Clown hysteria has taken the country by storm, fueling both fear and fascination while prompting calls for calm from police departments and even from the master of horrors, Stephen King.
The frenzy was born in South Carolina in late August after unsubstantiated reports surfaced that clowns were spotted trying to lure children into the woods. The craze has since ignited a national phenomenon, with scary clown sightings reported in more than two dozen states from Alabama to Wisconsin. While many were hoaxes, a handful of the incidents resulted in arrests: in Alabama, at least seven people face felony charges of making a terrorist threat connected to “clown-related activity,” Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton told the Times-Picayune.
The incidents continue to stack up. Just this week, hundreds of students in Pennsylvania State University swarmed surrounding campus streets to carry out a mass clown hunt. A Connecticut school district said it is banning clown costumes and any “symbols of terror.” And an armed clown hoax temporarily put a Massachusetts college on lockdown.
The issue even made it all the way to the White House, where press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about the phenomenon on Tuesday.
“I don’t know that the president has been briefed on this particular situation,” Earnest said. “Obviously, this is a situation that local law enforcement authorities take quite seriously.”
Clowns have long terrified both children and adults, especially in the 1980s after King created the nightmare-inducing clown Pennywise in the horror novel, It, which was later turned into a movie. Criminologists and psychologists agree the root of the fear lies in the fact that clowns wear heavy makeup and paint extreme emotions on their faces that hide their true identity and feelings.
“The fascination with clowns is really the fact that they’re not real,” says Scott Bonn, a criminologist and professor of sociology at Drew University in New Jersey. “We don’t know what’s beneath that makeup. It could be anyone or anything. They’re actually very frightening.”
The mass hysteria has not yet led to any serious injuries or deaths, likely because most of the clown sightings involved either young pranksters dressed as clowns or callers inventing clown stories.
“It’s an adrenaline rush. It’s a party. It’s a game,” Bonn says. “My gut reaction is that this is going to eventually burn out. Could someone get hurt along the way? Yes, if it got out of hand, especially if alcohol is involved. But I don’t necessarily think it’s going to lead to a clown killer.”
Some police departments in the country, including the New York Police Department, have been trying to ease fears by publicly saying there are no credible clown threats.
In New Haven, Conn., where school officials have banned clown costumes over a number of menacing clown-related social media posts, David Hartman, spokesman for the local police department, says authorities are “monitoring the national climate” of the frenzy but have not seen anything “tangible.”
“This is no different than swatting. This is no different than the knock-out game,” Hartman says in reference to two other recent fads, in which hoax 911 callers send SWAT teams to an address under false pretenses, and people attempt to “knock out” random targets with a single punch. “We’re not going to let this take over.”
But the clown chaos has already taken a toll on the professional clown community. “I fear for my life,” says Jordan Jones, who works part-time portraying Snuggles the Clown in a haunted house.
The 22-year-old from Pennsylvania says he’s afraid of what he sees on the news, like the clown hunting at Penn State. “At the end of the day, people look at me like I’m a clown trying to hurt them,” he says. “I feel that people are out clown hunting because they think it’s cool now. I’m scared that someone might take a swing.”
Jones travels from his home in Pennsylvania to his job at Screamland Farms in Maryland every weekend. He says he’s well-known as Snuggles the Clown in his neighborhood, but he’s concerned about how people outside of his community will react.
“I really think people mistake me when I put my stuff on,” Jones says. “They forget that it’s a person under that mask.”
Jones, who has been a clown for a decade, recently began a Clown Lives Matter movement on his Facebook page to draw attention to the plight of professional clowns. “This is very serious for me. I put a lot of time and effort into this,” he says. “It’s not a game anymore. Teenagers going around thinking it’s funny. I think it’s cruel. I think it’s a sickness.”
“We’re not the people in the woods,” he adds. “I’m not the enemy.”