He’s also the author of The Martians Have Landed!: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes, which looks at mass social panics, and Bad Clowns, a (well-timed) 2015 book which looks at the history of the evil clown in popular culture. In each book, Radford places the history of bad clowns within a larger context of moral panics throughout recent history — from the infamous “satanic panic” of the ’80s to the panic over kids playing Pokémon in the late ’90s.
“I do think there’s an element of social anxiety,” Radford told Vox in an interview, citing concerns over the election cycle, terrorism, the rise of mass shootings, and increasing tension with police and protestors. “It sort of creates this ripe social context for clown panics.”
The first wave of phantom clowns broke loose in the ’80s, alongside new fears of child kidnappings and the panic surrounding a wave of false accusations of satanic ritual abuse in day cares throughout the nation. The clown panic, with its implied threats of pedophilia and kidnapping and its aesthetic of a crazed fringe terror in the form of renegade clowns, overlapped with these fears.
Moral panics usually arise in the midst of greater social unease. It can be argued that these moral panics emerged at a moment when a narrative of the country’s social prosperity and stability was emerging under the Reagan administration. The country’s repressed anxieties found their outlet in the specter of psychotic clowns and the unknown occult.
Slate’s Matthew Dessem points out that though the clown scares preceded It, the novel’s central menace, Pennywise the clown — who is more accurately a shape-shifting evil entity whose “resting state” is that of Stephen King’s terrifying clown — returns to terrorize the children of suburban Maine once per generation, a pattern reminiscent of these real-life clown scares. This makes sense not only in terms of how urban legends and folkloric tropes are passed down through generations but also in terms of the cyclical social anxieties that trigger these kinds of mass panics.
“You can put whatever mask you want on it,” Radford told Vox, “but essentially it’s about a fear of loss of the familiar and loss of control.”
But why does that mask have a clown face?
How we forgot clowns were scary
Radford told Vox that despite the popular image of clowns in America as happy figures, the reality is that clowns have always had a dark side.
“I had always thought of clowns as being happy and good, but in fact if you look at the history of the clown, the clown is a much more ambiguous character,” he said. “If you look at the clown as an archetype, sometimes they were good and sometimes they were bad. It’s a misleading question to ask ‘when did clowns go bad,’ because they were never really good. They always had this duality to them.”
The clown’s evil side has always been central to its nature. The trope began as a part of more traditional trickster archetypes across the world, like the court jester, the fool, and the harlequin. The clown plays the role of the ironic entertainer whose duality reflects the intrinsic darkness and lightness of humanity itself. By playing off this duality through satire, the clown has historically served as a tool of fierce social and political subversion: We crave the clown’s fun, whimsical side, but the clown’s dark side often reveals barbaric truths about human nature.
After the Enlightenment in the 18th century, this paradox began to yield outright sinister manifestations. The wife-beating Punch of Punch and Judy fame illuminates the audience’s gleeful love of misogynistic violence. The narrator of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” carries out his bloody quest for revenge while his victim is dressed as a harlequin, part of a broader 19th-century theme of associating pantomimes and harlequins with murder — like this chilling scene from the opera Pagliacci, in which Pavarotti’s clown, consumed with jealousy over his real-life paramour, murders her onstage and then declares, “La commedia è finita!” or, “The comedy is finished!”
But 19th-century clowns also often channeled their dark sides into sadness instead of evil. Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers portrayed a sad alcoholic clown, based on the real life of a pantomime named Joseph Grimaldi who told fans that he was “grim all day.” Nineteenth-century clowns often played up their heightened falseness onstage to underscore the sadness of their reality. This aspect of the clown became even more central to the clown motif in the early 20th century, when Charlie Chaplin’s lovable tramp took over cinema and sad clowns entered the circus ring.
The documentary Killer Legends repeats a folk legend that after the Hammond Circus train wreck in 1918, in which a clown named Joe Coyle watched his wife and child die in the wreckage along with 84 other people, he transformed his act from a happy one into a purely tragic one, predating Emmett Kelly’s famous sad clown by a decade. By the mid-20th century, the emergent tradition of down-and-out sad clowns had effectively repressed the clown’s evil side, particularly in America. But ambiguity remained a core part of the clown’s nature.
“It is the inherent ambiguity surrounding clowns that make them creepy,” writes Frank T. McAndrew at Scientific American. “People interacting with a clown during one of his routines never know if they are about to get a pie in the face or be the victim of some other humiliating prank.”
It wasn’t until the televised appearances of Bozo the Clown in the 1950s, along with the rise of Ronald McDonald, that the evil side of clowns began to reenter the public’s psyche. Famous friendly weatherman Willard Scott portrayed both clowns in popular culture, “graduating” from playing Bozo to originating the appearance of Ronald McDonald.
Ironically, seeing clowns now fully repressed in the form of a purely commercial form of children’s entertainment made people more acutely aware of the dark side they weren’t seeing. Many children had terrified reactions to seeing these two famous clowns everywhere, or to having clown memorabilia foisted on them by well-meaning adults — an anxiety most notably typified by the famous clown scene in Poltergeist.
By the ’60s, the clown’s sinister side had fully emerged once more. Cabaret’s darkly tragicomic emcee reflected the depravity of Nazi Germany, while the Joker gleefully celebrated the anarchy of Gotham while never letting us forget that the sources of that anarchy were all too human. And then in the late ’70s, just before the clown scares began, John Wayne Gacy, the famous former clown turned serial killer, carried out his evil work.
A 2008 study found that the vast majority of children view clowns as “frightening and unknowable.” Calling the “jolly clown” a “historical anomaly,” Sadie Stein writes, “We are clearly witnessing the last gasp of the clown as a phenomenon, as opposed to the clown as a signifier.” In other words, after a short historical stint as a purely commercial entertainment tool, the clown has reascended to its proper cultural role as a trickster and sinister arbiter of the times. In the modern era, if a clown doesn’t scare you, something is off.
Sometimes the duality of the clown really does have shocking connections to actual horror: Gacy is not the only real-life evil associated with the specter of the clown. In 1992, Rex Mays, who sometimes worked as a clown and children’s entertainer, brutally murdered two children next door. And when James Holmes carried out the 2012 mass shooting of a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, he did so dressed as the Joker at the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, which was itself associated with clown-fueled violence.
But one thing clowns have never had is a history of driving scary vans through a suburban neighborhood or near a schoolyard in search of kids to abduct.
What to do if clown hysteria comes your way
Radford told Vox that his biggest fear related to the current clown panic is not the clowns but ordinary people. “Rumors can have real consequences,” he said. “My concern is that people will start overreacting to what is essentially a hoax and an urban legend.” Given that the overreactions have already begun — police are having to warn the public not to shoot people dressed as clowns — it can’t be overstated that the clowns are a figment of the public imagination.
The best thing to do if clown hysteria comes to your town is be reasonable and skeptical. In other words, don’t panic. There’s no reason to assume that people dressed as clowns in your area are acting out of anything other than a wish to perpetuate the hoax. Likewise, there’s no reason to assume that clown threats being directed at your local schools are coming from anyone other than kids who want to get out of class for a day or two. Remember that a lack of photographic evidence or other physical evidence usually makes it implausible that a real clown has shown up in your area — and if someone is dressed as a clown, the likelihood that they have done so with genuine evil intent is very low.
And remember: So far, no actual clowns have been involved in the Great Clown Panic of 2016.