A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What’s with all the creepy clown sightings this year?

October 14, 2016

Dear Cecil:

Are there really clowns abducting people in North Carolina?

Cecil replies:

When Georgia cops busted an 11-year-old girl in September for bringing a knife to school, she protested that she needed the blade in case a clown tried to snatch her. Most other years, that excuse might seem far-fetched, but in 2016 you can get why the poor kid was spooked. For months police have been wading through report after report of suspicious characters in white face paint, floppy shoes, and the like, lurking, peeping, and accosting children. OK, now exhale — you won't likely have to shiv some Bozo any time soon. Not one evil clown has thus far spirited away his supposed prey; it may yet turn out that most or even all of these circus rejects don’t actually exist.

The current panic began this August in South Carolina, with a claim that some clowns were offering money to lure children to a house in the woods, and spread quickly through Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, and North Carolina. Before long, phantom clowns were sighted north of the Mason-Dixon line in Pennsylvania, and now it’s the rare state that hasn’t heard some account of clown activity. By press time, one might figure, they may be creeping across the Canadian border.

America has suffered such infestations before. Back in 1981, police around the country — Boston, Kansas City, Pittsburgh — started hearing menacing-clown stories from kids, all ultimately unsubstantiated; similar waves crested in ’85 and ’91, with another mini-outbreak occurring just two years ago. And we're hardly the only nation affected: for a full month in 2013, the good people of Northampton, England, tracked the movements of a mysterious clown who turned out to be a local filmmaker; France suffered its own plague of sightings the following year.

There is, apparently, nothing illegal about publicly dressing up like a clown, though your outfit might not make you a lot of friends — as the Northampton clown learned, it may even earn you some death threats. In fact, the fear of clowns — coulrophobia, as it’s come to be called — is seemingly so culturally deep-seated that some historians trace it back to the genesis of the modern clown itself.

In her straightforwardly titled Smithsonian article “The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary,” Linda Rodriguez McRobbie notes that two 19th-century performers who established the contemporary clown's costume de rigueur were uncomfortably dark fellows. Joseph Grimaldi, a pioneer in the use of whiteface, was an alcoholic whose torments became infamous after Charles Dickens edited his memoirs into a best-seller. And Pierrot, the French melancholy-clown archetype, was in large part the creation of Jean-Gaspard Deburau, who once walloped an urchin to death with his cane.

Deburau was acquitted in court, bringing to mind a quote from one of America's most notorious killers: "Clowns can get away with murder." Thus spake 70s serial killer (you knew we’d get here eventually) John Wayne Gacy to police investigators. Gacy, who entertained at kids’ events in full clown regalia, supplied crucial DNA for what’s now our stock image of the demented, murderous clown. This was already in place for Stephen King to riff off in his 1986 novel It, and already a cliché by the time rap-rock goofballs Insane Clown Posse won their cult following.

So, yes, clowns creep people out. That still doesn't explain why they were more ubiquitous than Pokemon this past summer. Some suspected a marketing campaign for 31, a new creepy-clown flick from shock-rocker-turned-horror-auteur Rob Zombie — after all, a clown roaming Green Bay, Wisconsin, this year turned out to be an indie filmmaker's promo stunt. But the movie’s distributor denied any connection. If only there was some simpler explanation. Maybe something like … people are big fat liars?

Sure enough: a North Carolina man has already admitted that no, a clown hadn't actually come a-rapping on his window one night, as he'd initially told police, and the inability of cops in other jurisdictions to scrape up even a trace of clown evidence suggests he's not the only fibber. But the alleged sightings have apparently given people ideas: a crew of Alabama teens were arrested last month for impersonating clowns on Instagram and threatening to unleash violent mayhem on their school, and similar stunts have proliferated in recent weeks.

What we seem to have here is a long-standing phenomenon given new oomph by social media. Every prank or hoax now hovers just a few gullible clicks from virality, with untold potential dupes and copycats alike waiting to pass it along. The credulous have been primed to believe themselves at constant risk from the most distant or mythical threats (terrorists being the old standby, but remember the “knockout game”?); trolls can smell this fear, and pounce accordingly.

Really, though: who'd don clown garb to steal a child anyway? Not to offer tips on abduction technique, but when your ends are nefarious, I’d figure conspicuously bright colors are a must to avoid. And kids are scared as hell of clowns. May as well try to lure a tot into your windowless Econoline with promises of broccoli and extra homework.

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