The 13th Floor

The Clownpocalypse: Hysteria, Hype and Horror

I may not be the first one to utter the words “clowns don’t seem so funny anymore” (I’m pretty sure that happened decades ago), but this year’s massive resurgence in the bizarre phenomenon sometimes known as “clown trolling” — which was first widely reported as far back as 2013 in the UK, but has spiked considerably since a rash of alleged sightings this summer in South and North Carolina — has gone from fascinatingly spooky to straight-up nightmarish over the last few weeks.

Even Stephen King, who introduced the world to Pennywise — arguably the most evil clown ever depicted — weighed in on the sudden escalation in alleged “clown sightings” in recent months, theorizing that most of the reports were the product of mass hysteria, and that most sightings of the grease-painted goons were likely false.

But new evidence has been pouring in that seems to support the notion that creepy clowns are becoming a real social problem — maybe not a genuine threat to our safety (yet), but a terrifying trend nonetheless.

Image Credit: iStock/quavondo
Image Credit: iStock/quavondo

Dozens of news outlets have come forward from over a hundred different locations across the US (as well as a few in Europe and the UK), offering eyewitness accounts of menacing figures in scary clown makeup and costumes lurking in the shadows, chasing them and even allegedly threatening children. Many of these reports indeed turned out to be hoaxes… but others have been confirmed as genuine. Many are accompanied by photographs of the painted perpetrators — but since most of these are being distributed via social media, the motivations of image posters call this so-called “evidence” into question.

Whether some (or most) of these sightings are actually promotional stunts, pranksters capitalizing on the already-existing clown paranoia, or people mischievously testing out their Halloween costumes a bit early, it would seem the so-called “clownpocalypse” has finally been upgraded from a product of mass hysteria to a genuine epidemic, and local authorities have started taking these reports very seriously: as of this writing, multiple arrests have been made.

Image Credit: iStock/eldinhoid
Image Credit: iStock/eldinhoid

These included a 14-year-old in Fontana, California who was apprehended by police last week after making threatening posts on the Instagram group “Fontana’s Killer Clowns.” Police claim the teen had been planning to scare school kids in order to gain viral fame. Late last month, a young man was booked for causing “public alarm” after being caught lurking in the woods near an apartment complex in Middlesboro, KY.

In San Francisco, a woman claimed she actually had to fight a creepy clown who tried to grab her one-year-old daughter.

“I thought he was going to kiss her hand,” the woman told CBS News. “Instead, he pulled her arm literally, so I pulled her arm back and I kicked him.”

The problem has apparently become so troubling that some schools have started to ban clown costumes from their grounds, even on officially-sanctioned Halloween events. In an ominous reactionary trend, anti-clown vigilantes — sometimes in groups, but mostly individuals — have been popping up in response to the mass paranoia, and one of these may have actually committed murder.

According to Associated Press, a teenager in Pennsylvania was reportedly wearing a clown mask (a replica of one seen in the PURGE movie franchise) when he was stabbed to death by a 29-year-old man on September 30. Details of the case are still sketchy as of this writing, but police stated the teen’s clown getup had “created some sort of neighborhood controversy.”

Image Credit: Renee Keith
Image Credit: Renee Keith

Needless to say, professional clown performers see this as a genuinely troubling trend, and have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the scary M.O. of these clown trolls. In fact, they’ve now started to organize, and have currently scheduled a “Clown Lives Matter” rally to take place in Tuscon, AZ on October 15.

ABC 15 in Arizona quoted a release from the rally’s organizers, who call it “a peaceful way to show clowns are not psycho killers.” Participants are encouraged to appear in full clown costume, makeup and/or masks.

“We want the public to feel safe, and not be afraid,” the organizers said in an official statement to the press and public. “So come out, bring the family, meet a clown and get a hug!”

Even if much of the anti-clown sentiment is the result of mass hysteria (akin to the unsubstantiated “Satanic Panic” wave in the 1980s and the “Phantom Clown” scare of 1981), the question is still hanging in the air: Why clowns? What triggered the transformation of the clown from goofy entertainer to trauma-inducing nightmare? The American Psychiatric Association does not officially consider coulrophobia a mental disorder… so why do so many people seem to be suffering from it?

Image Credit: iStock/sdominick

Image Credit: iStock/sdominick

While experts have weighed in with their theories, nobody seems to know exactly how and when the classic clown image flipped so quickly and dramatically. A study published in National Geographic suggests the exaggerated, stylized facial features of the clown might play into the theory of the “Uncanny Valley,” triggering an instinctive fear of “otherness,” while Pennsylvania State Psychology professor Kevin Bennett told the New York Post that media portrayals of diabolical clowns — citing Pennywise, KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE and the clown doll in POLTERGEIST, to name just a few — likely pushed the clown image into a much darker place than it’s ever been before. He claims this scary clown image has been cultivated so much over the past three decades that younger generations are no longer able to relate to clowns as benign characters.

Bennett also lays a lot of the blame for the epidemic on the immediacy and dominant presence of modern media: “People are anxious these days for a variety of reasons, and spotting the boogeyman is more likely when you’re tired, stressed and you have a reason for looking for him,” he said. “Word travels fast with social media, and the more reports that pop up, the more legitimate the whole business seems.”

Image Credit: iStock/quavondo
Image Credit: iStock/quavondo

So… with all this information at your disposal, are you still down with the clown? Got any scary clown reports of your own? Are you planning a clown costume yourself this Halloween (from what I’ve seen, “Twisty” from AMERICAN HORROR STORY is a favorite this year), or are you thinking of retreating to your safe place until this nightmare blows over?

If it ever does, that is…

If you’re really concerned — or just curious as to whether clowns be creepin’ on your turf — Atlas Obscura has posted a handy interactive map pinpointing all reported clown sightings, updated on a daily basis.


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