coulrophobia [kool-ruh-FOH-bee-uh] noun – an abnormal fear of clowns.
Unless you’ve been off the internet for the past month, you can’t have missed that the perennial clown panic is much bigger this year. I featured links to stories in Links #322, #323 and #324, and I could’ve put some in the next two editions had I not already been saving up for this column. There have been so many, in fact, that I decided that they should have their own feature, and in the process of writing this I realized that this panic has much more in common with “sex trafficking” hysteria than the mere fact that they’re both phantasms whose only root in reality is that real people sometimes consciously imitate the unreal characters in the myth.
For the past three years, I’ve noticed news articles describing sightings of menacing phantom clowns every September and October. In September of 2013 there was a panic which started in Northhampton, England and spread to Haslingden in November; in October of 2014 the hysteria appeared in Bakersfield, California and spread to other nearby cities before leaping a third of the way around the world to northern France. I say “phantom” because in each case, the reports could not be corroborated and the horrifying harlequins left no physical evidence which investigators could find. Of course, teenage boys and young men imitated the original reports, but they were mere copycats and the panics have usually started far from the hoaxers’ haunts. But while previous panics have usually been limited to a fairly small geographical area and have been relatively short-lived, this one started earlier than usual (late August), has already endured for over a month and has spread far beyond its origin in the Carolinas. Reports from Georgia were deliberate hoaxes, as were reports from Huntsville and Decatur, Alabama (where cops blamed the threats on Juggalos); the latter were especially ridiculous because in our hair-trigger, afraid-of-one’s-own-shadow country they resulted in actual “lockdowns” at high schools and warnings at Auburn University. That last-linked article contains a number of links to articles about the hysteria in Alabama, where it seems to have reached epidemic proportions; this article contains still more (including self-important cops referring to dumb teenage pranks as “terrorism”). In contrast, the panic in Maryland was fairly tame, and though Georgia was not even on the same order of magnitude as Alabama, it did inspire an 11-year-old girl to bring a knife to school to “protect herself and her family” from the fearsome funnymen (naturally, she was criminally charged with “possession of a weapon on school grounds”, because THE CHILDREN!TM). Then last week, sightings (some of them apparently hoaxes) were reported in Virginia, Florida and Colorado; the district attorney of Weld County, Colorado, apparently unburdened with even the slightest capacity for self-examination, claimed that “Impersonating a clown for nefarious purposes…is a felony and could carry with it a jail sentence of up to 18 months.”
In preparing to write this article, I dug around a bit and discovered that there were a number of similar panics before the first one I recorded in 2013: this very thorough article mentions Chicago, October 2008; Madison, Wisconsin in June 2000; and several areas around the US in 1990 and 1991. Wikipedia’s article “Evil Clowns” also mentions Phoenix, Arizona in 1985 and Honduras in 1995. But apparently the first big clown panic began in Boston in May of 1981, then spread to other cities in Massachusetts, to other cities in New England and Pennsylvania by June and eventually as far as Kansas City, Nebraska and Colorado. And though many have speculated that the modern “scary clown” motif owes its origin to Stephen King’s novel It, that hardly seems likely given that it was first published in 1986, five years after the New England clown panic (if anything, Maine resident King was probably inspired by the then-recent panic rather than vice-versa). No, I think it much more likely that these phantom clowns are kin to grey aliens, Sasquatch, Nessie, witches, faeries, demons, nymphs, satyrs and all the other mysterious beings with which humans have reported encounters since primeval times, yet are never captured and vanish without a trace whenever a concerted effort is made to discover them.