This article originally appeared on AlterNet.
First, let’s get one thing out of the way: There are no clowns skulking around America’s neighborhoods, looking for children to abduct.
Since the first reports of creepy, potentially murderous clowns began surfacing across South Carolina in August, there have been supposed sightings in at least 10 states, as well as parts of Canada. Social media has been recast in its timeless role as the Perennially Loud and Wrong Town Crier, helping spread misinformation and “clown threats” across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Inside HigherEd reports that clowns have appeared at "the universities of Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Miami, Missouri at Columbia and Texas at Austin,” as well as “Bloomsburg, Butler, Sacred Heart, Texas A&M, Syracuse Universities [and] Mississippi and York Colleges.” Yesterday morning, White House press secretary Josh Earnest actually had to answer a reporter’s question about how the administration is addressing the clown epidemic.
“I don’t know that the president has been briefed on this particular situation,” Earnest answered, presumably with a straight face, and even acknowledged it’s “something that I've read about in some of the news coverage.” He went on to suggest that the reporter check in with “the FBI and DHS and see what they have to say,” because talking to reporters about imaginary clowns is definitely a good use of federal agents’ time, I’m sure.
Most of the reports have been revealed as pranks, obviously. The New York Times noted late last week that at least 12 people had been arrested for “clown hoaxes,” and there have been multiple arrests since then. Other cases have turned out to be a combination of real clowns and irrational panic, as when a 12-year-old Virginia boy with autism dressed up early for Halloween, only to become the subject of a viral social media post and a local news segment. Somehow, police dispatched to all the remaining sightings have found no red noses left behind at the scene and not a single oversized floppy shoe for the crime lab to study. Benjamin Radford, whose books on urban legends and the paranormal include the recent Bad Clown, explains how the lack of forensic evidence is less about stealthy criminal clowns than overactive imaginations.
“The problem is that when police investigate, they never find anything,” he told Uproxx. “These mysterious phantom clowns that these children, and occasionally adults, report—they don’t exist. There’s never any evidence of them, and more importantly they never actually harm anyone. This is one of the keys to understanding the phenomenon. It’s always just missed. It’s always, ‘A clown lurched at me but I ran away.’ It’s a potential menace. It’s not an actual menace.”
The only mystery here is how long the clown menace will continue to be a story before it fades from popular consciousness, like satanic ritual abuse, recovered memories and razor blade-stuffed apples before it. Imaginary clowns aren’t the cause of the mass anxiety we’re currently experiencing, they’re just the latest symptom and manifestation of it—and not for the first time, either. Scary clown sightings have trickled in from around the country since the early 1980s, when “stranger danger” first became the national concern that launched a thousand social panics. But the question remains, after 30-something years of clown sightings here and there, why the sudden peak in reports?
"I believe that the surge in phantom clown sightings in 2016 are a reflection of the fears and uncertainties in American society at the present time," Robert Bartholomew, who writes about social delusions, fads and popular myths, told Lehighvalleylive.com. "I think they are part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers in an increasingly urban, impersonal and unpredictable world. Phantom clowns are essentially the bogeyman in a different cultural guise."
That sounds about right. There is a huge part of America that virtually runs on fear, even in the best of times. An astounding part of the population is adept at, and secretly in love with, scaring the shit out of itself and dreaming up justifications for a paranoia that’s already embedded in its consciousness. In the worst of times, that fear is intentionally rattled by those who recognize its usefulness for their own ends. These operators know that nothing grips the imagination of far too many Americans quite like an imagined monster, come to threaten your home and take your kids away. When a fear-prone populace finds itself in a particularly frightening cultural moment—for reasons real or imagined—the hivemind can run amok.
“I know people are fed up,” one Florida sheriff said at a news conference late last month. “They’re tired of seeing demonstrations and riots. They’re sick and tired of terroristic threats. Now they’ve got to deal with these damn clown things going on.”
That statement, which stops just short of a rant about “law and order,” makes it seem like this is all psychic collateral damage caused by Black Lives Matter and immigrants, in tandem with terrorists crossing across our borders pretending to be refugees. The quote is a particularly good example of the thinking and rhetoric that propels these moments of social panic into arising. It suggests the blame lies with some "other" (instead of faulty systems and power mongers) and helps rile up those who need only the slightest nudge to buy into the idea in a moment of social unrest and economic insecurity. The sheriff's theory ignores that menacing cartoon clowns are a projection of the contrived fears of a populace that can’t connect its own traumatization with the people who use it against them and essentially retraumatize them for social, political and economic gain.
It also denies the fear of those who are afraid of very real things, from long-term state-backed terror to a rising tide of audible hate from multiple corners, and the way those issues might create an environment that’s inhospitable for everyone, even those who think it’s none of their concern. What's more, it contributes to that fear in a way that pushes it toward a tipping point where the paranoia ultimately demands the projected, amorphous image of fear become fully embodied.
In the 1980s, bubbling hysteria about faceless marauding satanists eventually led to witch hunts that put real people in jail and ruined actual families and lives. If prankish teenage behavior becomes a reason for irrational national fear, punitive measures could follow. A case in Virginia that ended with two African-American teens being arrested and their mugshots splashed across the Internet for “chasing children while wearing a clown mask,” is a reminder of whose youthful indiscretions are most likely to count against them in the harshest way.
And like always, the hysteria feeds upon itself. Schools in Reading, Ohio, were closed after a woman claimed a clown physically attacked her. The Phillipsburg school district in New Jersey went into lockdown status after a “clown-related threat” appeared on social media. New Haven, Connecticut, schools announced a ban this Halloween on clown costumes and—wait for it—other "symbols of terror.” The police presence has been beefed up in Syracuse, Houston, St. Louis, and Winston-Salem, to name just a few places.
In Utah, police actually thought it necessary to use Facebook to gently suggest that maybe people should think twice before shooting at clowns. (Q: "Can I shoot or take action against someone that is dressed up like a clown?" A: “That's not a simple yes or no question. It has a lot of variables to it.”) The police may be right, since there have been previous reports of people haphazardly firing guns into wooded areas where clowns were reportedly seen.
Yet, as Radford reminds us, “The fact is, to date, there are no confirmed reports of any clowns actually abducting, harming, killing [or] molesting kids. There just aren’t. There are zero.”
Amidst the other glaring reasons for the precipitous climb in clown hysteria, if you merely skim the surface of the fears plaguing the nation, is the season itself, which will culminate with the celebration of Halloween and the conclusion of a seemingly infinite and frightening election. There’s a chance the imagined clowns will pack up their imaginary cars and leave public consciousness with a proverbial whimper. All the better to make room for some other fabricated stand-in for American jitters about everything but the very real problems staring us in the face, before the clown car, at some point down the road, rolls back in again.
“By the end of November, it will become part of folklore,” Radford told Uproxx. “[But] this will happen again. I guarantee you this will happen again. It may be five years, it may be ten years, but someday, probably in my lifetime and certainly yours, there will be two or three more of these clown panics. They will be identical. There will be stories of clowns that are luring children. There won’t be anyone actually arrested for abducting kids.”
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.