According to The Guardian, the first creepy-clown report was made by a kid at an apartment complex in Greenville, S.C. From there, the social contagion spread with a rapidity and reach that would make Ebola feel like a slacker.
Soon enough, reports of clowns began to be sent in locally — Saugerties, Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Orange County. People, usually young people, would say they saw somebody clown-like in the woods. Freaking-out followed, the cops were called, no trace of anything was found.
Fear of clowns — not clownophobia, technically, but coulrophobia (Greek for the fear of someone on stilts?) is a real thing. It used to not be people’s default setting on clowns, but now it seems loathing of the erstwhile figures of fun and amusement is widespread. This may have started with John Wayne Gacy, Chicago’s heinous serial killer who, while killing children and burying them in his backyard, entertained them as “Pogo the Clown.” There was of course the evil clown in Stephen King’s horror opus It, and that Simpsons episode where Homer made Bart an effed-up Krusty the Klown bed, which kept Bart up all night muttering to himself, “Can’t sleep. Clown will eat me.” This may also be one of the many, many, many social and aesthetic sins the Insane Clown Posse has committed. According to some, the psychological mechanism driving coulrophobia has to do with the face of the clown being just a little off of reality, which messes up how people perceive emotions, which causes them to be afraid of the person with the weirdly painted face. Jung wrote, late in life, about how he thought people’s UFO sightings were a sort of aspirational hallucination indicative of anxiety about the Atomic Age and their desire for a higher, perfect power to come down and fix everything. One could maybe assume that the creepy-clown sightings are indicative of people’s anxieties about Donald Trump.
But it’s all fun, games and record-breaking Internet traffic until someone loses an eye, or their life. There have been reports of panicked coulrophobes grabbing weapons and dashing off in search of the creepies. There was a GIF going around the Internet today entitled something like “What I would do if I saw a clown.” It showed a chubby white dude carrying an American flag and a shotgun charging through the frame. (This could be taken as a metaphor for a certain political party’s approach to Middle East policy; if you have your own Trump joke, go ahead and drop it right here.) One of these days, someone either completely innocent or actually dressed as a creepy clown just to be a wiseass is going to get shot dead by some dipshit thinking he or she is protecting the public from Abominable Clown Evil.
We have, of course, seen child-driven mass hysteria (which I truly believe all this is) in American history before: the Salem witch trials. That was basically a few teenagers acting crazy and claiming they were being persecuted by the devil, and since Satanophobia was the number-one fear of Puritan Massachusetts, people actually took them seriously. So much so that no fewer than 20 people were put to death. One might draw a comparison between the Puritans’ obsession with keeping their souls perfectly safe and our modern obsession with keeping our kids perfectly safe as enabling this hysteria.
Human nature being what it is, this will not be the last time we collectively lose it over illusions and irrational fears. We’ve come a long way since the Olduvai Gorge/Garden of Eden, but then again, probably not so far as we like to think we have. Put another way, the arc of evolution is long, but it bends toward greasepaint and rubber noses.