Latest mass hysteria over clowns stems from baseless reports but the consequences can be dangerous

A terror is sweeping North America. Reports of demonic clowns trying to lure children into the woods have spiked dramatically, to dozens in the past few days from a normal baseline of zero.

Clowns with knives have accosted strangers on lonely roads, and stared menacingly at people on city streets, far from any circus. From Cape Breton to Florida, Utah to Ontario, they appear to be rising in unison, like zombies in floppy shoes.

Of course, the reports are false, exaggerated, impossible to track down, or they have turned out to be terrifying pranks. As police in Brockville, Ont., announced this week, reports of “killer clowns” in the area are “unfounded.”

But like the falsely imagined Satanic sex cults of the 1980s, the consequences of this mass panic, which rides on waves of social media, are real and in some cases dangerous.

In one of three similar incidents in Glace Bay, N.S., last week, someone dressed as a clown stepped out in front of a woman’s car, then ran toward her, causing her to floor it in reverse.

“It was like a nightmare coming true right in front of me,” Michelle Doubleday told CTV.

At Penn State and Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., hundreds of students decided to rampage in hunts for clowns, like vigilante flash mobs chasing some imagined Bozo. In Utah, police cautioned against shooting clowns, and outlined the legal perils for those who do.

Schools have been locked down for fear of clown attacks, including one in Edmonton Wednesday.

A clown college in Florida lamented that all this is a “distraction” for their students, “who just want to make people laugh and smile.”

But clowns have never been purely innocent or good, said Benjamin Radford, author of the new book Bad Clowns and an editor with Skeptical Inquirer. Their history traces back through jesters, Harlequin, and Punch and Judy, to the devil himself, who is likewise a great trickster. Clowns are terrifying for the same reason they are funny — because they are masked, with exaggerated features, caricatured and grotesque.

A similar spate of clown sightings and pranks happened in England in 2013, later shown to have started with a filmmaker’s antics, which were widely copied.


Gags the clown, whose early morning wandering unnerved Green Bay residents in August.

Explaining the sociological origins of these fads is more an art than a science, but it might be relevant that, thanks to racism, terrorism and a divisive election, the United States is a bit of an anxious mess right now.

“It’s not surprising that that sort of social anxiety might crystallize into some of these clown reports,” Radford said.

Last year, in a survey of American fears and anxieties, less than seven per cent of respondents said they were afraid of clowns, but the extent of this latest craze suggests that might be an underestimate. At least, the evil clown lingers in the popular imagination, from real life costumed murderers like John Wayne Gacy, to fictional ones like Batman’s nemesis, The Joker, and Pennywise, the clown at the heart of Stephen King’s novel It, the film version which is now being remade in Port Hope, Ont.

“Hey, guys, time to cool the clown hysteria,” King said in tweet on Monday, “most of em are good, cheer up the kiddies, make people laugh.”

Clowns often feature in sexualized pathologies, delusions and anxieties, and are a bizarrely frequent theme in child pornography prosecutions. In finding a woman incapable of consenting to psychiatric treatment, for example, Ontario’s Consent and Capacity Board described her habit of putting on a clown costume and approaching children in Guelph to tell them about the dangers of sexual abuse.

But more often the archetype shows itself in the enthusiastic youthful embrace of horrific images, for example, in the popular hip hop group Insane Clown Posse.

In a case heard last year in Ontario, more than a dozen Juggalos, as the group’s followers are known, lured a man to a tunnel known to them as “Medusa’s Cave,” stripped him to his underwear, made him bathe in dirty water, then cut him all over his body.

One counterintuitive aspect of clowns is that, like other sources of fear such as death, they can seem to pass unnoticed among us. In a much-cited psychology study about “inattentional blindness,” fully three quarters of people using a cellphone (and nearly half those just walking on the street) failed to notice a clown passing them on a unicycle.

Clowns are, in that sense, like ghosts. They can be present but invisible, lurking in the subconscious, waiting for the chance to terrify the waking mind.

As Radford put it, people always ask him when clowns went bad, “when in fact, they were never really good.”