Schools have sent warning letters home to parents, the Great Clown Panic of 2016 can no longer be ignored. Across the nation lurk incredibly creepy (and potentially dangerous) clowns. To help with this dire situation, here is what we know about how we got here, how scared we should be, and whether everyone really does hate clowns.
FIRST QUESTION: WHAT IS HAPPENING? HOW DID THIS START?
At the time it seemed like one of those weird-story-of-the-week things. Wrong. That was just the catalyst for local news hysteria across the nation. Since initial clown incident, there has been a rash of clown sightings, almost certainly due to copycat pranksters who have a bad sense of humor and decided to start celebrating Halloween early.
There have been sightings in California, Texas, Florida, Colorado, and more, and of course each sighting brings more attention to the phenomenon. A full list includes most regions of the country. You don’t even need to bother buying the costume to get in on the “fun.” People have even been arrested for posing as fake killer clowns.
Notably, the clown panic has even been mentioned by those connected to the highest office in the land. During a recent White House briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest said that he wasn’t sure if the president had been notified of the issue. He did note that it is a situation that “local law enforcement authorities take quite seriously,” which is probably his way of saying, “try to get some sleep.”
ARE ALL THESE SIGHTINGS REAL?
It’s likely most people really did see a clown lurking in the woods. But we also know that people claim to see things all the time that they probably didn’t, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. This isn’t the first time there’s been a clown scare either. There was one back in 1981.
SO HOW BIG IS THIS PROBLEM, REALLY? SHOULD I BE LOSING SLEEP?
Nope. For those who can’t tear their eyes from the latest in clown sightings, Atlas Obscura has a handy real-time map. So far, there have been about 100 sightings, with the most concentrated area being the Northeast and South.
Seeing a clown wielding a knife would scare anyone and as pranks go, this one isn’t funny. But in the grand scheme of things, 100 sightings is not that big of a deal. You know what kills 400,000 people each year? Global warming. Cars are also far more dangerous than clowns, and that hasn’t kept people from using them. (Admittedly, though, neither global warming nor cars have a large red nose, and a serial killer never dressed up as global warming.)
IS THIS ONE OF THOSE NEWFANGLED VIRAL MARKETING WHATCHAMACALLITS?
Well, at least one creepy video has turned out to be a viral marketing stunt, so it’s possible that some of this is in fact a whatchamacallit. But it’s unlikely that every sighting, or even most, have been planned by a publicity firm. Why’s that? Because at some point, viral marketing has to actually, you know, sell something.
HAS ANYONE ACTUALLY BEEN HURT?
As far as we know, nobody who has reported seeing a clown has been seriously hurt. That said, a teenager wearing a clown mask was stabbed to death by a man in Pennsylvania. (The report makes sure to note that the mask was “pushed up onto his head, not over his face.”).
Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist at New Zealand’s Botany College, told The Guardian that the fear over clowns comes from two things: a fear of otherness and social media. Social media spreads information quickly and that makes us think that the danger is bigger than it actually is. And when it comes to “otherness,” a clown has that part down pretty well.
We know we’re supposed to find them funny, but oftentimes we just… don’t. This can create a sense of dread or tension that bleeds over into this feeling of “creepiness.”
Clowns have appeared in many cultures, but nowadays it’s more common to see them in threatening contexts than as cheerful people at Ringling Bros. Think about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who dressed up as a clown, or the movie Killer Clowns From Outer Space, or Pennywise, the clown from Stephen King’s It. “You don’t really see clowns in those kinds of safe, fun contexts anymore. You see them in movies and they’re scary,” Martin Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University told Smithsonian. “Kids are not exposed in that kind of safe, fun context as much as they used to be and the images in the media, the negative images, are still there.”
In other words, we’re now more used to envisioning them as killers lurking around the corner — so when the real-life story pops up, it’s easy to remember all the other times we’ve seen clowns be evil. Everything feels more plausible.
But other studies beg to differ. One article from the Journal of Health Psychology found that a therapy clown designed to cheer children up made them feel less anxious before a surgery. Results from another study, this time published in Natural Medicine Journal, found that playing with therapeutic clowns helped kids with respiratory illness get better a little faster. Interestingly, both of these studies were Italian while the 2008 study was British, so there may be a cultural element at play.
WHAT ABOUT FEAR OF CLOWNS? IS THAT PHOBIA A REAL THING?
It is a “real thing” in the sense that there is a word for “fear of clowns,” which is coulrophobia. But just because there’s a word for it doesn’t mean that it’s legitimate. The term was made up by adding “phobia” to the word “coulro” (which means “stilt-walking), but the term is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
It’s unclear whether being creeped out by Ronald McDonald deserves to be called a clinical “phobia.” There are very few cases of people who are actually diagnosed with coulrophobia and it’s unlikely that, except in the most extreme cases, anyone would need diagnosis and treatment. This current panic notwithstanding, clowns aren’t that common, so you can just avoid them.
AND WHAT DOES INSANE CLOWN POSSE HAVE TO SAY ABOUT ALL THIS?
The band recently made a statement about the great clown panic. “So there ARE no “killer clowns”–it’s just jackasses being jackasses,” wrote band member J-WEBB. “So everyone relax!”
It’s not every day I get to say this, but ICP is probably right.
Correction: In the Slenderman case, two girls stabbed a third, who later recovered. An earlier version said that the third girl had died.
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