Have you ever been at the mall during the holidays and watched a toddler herded by an anxious parent to sit on Santa's lap? Some children can be bit apprehensive. Even without a developed vocabulary, you can see the child's internal dialogue as he or she hesitates or even tries to go the opposite way. Meanwhile, the parent is giving non-stop verbal reassurances (to a barely verbal toddler) that everything is fine. Invariably, there is that moment when the child is plopped down on Santa's lap, cameras and phones at the ready, and proceeds to scream hysterically at the top of little lungs, terrified.
We seem to be having a collective Santa moment, only with different characters in fanciful costumes and obscured faces. I speak, of course, of the current creepy clown hysteria that started over the summer in North Carolina.[i] Thanks to social media, the clowns, which started as a localized phenomenon, real or not, took off. North Carolina became South Carolina.[ii] South Carolina became Georgia[iii] became California, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York.[iv] Creepy clowns became so pervasive, even Ronald McDonald has had to lie low[v]. Sightings have spread across the United States and, even, across the pond to the UK[vi] and Australia.[vii]
With very real threats around us, why have we collectively pitched such a fit over creepy clowns? Well, for one, clowns, like Santa to a toddler, have always been a little scary. They look, sort of, like a person but with exaggerated features. Their height and body weight are obscured. They tend to pop up when you least expect them and enter your personal space. They represent someone who looks kind of normal, but isn't, and might do something unexpected.
There are researchers who hypothesize that incidents of mass hysteria are caused by environmental stress.[viii] A specific population is already undergoing some level of concern or stress, which finds expression in a rumor-gone-wild. The example I saw cited, from the United States, at least, was the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and 1693.[ix]
I doubt anyone in 1692 wanted to gain notoriety by claiming to be a witch. According to the Smithsonian, 200 people were arrested and thrown in jail, while 20 were killed. I'm really concerned how far this is going to go. Some people have been discontent merely to watch for sightings, to be spectators only. Instead, they have chosen to become participants. A Wisconsin couple decided to join the craze - not by reporting a clown sighting but by becoming a clown sighting, during which, the couple left their 4-year-old daughter home alone for several hours. They've been arrested, not for being clowns, but for child neglect.[x]
In a town south of me, a 17-year-old has been arrested for sending threatening texts purporting to be a clown . A 12-year-old boy supposedly made "a clown-related threat on social media to 'shoot up' an Ohio school."[xi] Lest you think this is only relegated to US teenagers, think again; it's just happened at a private school in Australia.
With all of this happening, I have to ask myself, "why clowns" and "why now". If we're experiencing some sort of global stress, what could that be? The first thing to came to my mind was stress from the threat of terrorism, which has been escalating world-wide.
Chapman University just came out with its Survey of American Fears.[xiv] No, clowns didn't make the list. But a terrorist attack did; it's was the number two fear at 41%. Terrorism in general made the list, as well, at number four, with 38.5%.
There's nothing funny about fear-of-clowns but I wonder what could be underlying this hysteria. Could we really be reacting to fear of people who look kind of normal, but aren't, and might do something unexpected?