On clown sightings across America. Sinister clowns

            On August 2016, residents of Green Bay, Wisconsin, were
alerted to a creepy clown wandering the streets of downtown (Lovejoy). Photos
of the masked menace were trending on social media outlets. As it turns out, the
act was an online marketing campaign for a locally produced film. A couple
weeks later, the incident sparked more clown sightings across America.  Sinister clowns have been reported by at least
20 states resulting in several arrests, school closings, schools banning clown
costumes, as well as a mass “clown hunt” at Penn State University (Waxman). While
the recent clown sightings may appear terrifying in recent memories, clown
sightings have been recurring since the 1980’s. Back in the 1980’s, reports
came in about clowns in vans beckoning children with promise of candy (Lovejoy).
While no arrest was made, the lore of evil clowns has made continuing
appearances in contemporary literature. Historically, clowns have been used
to entertain their peers though laughter. But as society continues to become
numb to violence, the clown’s physical appearance of mischief makes the
character an easy target to terrify individuals. Clowns can adopt a new
identity or facial disguise that makes clowns a strong presence in contemporary
culture. Pop culture representations and stories of real-life creepy clowns have
cemented a negative view on clowns in many of American’s youth.

In 1972, John Wayne Gacy, also known as “Pogo the
Clown”, entertained children during the day. However, Gacy would earn the name
“The Killer Clown” when he was convicted of rape, murder, and torture of 33
males until his arrest in 1978. A serial killer disguised as a clown will creep
plenty of individuals on clowns.

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Studies suggest that individuals suffering from
coulrophobia find clown features, such as make-up or attitude, problematic
because respondents “cannot distinguish if the clown is happy or about to rip
somebody’s face off” (Jacques). In addition, individuals find the clown’s
attire disturbing due to the clothing’s bagginess which can hold an array of
weapons for torture and murder (Jacques).

NPR conducted a survey of 7,500 adults on their
opinion on clowns (Jacques). Results revealed that 36% of respondents found
clowns “mildly disturbing” while only 20% believed clowns were “ok” (Jacques).

Clowns have become a dark crevice in imaginations.
Clown sightings resemble UFO or Slender Man sightings. Clowns have developed a
notion of creepiness that not only scares children but adults. Clowns appear
mischievous and strange looking which aids in their negative depiction.

Clowns flout the conventions of society of dressing
and acting that way they are known for. So what other rules might clowns be
capable of breaking? Francis McAndrew, social psychologist published a study
based on creepiness (Engelhaupt). Based on a study of 1,300 people, the common
factor that people found creepy was ambiguity. As humans, when we are faced
with the unknown we tend to fear and feel threaten. Clowns are popularly known
to cross the line between entertainment and mischief. So flipping the notion of
a traditional happy clown to a murderous conniving figure is easy in
contemporary literature and film. 

The opera Pagliacci debuted a murderous clown in
1892 (Engelhaupt).

Phantom clown sightings can be traced back decades
and are a form of social panic. Clown panics reflect age old fears dressed in a
new garb- literally. Clown folklore appear to be part of the “stranger danger”
moral panic of the 1980’s. Moral panics are periods of intense fear that crop
of from time to time. Moral panics often exaggerate threats from perceived evil
doers- either real or imagined. A classic example is the current fear of
Muslims and Middle Eastern refugees in Europe and North America, where they are
often stereotyped as terrorists and subversives. Some moral panics are entirely
imaginary, such as the hunt for witches in the vicinity of what is now Salem,
Massachusetts in 1692.

Someone once joked that from a public per ception standpoint
there is only one major difference between a rat and a mouse: a good publicist.
Perception becomes reality, when reality is socially constructed and there is
no more powerful a publicist in modern society than the mass media. It is both
a reflection of popular culture, and a beacon light of change.

with the appearance of television during the mid-20th century,
the persona of clowns changed from figures that were often associated with
adult entertainment, to the almost exclusive domain of children. By the 1960s,
The Howdy Doody Show featuring Clarabell the Clown, and Bozo the syndicated
clown, were both enormously popular. Linda McRobbie writes that “Once
their made-up persona became more associated with children, and therefore an
expectation of innocence, it made whatever the makeup might conceal all the
more frightening — creating a tremendous mine for artists, filmmakers, writers
and creators of popular culture to gleefully exploit to terrifying
effect.” 10

Outbreaks of phantom clowns coincide with the dark side of
clowns that began to dominate American and European popular culture during the
1980s with the release of a series of creepy clown movies and books. Perhaps
most influential was Stephen King’s chilling 1986 horror novel It, involving a
homicidal clown, and films such as Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988) and
Clown-house (1989). In 1990, there was an entire TV mini-series based on It.
The IMDb movie database lists no less than 186 movies, documentaries, and TV
series episodes involving bad clowns, most of them since the 1980s. 11 Thanks to
these images, the association between clowns and evil became part of popular
culture. Clowns were natural candidates for evil because they possess
unnatural, exaggerated features that render them not quite human. They are what
anthropologists refer to as “the Other.”

There is an interesting pattern to the clusters of creepy clown
reports, which typically feature the following elements: A dramatic initial
claim or rumor followed by saturation media coverage. Local residents begin to
scrutinize their environment for evidence of this new threat, and begin to
redefine ambiguous stimuli within their new stalking clown mind set. This gives
rise to new media and social media reports, which in turn generate more
publicity and anxiety. The subsequent anxiety and uncertainty are ideal for
incubating rumors. A similar pattern is involved in generating sighting
clusters of chu-pacabras, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster

They appear to be part urban legend, part moral panic, part
rumor-panic. As such they reflect prevailing fears. These outbreaks of bad
clowns appear to be an outgrowth of the 1980s “Stranger Danger” moral
panic which functions as a cautionary tale. “Don’t go near the woods on
your way home from school or the clowns could get you.” Clusters of creepy
clowns are a matter best dealt with by folklorists, sociologists and social
psychologists, not law enforcement. They are the modern-day equivalent of the
boogey man.

More than 250 children aged
between four and 16 took part in the Space to Care study by the University of
Sheffield, aimed at improving hospital design for children. All of them
disliked the use of clowns in decor, with even the oldest children finding ones says he created the #ClownLivesMatter hashtag and “movement”
a few months ago after he first saw threats against clowns, but it’s only
recently gained popularity.

has nothing to do at all with Black Lives Matter because I respect their
protests and they have a good meaning,” he explains. “I’m in my own category,
standing up for professional actors all around the world so we don’t get
profiled. So I thought: Let me start something.”


he may not understand that the “X lives matter” phrase doesn’t exist
in a political vacuum, he invoked the words in an attempt to make his cause
more serious. Jones is frustrated that pranksters are making clown mania worse
by trying to make it funny. He says he encountered a group of teenagers posing
as Snuggles the Clown on Facebook, but decided to reach out to them rather than
report the page. Jones warned the teens that posing as a clown may put them in
danger, and discouraged them from posting anything that “wasn’t positive.”

think it’s a joke, but it’s not a joke. People want to hurt them,” Jones says,
adding, “People really want to kill clowns. They threaten me all the time.”

reports of clown-panic and clown-hater-panic have left Jones and other
professional clowns vulnerable—but is that the way we want it? Clowns were
created to reflect and make light of pain and danger; like Grimaldi before him,
Jones is isolated by the people while we cheer for more. “My family fears for
my life,” he says. On the other hand, business is booming.

 them scary.


This ambiguity between joy/terror and
pleasure/pain is as old as time, and this blend of opposites manifests today
through modern clowns

Grimaldi died alone, a penniless alcoholic in
1837. A young Charles Dickens was charged with editing the clown’s
memoirs—which were anything but comedic—and he made the already grim narrative
even more 

Clowns have long possessed a sinister
undertone; as 

most notably with American Horror Story character Twisty the clown:
Although he is terrifying, audience members and victims let Twisty approach
them out of morbid curiosity Today’s headlining clown incidents are similarly
muddy and prove that humans desire fear and excitement, and reify the power of
their unnamable combination.

            Clowns, also referred to as harlequins, jesters, jokers,
and pranksters date back to 2500 BCE ranging from multiple cultures (McRobbie).
Clown in Egypt and China made pharaohs and emperors laugh; Native American
clowns interrupted dance rituals with ludicrous acts; medieval Europe clowns
were permitted to make public jokes at feudal lords. The modern clowns popping
up in social media are closely related to the 19th century London
pantomime player Joseph Grimaldi, credited with portraying the classic clown
society recognized today by adding exaggerated makeup and slapstick to the
clown’s appearance. However, Grimaldi’s personal life was filled with
misfortune and pain, “I am grim all day, but I make you laugh at night”
(Lovejoy). Charles Dicken’s The Pickwick
Papers edited Grimaldi’s memoirs to create a public image of a happy clown
on the surface but self-destructive within. (Waxman). This was the blueprint
for the clown’s sinister reputation and disguise their true horrifying

            Andrew Stott, English professor at the University of
Buffalo, explains that the evolution of clowns is due to a “combination of
social and economic factors” (Waxman). Scott states, “clowns got a boost from
the popularity of the traveling big-top circus during the golden age of the
railroads, which linked successful clowns to the perception of 20th
century America at the height of its industrial strength” (Waxman). However,
the circus trend began to wither away and traveling circuses lost their place
as form of entertainment. Hence, many clowns lost their pride and platform to
perform. This created a down spiraling image of “faded glory” and “exhaustion”
associated with clowns. Krusty, the clown from The Simpsons, is an example of this bankrupted both financially and
morally clown who is attempting to recreate their prime. Benjamin Radford,
author of Bad Clowns and a member of
the American Folklore Society, discusses the connection between clowns and
social ideologies. Between the 1950’s and 1960’s, characters such as Bozo the
Clown and Ronald McDonald reflected “Cold War-era social anxieties” (Waxman).
Americans desired an uplift of spirits from the despair of a possibility of
nuclear warfare. The eagerness from Americans led to the creation of a happier,
fun clown that was depicted to be child-friendly. The so called “happy clown”
era would turn during the 1980’s when a string of child abduction had occurred
throughout America. As a result, parents were in moral panic fearing the
cautionary “stranger danger”. The fears developed a concept of adults dressing
up as favorite children characters to lure children in for abduction. This fear
was solidified by Stephen King’s popular 1986 horror novel It and the adaptation television series featuring the child-eating
clown Pennywise.  

            Lauren Coleman, a cryptozoologist who studies legends
created “The Phantom Clown Theory” to describe clown sightings to mass hysteria
sparked by incidents only witness by children (McAndrew). In 2008, the
University of Sheffield conducted a study with more than 250 children aged 4 to
16 found images of clowns were widely disliked due to clown’s scary appearance.
Psychologist Dr. Patricia Doorbar explains, “very few children like clowns.
They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they
just look odd” (McAndrew). Clowns do not try to appear odd but rather silly and
funny. The question arises how do clowns who try to act innocent become a
psycho killer figure? Psychologist suggest that negative clown images are
replacing positive clown images around the turn of the 21st century
(McRobbie). This correlates with the creation of popular contemporary
literature such as Pennywise and the Joker from Batman. Clowns are no longer
depicted in fun, safe contexts anymore. Instead, clowns are portrayed as
maniacs seeking public mayhem. A vicious cycle of clown hysteria will only diminish
the clown image further and continue to bring scary images into the circle.
Psychologists further explains that clown fear or coulrophobia is not based on
clowns per say but rather the clown’s representation in the media. Dr. Brenda
Wiederhold, a San Diego psychologist that runs a phobia and anxiety treatment,
explains that children develop anxiety around strangers at the age of 2
(McRobbie). At this age, children are not able to separate fantasy from
reality. In fact, not all children grow out of their fear. Dr. Wiederhold
states that 2% of the adult population contain a fear of clowns (McRobbie).
This could have resulted from clowns that are inexperience and provide a
traumatizing encounter to young children leaving the children scarred.

to social media, stories, legends, and folklore were spread through word of
mouth. But with the development of technology, rumors can spread like wildfire
through a click of a button. By doing so, phenomenon’s such as the clown scare
will gain traction. Thus, media outlets will capitalize on individual fears and
continue to plaster the news through television and the internet. Society will
continue to be influenced by social media due to a combination of fear and
curiosity along with some sinister enough to create public distress. As a
result, unlike the circus, the clown scare is here to stay.  David Kiser, director of talent for Ringling
Bros, further states, “clowns have always had a dark side…their comedy was
often derived from (the public’s) voracious appetites for food, sex, drink…in
one way, the clown has always been an impish spirt.” (McRobbie). The clown’s
mischief and mysterious appearance have always been a fascinating attribute for
society to determine. Since clowns were mostly children’s entertainment, a
popular made persona for clowns were associated these clowns with children.
Creating a figure to threaten the innocents of children was a tremendous
opportunity for filmmakers, writers, and creators to exploit in popular