Where Myth Meets Hysteria: Understanding The Creepy Clown Panic Of 2016

“When I was a kid, I had a clown doll with a head — maybe porcelain — and an all cloth, somewhat satin-y body,” Jason tells us.”This thing was huge. It looked like a prop from a horror film. And I recall it being hung on a hook on my door as I slept. Lifeless. Evil.”

Jason is 34, a writer, and, by all accounts, a fairly reasonable adult, adept at navigating the modern world. And yet, like many grownups (even famous ones), he’s downright terrified of clowns. “Once I was driving with my wife and we were stopped at a light,” he says. “I looked around and noticed there were two clowns behind us, just waving. I almost had a heart attack. It was terrifying and also a complete overreaction.”

In our current climate, Jason’s clown panic doesn’t seem quite so far fetched. He lives in New Jersey, the latest state to fly into a panic over an alleged sighting of clowns, marauding after midnight, looking for children to either murder or recruit. Alabama, South Carolina, Wisconsin, California, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York have all reported similar sightings. Sometimes these clowns are peddling candy or money in order to lure kids back to their hideouts. Sometimes, they’re less friendly, wielding weaponry — knives, swords, sticks — in an attempt to terrorize the townsfolk. But while clown sightings are up, and more and more people are demanding something be done about the late-night throngs of red-nosed jesters, there’s one important thing to note: These clowns? They might not be real.

Seriously. Take the latest reports of clown sightings in Jason’s home state. Despite the fact that police were called and witnesses were questioned, the authorities couldn’t find anyone or anything that matched what people claimed to have seen. And when you factor in that the witnesses were children — a group that’s particularly suggestible — it becomes even harder to believe that these clown sightings are wholly accurate and not at least partially figments of our nation’s collective clown-hating imagination. Factor in the media narrative that these clowns exist, are dangerous, and are coming for you, and you’ve got a full-blown panic on your hands.

But if the stories aren’t true, and the lack of physical evidence makes it fair to say that at least some of these reports are embellished, then how the hell have they taken such a hold on society?

Let’s begin with why clowns are frightening in the first place. One person we spoke to recounted the time he tried to stab a clown who was wandering around a birthday party frightening (read: entertaining) children, another discussed the fact that, when she was a pre-teen, a clown embarrassed her in front of everyone at the circus. Looking at these stories, you can quickly see the thread that connects them. And the bad experiences — which don’t stop there, ask literally anyone you know for a childhood story about clowns — aren’t proof that clowns are inherently creepy as much as evidence that children maybe aren’t their ideal audience. In fact, a 2008 study in Great Britain discovered that children strongly identified clowns as distasteful and scary when presented with photos. The head researcher, Dr. Penny Curtis of the University of Sheffield, called clowns, “universally disliked.”

“There are several reasons why clowns are frightening,” says Ben Radford, skeptic and author of Bad Clowns, which explores the cultural impact clowns have on society. “One of them is that typically clowns are masked. They either have a physical mask on, or grease paint. There’s so much information conveyed from a person’s facial expression. If we’re talking to somebody, we can see their eyebrows arch in surprise, or their mouths smirk in sarcasm. But you lose a lot of information about a person’s nature and intent behind a mask.”

That’s a problem. Clowns only let you see the expression they want you to see. And if you’re a kid who hasn’t yet developed the ability to reason or engage in the complex dialogue required to understand what someone is truly feeling, then being confronted by a stranger whose expression doesn’t ever change is going to be an unnerving experience at best and a distressing one at worst. If reading facial cues is part of emotional intelligence, it makes sense that clowns make us feel dislocated.

“There’s also an element of the supernatural in many clowns,” Radford continues. “You have this figure that is larger than life. It’s garish, all loud primary colors, with props and objects that most people don’t deal with. Most people don’t have a dead rubber chicken hanging off of their belts.”

Context is important here. According to Radford, one of the reasons we’re so frightened of clowns appearing in our rearview mirrors is due to the fact that they’re not where they’re supposed to be. You expect to see clowns when you buy a ticket to the circus (or, these days, any haunted house), but when they show up at your doorstep late at night or when you spot them skulking in the shadows or wandering down the street (even in broad daylight), the clown has broken an unspoken agreement.

“A line has been crossed,” Radford says, “and that makes people uncomfortable.”

That’s why the idea of seeing a clown, even one that’s not doing anything, outside of where we’ve all decided they belong can cause such a stir. Factor in social media and a savvy clown that knows exactly what he or she is doing — consider the Wasco clowns who caused a minor national panic with their late-night ‘photo project’ — and you’ve got a recipe for an urban legend. Now add in a 24-hour news cycle that reports before verifying sources, and it’s easy to see how urban legend morphs into full-blown hysteria.

“You’ve got these figures that do tricks,” Radford says, “thirty of their friends fit in a tiny little Volvo. They have flowers to squirt water. You never really know what a clown is going to do. That’s okay at the circus where everything is make-believe and you know that it’s at least somewhat safe to engage with the clown, but out in the real world, that’s not part of the contract.”

Everyone we spoke to agreed that seeing a clown in public would immediately feel like a fracture of the social contract. Even if they’re just walking down the street in broad daylight, possibly on their way to birthday party that they’re being paid to attend.

“Let’s say that you come across a clown on the street. If there’s no one else around, you are essentially forced onto their ship of fools,” Radford explains. “If you’re the only person around, then by definition, they are forcibly drawing you into whatever weirdness is going on. That makes many people uneasy.”
The other thing that’s important to consider is whether you’re dealing with a ‘stalker’ clown or a ‘phantom’ clown, Radford says. Of the two, the ‘stalkers’ are a little easier to handle, because they’re real people. We’re not talking John Wayne Gacy here — although he definitely contributes to the ‘clown as agent of evil’ archetype — but the people who are actually hearing the stories of marauding clowns, putting on the clown makeup and then going out to capitalize on a public petrified by the idea that their neighborhood is being overrun by grease paint-wearing lunatics. Of course, these copycat clowns are usually quickly caught because they’re flesh and bone, and because, according to Radford, they’re also fairly stupid when it comes to being dangerous. What they’re doing is less “menacing” and more clumsy “performance art.”

“If these clowns were really, truly menacing,” Radford states emphatically, “they’re incredibly incompetent.”

Radford also doesn’t buy the idea that the currents scourge of clowns presents a real threat to children.

“If you’re an adult who really wants to abduct a child,” he says, “first of all, you’re not going to dress as a clown. That’s the last thing you’d do, because many kids are scared of clowns. If you really have malicious intent and you’re concerned that the police are gonna come around, you want to blend in.”

The point is logical — why would someone who wants to hurt others wear such an elaborate costume if they didn’t want to get caught? — but because clowns elicit such a visceral knee-jerk reaction, many people don’t drill down to that level. The fact is, clowns leave us thinking with our lizard brains.

“There are people who are genuinely frightened of clowns luring their children,” Radford says. “I try to reassure people. I say, ‘look, the fact is that to date, there are no reports of these clowns attacking, luring, molesting, killing, touching. There are no reports of that.'”

But there have been arrests. In mid-September, Flomaton, Alabama locked down a school and enlisted the help of the FBI after threats against local schools were made by alleged clowns. Two teens and one adult were arrested, and while Heatstreet suggests that this may have ended the clowns’ “reign of terror,” it’s impossible to tell whether the clowns warning of their intentions to harm the citizens of Flomaton are in any way connected to the other reports of dangerous clowns that have cropped up in recent months.

In Athens, Georgia, the local authorities spent five days looking for a gang of clowns that three children claimed to have seen before “fleeing in terror.” While a woman who heard their conversation told police that she, too, saw the white van the children were alleged to have seen, no one was able to find it or the merry band of potential deviants riding the streets in full clown make-up. And yet news sites ran the story without a “reported” or “allegedly” to be seen in the headlines, ignoring both the fact that the children’s story was non-credible and the fact that witness testimony is often wrong and easy to manipulate.

When no band of clowns turned up, people speculated that the clown may have been a 25-year-old who had been arrested (while wearing a clown costume) for trying to smoke meth in a Waffle House, which is a very thin lead to follow. The only other arrests in the state? A man and woman who were charged after making false 911 calls about, you guessed it, clowns luring children into a white van; an 11-year-old girl who brought a knife to school for clown protection; and four individuals who made threats about clowns visiting local schools. They join a small and ragtag group of other “clown” arrestees which include two high-schoolers and a ten-year-old in Alabama. In Pennsylvania, an 18-year-old was quickly apprehended after rapping on doors and windows in his neighborhood while wearing a mask. No one was harmed.

Police are searching for several other clowns — those who have vanished into thin air despite numerous reports — in Missouri and Tennessee, and with the public on such high alert, it’s not surprising that a police lieutenant in Palm Bay, Florida expressed concern for the clowns rather than their victims. “The problem is that someone dressed like a clown could scare someone and there’s a possibility that someone could get shot,” he said.

The lack of hard evidence reveals that “real” killer clowns aren’t the issue; they’re few and far between, copy cats getting kicks out of a cultural moment. The bigger problem, according to Radford, are the phantom clowns. These aren’t actual ghost clowns per se — although that’s somehow scarier than real clowns with physical weapons — but urban legends handed down from generation to generation, right down to bad intentions and the trademark white van.

“Phantom clowns are essentially a version of an urban legend,” Radford says before comparing these phantoms to Slender Man, another terrifying creature that isn’t real, but has been widely reported and was even cited as the cause of an attempted murder. “Phantom clowns have been around at least since the 1980s and some would argue much earlier. It’s folklore. It’s a rumor. There’s these stories of these clowns that are allegedly trying to lure, abduct children. Often times there’s a white van, which is a folkloric motif or theme.”

“What would happen is these children would report the clowns to parents and police and say, ‘It’s weird. This clown came by,'” Radford continues. “The problem is that when police investigate, they never find anything. These mysterious phantom clowns that these children, and occasionally adults, report — they don’t exist. There’s never any evidence of them, and more importantly they never actually harm anyone. This is one of the keys to understanding the phenomenon. It’s always just missed. It’s always, ‘A clown lurched at me but I ran away.’ It’s a potential menace. It’s not an actual menace.”

Based on his research, Radford believes that clowns are just the current objects of fear in America’s never-ending moral panic. “For a while it was people concerned about satanists,” he says. “For a while it was people concerned about the gays. This is stranger-danger panic. We’ve seen this for decades.” Listening to children when they’re in distress is important, of course, but believing them without verification is another story. Radford points to the McMartin preschool case, in which children and adults accused the staff of a preschool of sexual abuse and satanism, leading to years of incarceration and a prolonged and expensive trial based on nothing but exaggerations and embellishment.

It’s not just kids whose stories need to be taken with a grain of salt, either. On September 28, after motorists in Virginia reported being waved at by a clown in a passing car, it turned out that the menacing figure was a 12-year-old autistic boy who was just really excited to show his mom his Halloween costume.

Would it do any good to try to track down the source of these clown sightings? At this point, with reports sprawling out of the south, up the east coast, and across the west, it would be nearly impossible to find patient zero. But it comes down to this: These sightings probably started out as a fun story — perhaps, Radford points out, a kid was just having fun or thinking up an excuse to get out of school the next day — and then spiraled out of control. While initially people may have seen no harm in these stories (it’s a perfect crime — who’s going to try to track down a creepy clown and, in the current climate, who will deny a kid’s story either?), when they pile up as quickly as they have and are then picked up by legitimate news sources before anyone has a chance to investigate, they become fact, even if it’s clear that they’re hoaxes.

“A lot of times people feel safe in making these false reports because they know that there’s no actual clowns,” Radford says. “If they accused the bus driver of hitting them on the bus, then they know the bus driver will be questioned and the cops will be called and there will be an investigation. They don’t want to get an innocent person, a bus driver, arrested or in trouble. If you’re making a report of something that didn’t actually happen by someone who doesn’t exist, then it’s safer for the person making the report.”

So, the call is coming from inside the house? The grinning monsters we should all fear are… ourselves?

As of this writing, even more clowns have been ‘sighted.’ In Reading, Ohio, a teen was arrested after making threats online. Shortly thereafter, police transported a woman, who claimed to have been grabbed around her neck by a clown. According to ABC 15, the clown, in full regalia, approached the woman while she was smoking on her porch at 4 a.m., grabbed her by the neck, and said, “I should just kill you now” and “that some students and teachers would wish they were never born at the junior and senior high school today.” It’s an oddly specific line. A dispatcher at the Reading police department, which we called for more details, said that she couldn’t comment on current investigations, but insisted that residents should be ‘vigilant’ but not ‘panicked’ and reported that she personally wasn’t worried.

It’s worth noting that no evidence of other reported clown attacks in Reading exist, but that doesn’t matter. We’re already too deep in our collective game of telephone for facts to matter. And even attacks that could only loosely be connected to the clown epidemic — such as a recent bank robbery — have been twisted to fit the narrative that all your childhood nightmares are coming true.

In Reading, Pennsylvania, a teen wearing a “Purge” mask was stabbed to death after an altercation with an older man. Initial reports, however, suggested that it was the perpetrator who was wearing a clown mask at the time of the attack. A local, who asked to remain anonymous, told us that by the time reports of the crime had gotten across the river to West Reading, the story had morphed into one in which a clown had dragged a child into the woods and killed him there. The next day, schools were closed.

The good news? The clown sightings — and if there are actual sightings, we may want to consider how posed and packaged for virality they are — will likely last through Halloween before dying down in November. Soon, they’ll only be a memory. In towns where the clowns have been seen, they’ll achieve urban legend status, bolstered by the fact that in places like Greenville, South Carolina, people took the sightings so seriously that citizens began shooting into the woods to force any roving clowns away. In Greensboro, a man actually ran after an alleged clown with a machete. You can’t fault people for wanting to keep themselves and their families safe, but how long before the victims become more life-threatening than these phantom attackers?

“By the end of November,” Radford predicts. ‘It will become part of folklore. This will happen again. I guarantee you this will happen again. It may be five years, it may be ten years, but someday, probably in my lifetime and certainly yours, there will be two or three more of these clown panics. They will be identical. There will be stories of clowns that are luring children. There won’t be anyone actually arrested for abducting kids.”

Just in case you live in New York, Alabama, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Nevada, Ohio, or… wherever clowns are sighted next, Radford has some final calming words for you, “The fact that there’s no real evidence of these clowns — apparently dozens of them in a half-dozen states — is revealing!”

Contact Mark on Twitter at @MShrayber.