The Great Clown Panic of 2016

Panic and hype in the digital age

by Eliana Bollati

The Clowns have warned everyone to expect them this Halloween.

It started in late August, in the sleepy town of Greenville, South Carolina. Police deputies were called to investigate a rash of “clown sightings”.  Clowns were lurking around apartment complexes, at the edge of playgrounds, and reportedly trying to lure children out into wooded areas with offers of money or laser pointers.

The number of sightings grew large enough to prompt the property managers of a local apartment complex to send out a letter, warning residents and advising them police were aware of the situation.

It wasn’t long before people were reporting sightings of clowns everywhere. From New York to Florida. Clowns were no longer just armed with laser pointers. Now, sightings reported seeing clowns carrying machetes, chainsaws and other weapons.

Two weeks into October and the clown sightings have spread from South Carolina across the USA, all the way to the Southern Hemisphere.

Just 2 days ago, an axe-wielding clown was arrested in South-East Victoria after he terrorised patrons at the drive-thru of a local fast food restaurant.

Police in Western Australia issued a public warning reminding individuals that it was a crime to own a disguise with the intention to commit a crime.

The trend seems to have caught on globally thanks to the internet, and social media. Facebook pages dedicated to clown sightings and hunting clowns have been created for cities and towns all over the world.

Clown Sightings Australia, which documents “All clown sightings and warnings/predictions in Australia” Perth Clown Watch, a locally based facebook page with a similar mandate currently has 18,000 likes. There are even pages for the clown’s themselves to communicate with the public about their eerie appearances. The Great Clown Purge – Australia and Clown Nation Perth both claim to be run by the clowns, and encourage members to tag people and places they would like clowns to show up.

These strange occurrences have even been given their own catchy title by some parts of the internet, The Great Clown Panic of 2016.

You could be forgiven for wondering, why the weird and sudden global fascination with clowns?

It turns out that this isn’t the first time clowns have terrorised our neighbourhoods.

In 1981, 5 years before Stephen King would publish IT, a similar spate of clown sightings terrorised America. From March to June of 1981, police from Boston to Denver received reports of mysterious clowns. Unlike the clowns of 2016, their 1981 tactics involved trying to lure children into vans with candy. According to Professor Loren Coleman, author of Mysterious America “in the time before the internet, stories like this lived and died on local news channels.” It was in the archives of local news reports that Coleman pieced together the 1981 Clown Scare for his book.

But according to one of the anonymous Perth clowns, there are no real malicious intentions. “Clowns are harmless! We just scare for entertainment! Hurtful clowns aren’t part of the clown purge pages!” And while clowns have certainly been responsible for their fair share of frightening lately, it also seems they are more likely to be the victims of violence, than the perpetrators of it.

Since all this clowning around began, there have been videos of clowns being chased down by crowds and beaten into unconsciousness with baseball bats viewed and shared thousands of times.

Meanwhile despite all the hype surrounding them, the list of actual killer clowns numbers only three. The infamous serial killer, John Wayne Gacy – who regularly dressed as a clown and entertained at children’s parties, and two mysterious gun men dressed as clowns. One responsible for the assassination of the leader of a Mexican drug cartel in 2013. The other reported incidence of a murderous clown was in 1990, when a woman was shot dead by a clown at her front door in Palm Beach, Florida. The prime suspect in the investigation was an unfaithful husband, but the case still remains unsolved.

Australian police across several states have spoken out over their concern for the growing number of abusive and violent posts being made on social media towards those appearing in public dressed as clowns. Saying in some cases, these threats of violence were more worrying for police.

Perhaps the most tragic end to a clown prank occurred on October 19th when a creepy clown in Cambodia was killed when he stepped on a landmine while being chased down after frightening some victims.

Speaking to Psychology Today about the craze, Dr. Robert Bartholomew said that social panics tend to have an underlying message. “Creepy clowns reflect fears and uncertainties about what’s going on in the world today.  They are part of a greater social panic about the fear of strangers and terrorists in an increasingly urban, impersonal and unpredictable world.” He said, going on to describe it as “a form of collective anxiety attack.”

The world we live in today is certainly a scary place, with or without the threat of a clown lurking outside our window.

Image: Hans Petter Vassgård Photography
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