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Maybe It’s Time We Started Taking America’s “Creepy Clown” Panic Seriously

For weeks now, alleged reports of “creepy clowns” have been appearing in various parts of the United States. While much of the supposed “clown craze” could be chalked up to an urban legend in the making (or perhaps the continuation of an old one), the latest incidents in America’s ongoing panic suggest there could more substance to the reports than initially thought.

Beginning in August, reports of eerie encounters with clowns trying to lure children into forests began to appear following a warning issued by a Greenville, South Carolina apartment complex. Similar incidents were reported in North Carolina thereafter, with Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Ohio, and a number of other states reporting similar scares.

Now, the latest developments in the clown craze also include videos appearing online, which depict people dressed as clowns chasing cars, and even climbing onto billboards, as seen in the images below:

One of the recent videos appearing online, which depicts a clown observed on the catwalk of a billboard sign.

One of the recent videos appearing online, which depicts a clown observed on the catwalk of a billboard sign.

Screenshot from a video purportedly showing a clown lunging at a passing vehicle.

Screenshot from a video purportedly showing a clown lunging at a passing vehicle.

The incidents, which until recently seemed largely questionable, seemed to culminate late Tuesday night when three individuals dressed as clowns were reportedly spotted near the campus of Penn State University, prompting a large mob of students to take to the streets in pursuit. Video of the mob was uploaded to the Twitter account of Addison Carson on October 4, 2016. 

Following the pandemonium at Penn State, law enforcement officials in Utah responded to numerous queries about the clowns via social media, addressing how citizens might defend themselves in lieu of reports involving “attacks” by these costumed characters:

We have answered over 40 questions on FB and a few dozen calls at our dispatch centre about clowns today. It’s not the number of calls or messages that is concerning but the content of the messages,” they posted.

‘Can I shoot or take action against someone that is dressed up like a clown?’ That’s not a simple yes or no question. It has a lot of variables to it.

We understand that clowns to some people are already ‘creepy’ and some people have a phobia of them, we see that.

However, if someone is standing on the sidewalk, dressed like a clown and they don’t have any weapons and they are just standing there not chasing anyone around and you call us, when we respond and that person decides to look at us and walk the other way without saying a word, we can’t do anything.”

A clown-suited fiend filmed walking in residential area.

A clown-suited fiend filmed walking in residential area.

It remains unclear precisely how this clown situation escalated to its current state, with many reports being accompanied by videos of the alleged tormentors (such reports, we should note, are also now being carried in mainstream publication that include USA Today, The Guardian, and a number of others). However, few that seek to understand this in a cultural context would argue that the developing story appears to bear the hallmarks of a kind of “social panic”, which involves a community or group reacting negatively, and in an extreme or irrational manner, to unexpected or unforeseen changes in their expected social status or environment. 

The Guardian reported on the situation earlier this week, quoting sociologist and hysteria expert Robert Bartholomew of Botany College in New Zealand. Bartholomew cited social media and “a fear of otherness” as the primary factors influencing the creepy clown craze:

“Social media plays a pivotal role in spreading these rumor-panics which travel around the globe in the blink of an eye,” [Bartholomey] said. “They are part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers and terrorists in an increasingly urban, impersonal, and unpredictable world.”

In America today, concerns about terrorism, racial tensions following numerous law enforcement shooting incidents, and even the contentious divide presented by the current U.S. election, might all be considered factors, if indeed there is a social component to the phenomenon.

More footage of a maniacal clown, here stumbling around a playground (because, apparently, that's where creepy clowns live).

More footage of a maniacal clown, here seen stumbling around a playground (because, apparently, that’s where creepy clowns live).

Addressing the situation recently on my podcast, where I gave a complete breakdown of the situation and interpretation of its causes, at one point I joked about the similarity between the names of the U.S. presidential candidates and clownish memes, conjuring up the nicknames “Ronald McDonald Trump” and “Hillary Clownton” to emphasize the point, tongue-in-cheek though it had all been. And yet, thinking more deeply about things, maybe the notion that the candidates themselves, paired with general social unrest in the country, are in some way influencing the clown fiasco isn’t that far fetched, after all.

While there does seem to be some legitimacy to America’s “Clown Craze”, it should be noted that many of the alleged reports have also been cited as hoaxes; among these has been a recent New Jersey incident, as well as a situation where an 18-year-old woman claimed she was late to work following an imaginary “clown attack”.

Nonetheless, skepticism pertaining to the legitimacy of the clown reports has done little to dissuade clown activists, who have recently announced a “Clown Lives Matter” protest for October 15, 2016. While it may be a stretch to consider the “protest” anything akin to a serious gesture, the social commentary it provides is obvious.

Currently, the White House has issued a statement in response to the widespread clown reports, with horror novelist Stephen King also weighing in on the matter, citing it as likely being mass hysteria. Reports have indicated a projected 300% increase in the sale of clown costumes coinciding with the reports, with incidents now having been reported in 32 U.S. states.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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