​The great clown panic of 2016: ‘​a volatile mix of fear and contagion’

The phenomenon expanded to other regions of the UK, with additional accounts of eerie clown sightings emerging. Law enforcement strongly advised individuals to avoid engaging with the clowns and to promptly report any occurrences. Educational institutions also issued warnings to parents regarding the clown frenzy. While some individuals found the entire situation amusing, others experienced genuine fear. As time passed, the clown sightings persisted, leading to widespread panic and concern within communities. Media coverage further fueled the hysteria, featuring accounts of clowns lurking in parks and alleys. Authorities diligently worked towards identifying and apprehending those responsible for the clown sightings. Eventually, the trend subsided, yet the memory of the clown craze endured.

Now, why clowns? But when you thought about them, did you actually find them funny? These stories were surreal news fodder. I would urge those who cause alarm and fear, and leave people feeling intimidated, anxious, and scared, to carefully consider the impact of their actions. Being chased down the street at night by a clown can be frightening enough for both children and adults alike. However, there have only been a few actual physical assaults involved in these clown incidents, since the social panic spoke of by some observers is more of a classic case of a few isolated incidents causing panic. The Metropolitan Police commander, Julian Bennett, spoke about the fear that clowns can inadvertently spread, thus helping the meme to spread on Facebook pages. This made parents concerned everywhere, especially in Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester, and Wales, where clowns began to pop up more. The first victim, a 17-year-old student named Megan Bell, who has had a lifelong fear of clowns, was chased down the street at night.

The increasing number of sightings of clowns in 2016, whether it be the craze clown, invasion clown, uprising clown, or panic clown, has caused great concern among people. Childline counselors have reported receiving hundreds of calls from worried children about clowns. We are constantly hearing about “killer clowns” or clowns that terrorize children. Just two weeks ago, a teenager in Varberg, Sweden was stabbed by someone wearing a clown mask. The victim later identified the attacker as a clown. In Pennsylvania, there have been reports of teenagers being murdered by someone dressed as a clown, causing hysteria and panic among the public. However, it was revealed that the earliest incident involving a creepy clown standing on the streets of Green Bay, Wisconsin holding black balloons was actually a marketing ploy for a short film called Gags, produced by local resident Adam Krause. There has been speculation that this is all a PR stunt for the upcoming release of a movie based on Stephen King’s horror novel It, which features the famously eerie clown character Pennywise. Since the beginning of August, there has been a current craze in the US where people dress up as clowns and scare others, causing a nationwide wave of fear and unease.

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Tim Curry as Pennywise in the 1990 TV film Stephen King’s It. Photograph: Allstar/Lorimar Television

“Clowns can commit murder without facing consequences,” stated Gacy upon his arrest. Gacy, famously known as Pogo the Clown, was highly recognized in his community for entertaining children at parties and participating in charitable events. He was ultimately found guilty of the brutal killings of 33 young boys and men between the years 1972 and 1978. The concept of a malevolent clown originates from John Wayne Gacy’s notorious history, which was extensively discussed by David Wilson, a criminology professor at Birmingham City University. Wilson introduced the topic during a new module on serial murder, showcasing his students visual representations of malevolent clowns. It was following this lecture that a surge of clown-related incidents emerged. Ronald McDonald, commonly associated with anti-corporate activism, is often cited as a clown symbolizing such resistance. The Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis, holds a prominent place in the hearts of comic book enthusiasts. Admirers of pulp fiction frequently reference Pennywise from Stephen King’s work as an iconic representation of a clown. However, it is important to acknowledge that clowns have never solely embodied humor in a straightforward manner.

Clowns are perpetually clowns, encompassing both the astute, cunning tricksters and the bawdy simpletons, who symbolize malevolence. The selection of the antagonist, in the guise of the clown, is widespread, as Joseph Campbell’s seminal examination of folklore, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, affirms. “They were never truly virtuous,” cautions author Benjamin Radford in his chronicle, Malevolent Jesters, as it is fallacious to inquire about the moment clowns went astray. Even if they are not serial murderers, clowns are inherently eerie, and it is comprehensible that the dread of clowns is recognized as coulrophobia.

Just beginning to feel what makes them question what they are and why they feel normal.

Videograb from CCTV from a car park in Kent shows a man dressed as a clown preparing for a prank. Photograph: SWNS.com

Far and wide, we are sure to witness instances of it, even if a small percentage of its viewers desire to imitate it. This unpredictable combination of intense emotion and transmission through social media disseminates the concept of engaging in an emotionally charged behavior to a vast population. The concept of scary clowns aligns perfectly with this pattern. The more likely it becomes a trend, the closer a contagious event approaches something psychologically or emotionally profound and universally relatable. Social media allows for the expansion of a group mentality like never before; historically, this phenomenon was observed in small clusters of people, villages, and groups. According to psychologists, ‘contagion’ encompasses the diffusion of an idea, feeling, or behavior within a group. The widespread circulation of stories about clowns and the widespread circulation of the notion that one might dress up as a clown to frighten people both contribute to the dual prevalence of the current phenomenon. Aaron Balick, a psychotherapist and author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking, suggests that the strong emotions associated with clowns that we vaguely recall from childhood also contribute to the dual prevalence of the current phenomenon.

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According to Professor Alex Pentland, a physics and social author at MIT, the spread of ideas is greatly enhanced by the internet, especially when it comes to viral cultural phenomena like this new fad. This phenomenon, which can be compared to the viral nature of deeply buried cultural memes, involves people competing to post videos and images in strange locations and in unconventional poses. Professor Pentland describes it as a “craze” or a “standard way” of clowning around before the phenomenon became widely known as planking.

Helping to create a craze where there was none, the pre-emptive talk of a “craze” fulfilling prophecy does not hold true. So far, there have only been a handful of reported incidents, making it hard to say that the UK craze is truly “terrifying” as the headline suggests, but it is accurate to say that this craze already existed in America. Yesterday, two schoolgirls were approached by two creepy clowns, which was a variant of the first sentence of the article. The Mirror, a mainstream media outlet, published an article about the creepy clown shenanigans, which was the first report of such incidents. Normally, when people claim to have seen monsters like the Loch Ness monster or ghosts, the word “sightings” is used – they are referred to as sightings. Add another factor: the charged vocabulary of news reports about the clown incidents.

Ex-Presidents LBJ and Nixon, Carter, and Reagan are called the infiltrates of the gang that Reeves Keanu remembers in the movie Break Point, where they wear rubber masks while robbing banks. They almost look like real faces, but this is well known as the “uncanny valley” effect. There is something disturbing, especially something about which explains why it is nearly lifelike but not a clown face painted or a clown mask. This is explained by Tom Stafford, a senior lecturer in cognitive science and psychology at the University of Sheffield.

The masked robbers in Point Break. Photograph: Five

Furthermore, the concealing of the visage is often perceived as a factor that increases the level of threat. Horror movies like the Friday the 13th or Scream series showcase killers donning disguises. In the contemporary television series Mr Robot, a group of hackers who draw inspiration from Anonymous and also advocate for social revolution are seen publicly wearing masks that resemble those worn by the Monopoly Man. (The mask used in the show is actually a replica from a horror short film from the 1980s called The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie.) Wilson asserts, “Ultimately, we form opinions about individuals based on their facial appearance.” It is common for us to be wary of individuals who wear masks because we are uncertain of how to evaluate them. Clowns also conceal their faces.

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In some instances, the media must take responsibility for sensationalizing the strange and amusing story about clowns that has escalated into actual violent assaults. The media is at fault when they provide terrorists with the publicity they crave, which is precisely the case with the “clowns about story.” Instead of copying the media’s coverage of the clown craze, individuals should be aware that they are not copying other clowns, but rather observing the seed ideas among disparate individuals, much like lone-wolf terrorists. This phenomenon, known as “radicalization” via the internet, reminds us of the global dynamics at play. Furthermore, the clown craze has spread among seemingly disconnected individuals who then act out in a way that mimics the media’s portrayal. It is important to also acknowledge that the creepy clown embodies deeper anxieties, such as the subconscious measure some children take to ingratiate themselves with a grown man who tries to portray himself as a clown. Additionally, the creepy clown phenomenon reflects wider cultural faultlines, particularly in France where women, especially those who wear burqas, keep their faces covered like clowns, sparking polemics.

What should you do if you are confronted by a clown? Wilson thinks that the police report the incident and simply walk away. Wilson does not expect an aggressive response or a panic from the clown, but he also does not want to provoke a fear-based reaction from the clown. Wilson advises to try to ignore them and walk away, as it was the best advice to avoid them and to prevent exposing yourself to their inappropriate and lewd comments.

Revellers dressed as clowns in Cali, Colombia. Photograph: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Something else will become the new fad, and it will fizzle out just like a clown peak over Halloween. “It’s a phobia du jour,” predicts Wilson. It must be acknowledged that this article is certainly not helping the case – we just need to stop giving attention to the clowns and send them away. The media has an interest in reporting about clowns, especially scary stories, and the public likes hearing about them. At the moment, we are in a loop and bored of them. Only when we ignore them and they disappear will the clowns say: “Which is the strategy that will probably work broadly in the media and on the internet.”

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