No Laughing Matter: Creepy Clowns as Modern Folk Devils

Adapted from a presentation I gave at the Ann Radcliffe Academic Conference as part of Stokercon 2017.

Clown sightings, 2016

On a balmy late-August night in Greenville, South Carolina, a resident of the Fleetwood Manor apartment complex noticed something strange: a person dressed as a clown with a blinking nose, standing beside the dumpster at 2:30 a.m. (Zuppello).

In 2016, the U.S. was infected with clowns. While the clown hysteria began at that apartment complex in South Carolina, it soon spread like a plague across the country. Children claimed that clowns had attempted to lure them into the woods. Clowns carrying chains or weapons were seen lurking outside of laundromats, cemeteries, and homes.

As the hysteria grew, so did the seriousness of the situation. Seven people in Alabama were faced with felony charges of making a terrorist threat connected to “clown-related activity,” according to Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathan Horton (Faulk). In October, a mass clown hunt, consisting of hundreds of students, was staged at Pennsylvania State University. A Connecticut school district banned clown costumes as “symbols of terror” (NBC Connecticut). And a Massachusetts college town was even put on lockdown after an armed clown hoax.

In some ways, these clowns, while demonstrably real, are also a product of the internet and social media’s ability to share urban legends exponentially. It’s likely that the internet helped to create even more of a mythology around the few real clown sightings that were documented and might have helped the clown hysteria to seem like a larger conspiracy than it really was. Social media has taken on the role of disseminating legends, our new oral history, continuing the “friend of a friend” narrative that is so common in contemporary folklore.

In that sense, these phantom clowns are both real and mythological, physical and folkloric, urban legends crafted in the internet age of Creepypasta and the NoSleep Reddit.

Phantom Clowns, 1981

2016 was not the first clown hysteria in the U.S. In 1981, reports flooded through Boston that men dressed as clowns were luring kids into vans with candy. This was the beginning of another phantom clown scare that spread across the country. For the most part during the 80s scare, adults never saw the clowns; most of the stories came from children. This question of whether the clowns were real, or merely in the children’s imaginations, is why professor Loren Coleman coined the term “phantom clowns” in his book Mysterious America.

The phantom clowns of the 80s came at the same time as other mass hysterias, or “moral panics”—particularly, Stranger Danger, and the Satanic Panic. Moral panics are periods of intense fear that involve exaggerated threats to societal values, usually from individuals seen as evil-doers. Coleman finds a correlation between the “folkloric” nature of Satanic child abuse allegations of the 80s—not that they were simply made up but that the narratives display familiar motifs and audience response found in folklore canon—and the folkloric elements of the clown panic (Coleman).

Fear and Folklore

Actor Lon Chaney Sr. once said, “A clown is funny in the circus ring, but what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight and finding the same clown there in the moonlight?”

Why are we afraid of clowns? Part of it is the unexpectedness of seeing them out-of-place; most horror movies with clowns, for instance, take the clowns out of the circus ring and put them into other places, thereby giving us the instant creeps with the uncanny sense that this creature, who is somehow both human and inhuman, exists out in the real world with us, not just in the carnival.

Clowns may be considered to fall into the Uncanny Valley. The original definition of the Uncanny Valley is that as a robot’s appearance becomes more humanlike, it arrives at a point where we are repulsed by it. The growing familiarity, when it hits a certain point, actually dips into a valley of creepiness.

According to Frank T. McAndrew, professor of psychology, “getting ‘creeped out’ is a response to the ambiguity of threat and […] it is only when we are confronted with uncertainty about threat that we get the chills.” During the clown scare of 2016, no one was actually hurt by the clowns; they represented fear and potential threat. In a way, clowns always represent ambiguity of threat because we can’t see their faces behind the paint, so we can’t know if they are here to do us harm or make us laugh. That very ambiguity between humor and horror gives us the creeps.

Clowns also represent both a dualistic and contrary nature. There is the sad clown and the happy clown, representing duality. But that happy clown might not actually be happy—that’s just the face that’s been painted on. Underneath, the clown might experience entirely contrary emotions, and that too plays into our fears: the fear of what a person is really like behind their smile, the fear of a person who is not what they appear to be.

This uncanny fear of clowns is nothing new. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie details the history of clowns, including their folklore. Trickster figures, who have the same attributes as clowns, appear in most cultures from ancient Egypt to imperial China, as well as many native American cultures. Along with tricksters, they also have a variety of clown characters who function as a part of society.

The heyoka, for instance, are considered sacred clowns of the Lakota tribe. They are contrary and unpredictable. Heyoka might speak or walk backwards, wear their clothes inside out, cry when they’re happy, laugh when they’re sad, and be crude or profane during solemn occasions. More importantly, they seem to be insane and are viewed as being closely connected to supernatural forces (Mizrach).

Similar to the clown and the trickster is the harlequin figure, as described by Benjamin Radford in his book Bad Clowns. The first appearance of the Harlequin in legend is in the 11th century in the story of a monk chased by a group of demons led by a masked giant known as the harlequin in a version of the Wild Hunt, a European folk myth where a group of ghostly huntsmen are engaged in a wild pursuit. This has also been connected to an English figure called the “hellequin” or “host-king” who was an emissary of the devil and roamed the countryside with a group of demons who chased souls into Hell (Radford 6-7).

The clown is therefore an archetypal figure representing chaos, contrariness, and behavior that is otherwise unacceptable in society, thus inspiring feelings of fear and disquiet. French literary critic Edmond de Goncourt wrote in 1876: “[T]he clown’s art is now rather terrifying and full of anxiety and apprehension, their suicidal feats, their monstrous gesticulations and frenzied mimicry reminding one of the courtyard of a lunatic asylum” (McRobbie). Art that features clowns has long captured our uneasiness with them. One example is the 1892 Italian opera, Pagliacci, in which the main character dresses as a clown and murders his cheating wife. Likewise, clowns in modern fiction and movies are typically portrayed horrifically. Stephen King’s IT, published in 1986, was likely influenced by both clown folklore as well as the phantom clown scare of the early 80s. One clear similarity between Pennywise and the 1981 clown scare in that in the novel, only children can see the clown. A recent movie, Eli Roth’s Clown, even utilizes folklore (albeit a made-up folklore) specifically to explain the origins of the clown creature that the main character becomes after putting on its skin suit.

Even real-life clowns have taken on an aspect of the folkloric, like legendary serial killer and amateur birthday party clown John Wayne Gacey, famous for kidnapping children and burying their bodies in his basement in the 70s, enacting the greatest fears of every clown-fearing child and adult.

All of this brings us back to our 2016 clowns. What does folklore have to do with an internet scare? In a sense, people were, whether consciously or unconsciously, acting out our preexisting narratives about creepy clowns. The retelling of legends by acting them out is called ostension, according to folklorist Sarah M. Gordon. And in an act of ostension, the people perpetuating the panic were retelling the historical and folkloric stories of clowns and bringing those stories to life.

Clowns as Folk Devils

The smiling, uncanny “other” appearing in places it should not be returned at a time when the U.S. was in the midst of another moral panic involving the fear of the foreign and potentially dangerous or terrorist “other”. Moral panics tend to focus their fear on individuals who are viewed as deviant or groups that embody a social threat. These stereotyped deviant people are called “folk devils.”

The word ‘devil,’ of course, “evokes demonic, almost super-human capacities for evil”, which connects to the demonic or supernatural clown figures in folklore. And the word ‘folk’ relates to popular perceptions of these people. Together this suggests a threat that is both socially constructed and also associated with inhuman evil (Hindess).

In 2016, clowns became a stand-in for these folk devils—a social threat based on deviant behavior (clowning) by individuals who are viewed as more demonic than regular humans. In this way, the clowns are the representatives of our current moral panic, our greater fears about society and those strange people who inhabit it.

Works Cited

Coleman, Loren. Mysterious America. New York, Paraview Press, 2001.

Faulk, Kent. “At Least 9 ‘Clown’ Arrests so Far in Alabama: What Charges Do They Face?” AL.com, 24 Sept. 2016, http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2016/09/nine_clown_arrests_so_far_in_a.html.

Gordon, Sarah M. “Creepy Clowns Explained, Folklore-Style.” Sarah M. Gordon, Ph.D., 5 Oct. 2016, sarahmgordon.wordpress.com/2016/10/05/creepy-clowns-explained-folklore-style/.

Hindess, Barry. “Folk Devils Rise again.” Social Alternatives, vol. 34, no. 4, 2015., pp. 50-56 Research Library, http://libwin2k.glendale.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1778683094?accountid=27372.

McAndrew, Frank T. “The Psychology of Creepy Clowns.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Oct. 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/03/health/creepy-clown-sighting-psychology/.

McRobbie, Linda Rodriguez. “The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 31 July 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-and-psychology-of-clowns-being-scary-20394516/.

Mizrach, Steve. Thunderbird and Trickster. Florida International University, www2.fiu.edu/~mizrachs/thunderbird-and-trickster.html.

“New Haven School District Prohibits Clown Costumes.” NBC Connecticut, NBC Connecticut, 14 May 2017, http://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/New-Haven-School-District-Prohibits-Clown-Costumes-395754941.html. Accessed 14 May 2017.

Radford, Benjamin. Bad Clowns. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2016.

Zuppello, Suzanne. “’Killer Clowns’: Inside the Terrifying Hoax Sweeping America.” Rolling Stone, 29 Sept. 2016, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/killer-clowns-inside-the-terrifying-hoax-sweeping-america-w442649.

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