Thirty-three states have reported creepy clown “incidents.”[i] Although a majority of them have been hoaxes and false alarms, there have also been some legitimate incidents where creepy clowns have been caught trying to intimidate or attack others. In recent weeks, there have been twelve arrests in multiple states.[ii] This craze is steadily growing with Twitter accounts such as "clown sighting" and “clown hunt” having recently been created and hashtags such as #IfISeeAClown are actively being used.
The incidents only exacerbate Coulrophobia, the scientific name for fearing clowns which impacts 12 percent of Americans in the United States.[iii] It is so prevalent that it has a scientific name. A 2014 Rasmussen Reports survey of 1,000 American adults indicated that 43% of respondents don't like circus clowns.[iv] Although formatively clowns were experienced as fun loving rosy-nosed performers, now they can appear scarier and way more frightening. To many, they’re considered scary and dangerous. It doesn’t help that clowns wear a full face of makeup that disguises and hides their true identities and genuine feelings. They may leave us, individuals of all ages, wondering and worried.
When did clowns become one of our national nightmares? The persona of the creepy clown really came into its own after serial killer John Wayne Gacy was captured. In the 1970’s, 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 young men and boys, the connection between clowns and dangerous psychopathic behavior became forever fixed in the collective unconscious of Americans (as the film “Jaws” evoked fear of swimming at the beach).[v]
We also can’t forget that Halloween is right around the corner. This hysteria fits in well with viral marketing. There’s an emphasis on haunted houses, scary clown costumes, and the upcoming film “It” based on the Steven King novel coming out this year. It is a remake of a made-for-TV movie from 1990 and is one of the most notorious stories depicting clowns as scary, violent and dangerous. Another well-known one is Poltergeist in 1982 and the string of Batman movies, showcasing the infamous “The Joker.”
Obviously, schools have to take threats seriously, whether it’s a hoax or not. Schools around the country have been responding to threats by notifying parents, students and local law enforcement. Some districts have taken more intense precautions and have banned clown costumes on school grounds due to social media threats (e.g., New Haven Public Schools in New Haven, Connecticut, Montclair Public Schools in Montclair, NJ, etc.).
As a parent how would you know how to handle this new phenomenon. Here are some tips to help with creepy clown anxiety:
(1) Be vigilant, but not hypervigilant. Your kids should go about their typical daily activities. You should continue teaching your kids about safety and not accepting things from strangers, be alone with strangers and they should pay attention to their instincts. If a person or situation doesn’t feel particularly comfortable, they need to pay attention and respond to it.
(2) Don’t talk your kids out of their thoughts and feelings. Don’t dismiss their concerns by saying things like “clowns are really friendly” or “it’s just a costume, you have nothing to be scared about”, etc. If they’re scared they can’t internalize those sentiments and explanations and often just feel misunderstood and dismissed. Ask them about details of their fears and be there to respond to their questions and support them through their fears.
(3) I have seen several suggestions to avoid any type of popular media that has to do with clowns. I disagree. To manage fears and anxiety, it involves facing feared objects, until anxiety decreases and there is a desensitization to the object. It’s not helpful to avoid or deny clowns because the next time your child is exposed to them they’ll become fearful. Avoidance prevents kids from learning that clowns are not violent and/or dangerous.
Initially, you can list their specific fears and build a fear ladder (example of a fear ladder is shown at: http://youth.anxietybc.com/build-fear-ladder), from least scary to most scary and rate the fears from 0-5. Next, you can identify their goals, while considering the length of time, time of day, the environment, and who is with them (an example of an identification of goals can be found at: https://www.anxietybc.com/sites/default/files/Facing_Fears_Form.pdf).
You can start with pictures and images that are friendly, warm and less scary, then work your way up to facing clowns that appear more frightening and are more anxiety provoking. With this approach, over time your child’s confidence will build. You can explain it to them with the example of them first riding a bike or getting introduced to a new friend.
Over time repeatedly engaging in viewing clowns and increasing the length of time of exposure will extinguish the anxiety to the clowns. It’s important to reward the behavior by lovingly encouraging your child, and providing motivators for them reaching their goals. To sustain the extinction, they need to continually practice being exposed to clowns.
(4) Engage in emotional processing with your child. Look to attach, new, more realistic beliefs about clowns. It’s a great time to teach children about the “don’t judge a book by its cover” lesson. For example, you can teach your child that although the clown has scary makeup on, it doesn’t make him/her a scary, violent and dangerous person. Also, that it’s hard to sense the emotions of clowns because they perpetually have a plastered face displaying emotions (for the happy clowns, a happy face and for the creepy clowns a scary disturbing look). That sometimes even if they look a certain way, that we can’t really gauge what they’re thinking and feeling. You could use examples that they can personally relate to such as when they’re sad about something but can still smile when someone passes them and smiles at them or how a food item can look unattractive and can still taste good or something can look delicious but not taste very good.
(5) Be careful about modeling behavior. Like I indicated, many adults fear clowns as well. Be cautious about the way you talk about clowns and act when clowns are around. Your child may be picking up on your cues which can exacerbate his/her fears.
(6) Emphasize that they are safe and you are there to keep them safe. The reality is if someone were to hurt your child, the chances are that they wouldn’t draw attention to themselves by standing out in a crowd and wearing a clown costume; especially not with all this hysteria.
(7) Be aware of the associations we make and how it impacts our perceptions. You could point out to your child that their perception of clowns has changed due to how clowns are being portrayed today. You could use an example to illustrate your point. For example, when they see pictures of themselves in certain places doing certain things, it could evoke positive nostalgic feelings but when they see other pictures, it doesn’t evoke the same response because of the associations they make with the particular pictures.
This is truly a new phenomenon. It’s not clear if it’s a passing fad, or will stay with us past Halloween, the holiday of fright. We’ll have to wait and see if clowns can resurface as fun-loving and feel-good, as we know them to be. I’m trying to remain hopeful, however, for myself and others who I have spoken to who watched “Jaws” during childhood, the ocean was never quite the same. Only time will tell.
[i] Orr, S. (2016). Creepy clown fad: Driven by social media, hoax and real, incidents grow out of control. Daily Courier. Dated 10/06/2016.
[ii] Mele, C. (2016). Creepy clown hoaxes lead to 12 arrests in multiple states. The New York Times. Dated 09/29/2016.
[iii] D’Souza, J. (2016). This is why people have a fear of clowns. Huffington Post. Dated 09/19/2016.