For the past several months, creepy clowns have been terrorizing America, with sightings of actual clowns in at least 10 different states.
These fiendish clowns have reportedly tried to lure women and children into the woods, chased people with knives and machetes, and yelled at people from cars. They’ve been spotted hanging out in cemeteries and they have been caught in the headlights of cars as they appear alongside desolate country roads in the dead of night.
This isn’t the first time there has been a wave of clown sightings in the United States. After eerily similar events occurred in the Boston area in the 1980s, Loren Coleman, a cryptozoologist who studies the folklore behind mythical beasts such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, came up with something called “The Phantom Clown Theory,” which attributes the proliferation of clown sightings to mass hysteria (usually sparked by incidents witnessed only by children).
It’s impossible to determine which of these incidents are hoaxes and which are bona fide tales of clowning around taken to the extreme. Nonetheless, the perpetrators seem to be capitalizing on our longstanding love-hate relationship with clowns, tapping into the primal dread that so many children (and more than a few adults) experience in their presence.
In fact, a 2008 study conducted in England revealed that very few children actually like clowns. It also concluded that the common practice of decorating children’s wards in hospitals with pictures of clowns may create the exact opposite of a nurturing environment. It’s no wonder so many people hate Ronald McDonald.
But as a psychologist, I’m not just interested in pointing out that clowns give us the creeps; I’m also interested in why we find them so disturbing. Earlier this year I published a study entitled “On the Nature of Creepiness” with one of my students, Sara Koehnke, in the journal New Ideas in Psychology. While the study was not specifically looking at the creepiness of clowns, much of what we discovered can help explain this intriguing phenomenon.
The march of the clowns
Clown-like characters have been around for thousands of years. Historically, jesters and clowns have been a vehicle for satire and for poking fun at powerful people. They provided a safety valve for letting off steam and they were granted unique freedom of expression – as long as their value as entertainers outweighed the discomfort they caused the higher-ups.
Jesters and others persons of ridicule go back at least to ancient Egypt, and the English word “clown” first appeared sometime in the 1500s, when Shakespeare used the term to describe foolish characters in several of his plays. The now familiar circus clown – with its painted face, wig and oversized clothing – arose in the 19th century and has changed only slightly over the past 150 years.
Nor is the trope of the evil clown anything new. Earlier this year, writer Benjamin Radford published “Bad Clowns,” in which he traces the historical evolution of clowns into unpredictable, menacing creatures.
The persona of the creepy clown really came into its own after serial killer John Wayne Gacy was captured. In the 1970s, Gacy appeared at children’s birthday parties as “Pogo the Clown” and also regularly painted pictures of clowns. When the authorities discovered that he had killed at least 33 people, burying most of them in the crawl space of his suburban Chicago home, the connection between clowns and dangerous psychopathic behavior became forever fixed in the collective unconscious of Americans.
Following the notoriety of Gacy, Hollywood exploited our deep ambivalence about clowns via a terror-by-clown campaign that shows no signs of going out of fashion. Pennywise, the clown from Stephen King’s 1990 movie “It,” may be the scariest movie clown. But there are also the “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” (1988), the scary clown doll under the bed in “Poltergeist” (1982), the zombie clown in “Zombieland” (2009) and, most recently, the murderous clown in “All Hallow’s Eve” (2013).