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Kreepy Klown Kraziness

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Attention Mr. & Mrs. America and all the ships at sea! The White House has issued a statement on the Creepy Clown hysteria now gripping the nation. Although the Press Secretary wasn’t sure the President had been briefed on the Clown Crisis, he did say that the White House defers to the FBI on clown issues. A Bay Area paper has an interactive map of clown sightings. Police in Utah have warned the public not to shoot random clowns. (There’s been no mention of polite, orderly, or non-chaotic clowns.) It’s still three weeks to Halloween, and clown costume sales are up 300%.

As Dave Barry used to say (often): I am not making this up.

Ok. I have an interest in scary clowns. I was still in Chicago when John Wayne Gacy AKA Pogo the Clown was strangling teen boys and stuffing them into his crawlspace. In fact, I lived a little less than two miles away from him. (One of Carol’s high school friends lived only three blocks away.) A guy I met once but didn’t know well (he was the friend of a friend) used to go to movies with Gacy, but somehow managed to stay out of the crawlspace. I saw portions of Killer Klowns from Outer Space on TV once, in part because it was filmed in Santa Cruz, California, while Carol and I lived there. I consider It to be Stephen King’s best work; so much so that I’m planning to lampoon ol’ Pennywise in a future Stypek novel.

In 2011, I finally realized a longstanding goal of building a short novel around scary (if not evil) clowns. In Drumlin Circus, circusmaster Bramble Ceglarek has four clowns who are also his bodyguards. In the first chapter we get a very good look at how scary they can be, when they capture an assassin sent by the shadowy Bitspace Institute. The novel can be seen as a sequel to “Drumlin Boiler,” though the only common character is Rosa Louise Kolze, the tweener girl who has a peculiar rapport with the mysterious Thingmaker alien replicators, and the “drumlins” that they produce. It’s available on Kindle for $2.99, and includes a second short Drumlins World novel, On Gossamer Wings, by Jim Strickland. (You can also get a paperback for $11.99.)

So what precisely is going on here? Is it just the latest moral panic? If so, why clowns? Why now? Or is it something entirely different?

There are some theories. One is that our secular society rejects traditional religious images of devils/demons/evil spirits, and somebody had to be the face of Demonic 2.0. Clowns were handy.

Another: Clowns may scare small children because they violate the template of what a human being should look like. We’re hardwired by evolutionary selection to recognize faces (which is why it’s so common to see Jesus’ face in a scorched tortilla, or generic faces in smoke marks on a wall, etc.) and as a consequence we’re repelled by facial deformities. Clown makeup is calculated facial deformity.

Yet another: We’re watching the emergence of an archetype in the collective unconscious. Evil clowns are not a brand-new thing. Pennywise, Stephen King’s evil-incarnate clown from the fifth dimension, got a whole lot of play in the midlate 80s, and started the nasty clown idea on its way to cultural trope. He may in turn have been drawing on “phantom clown” sightings, popularized by Loren Coleman, who wrote several book-length compendia of “unsolved mysteries” and other weirdnesses in the early 1980s. Coleman lent support to the notion that clowns are the new demons, though the whole business (like much else in his books, entertaining though it might be) sounds like a tall tale. He’s on Twitter, and has been covering the clown thing in recent days on his blog. (Coleman figures into this in another, more serious way that I’ll come back to.)

But first, I have a theory of my own: The nature of humor is changing. What most people think of as “clowning” is physical comedy, which goes back to the dawn of time. A lot of physical comedy down through history was hurtful. In our own time, the Three Stooges were considered hilarious, and most of their act was slapping or poking each other in the eyes. Much humor involves pain. “Punch & Judy” goes back to the 17th Century, and a big part of it is Punch slugging people with a club. Tormenting animals (often to death) as entertainment was common in past centuries. A lot of people saw it as funny.

Why? Humor appears to be a coping response to pain and suffering, confusion and disorder. (“Twenty years from now, we’ll all laugh about this.”) At least in the West, we’ve gone to great lengths to minimize pain, suffering, and disorder. At the same time, we’ve achieved near-universal literacy. In consequence, a great deal of humor is now verbal rather than physical, and much of it stems from incongruity and confusion rather than pain.

So the image of guys in exaggerated costumes and facial makeup tearing around being random, honking horns, falling on their faces, and sometimes engaging in sham mayhem among themselves is just not as funny as it used to be. It’s a short tumble from “not funny” to “nasty,” and that’s I think what lies at the core of the fall of clowns from grace.

Now, there’s something else. Loren Coleman published a book in 2004 called The Copycat Effect. It’s not about clowns or Bigfoot or urban legends, but about the media’s ability to take a concept, twist it toward nastiness for maximum effect (“If it bleeds, it leads”) and then be surprised when reports of violence or other crime take on a life of their own, sometimes spawning violence or criminal activity of a similar nature.

I have a hunch that this sort of feedback loop is behind Kreepy Klown Kraziness. The concept has gone pedal-to-the-floor viral, to the point where Penn State students went out on a frenzied nocturnal clown hunt that only lacked torches and pitchforks to be considered a lynch mob. Social networking barely existed when Coleman’s book appeared in 2004. Today, Facebook and Twitter turn the dial up to 11.

Between the transformation of clowns into unfunny secular demons like Pennywise and the amplifying effect of clickbait sites and social media, we find ourselves with a genuine case of national hysteria. It may take some time to burn out, but if #ClownLivesMatter becomes a real thing, the phenomenon may be gone sooner than we think.

In the meantime, leave your rubber nose in a drawer until the heat dies down.


  1. Jeff, I had relatives living on North Lawndale in Chicago during that time and their stunned and horrified reaction to the Gacy story was telling. Personally, I have usually found clowns funny but starting about 20 years ago I began to hear people talk about finding them “creepy” or “disturbing”. Maybe it started earlier, with the success of the serious BATMAN films and Jack Nicholson’s version of the JOKER.

  2. TRX says:

    I used to love the comedy skits on The Carol Burnett Show. Harvey Korman was a riot, and Tim Conway was even better.

    Decades later, watching some of those old shows again, and particularly Conway’s own comedy show, I realized that while Korman was good clean fun, almost every skit Conway performed involved being gratuitously mean to someone. And I quit laughing and began wishing one of his victims would give him a swift kick in the yarbles.

    I dunno. Most of the “comedy” I’ve seen in recent years has been more of the Tim Conway type than the Burnett/Korman type. They can’t just be funny, they have to be funny at the expense of someone else. And now that I’ve grown up some, that makes it not funny at all.

  3. TRX says:

    > copycat

    Back in Chicago again… in the early ’80s there were the “Tylenol poisonings”, where some dirtbag(s) put poison in Tylenol bottles on store shelves. That’s what led to all the tamper-resistant packaging we have now… but after people started dying in Chicago it became a nationwide news flap.. and then “copycat poisoners” started popping up all over the country.

    I’ve seen the media-pumped copycat effect many times since.

  4. TRX says:

    > tormenting animals for entertainment

    It wasn’t *that* long ago that insane asylums used to charge admission and let people torment their patients.

  5. RH in CT says:

    About five minutes before I opened this web page I was glancing through the local paper where I saw the headline “Clown scare puts Waterbury school on alert”.

  6. “I have a hunch that this sort of feedback loop is behind Kreepy Klown Kraziness.”

    Having read a couple of Coleman’s books and followed his blog off and on, I’m inclined to agree with your assessment.

    I’m also interested to know if our host or any of his readers who also hail from Chicagoland remember the reports of clowns trying to lure kids into vans that started on the South Side and made their way into the suburbs in the early 90s.

    Then there’s the perennial stories that circulate in college towns around Halloween. The stories are always uncannily similar despite minor variations: rumors fly of anonymous calls to school officials/ads in the local paper warning of some psycho’s planned murder spree. Clues to the intended crime scene are given, but are cryptic enough to potentially fit multiple locations, e.g. “A campus building with an ‘A’ in its name” or “dorms near train tracks”. Relevant to the current discussion, it’s said that the killer will be dressed as such and such fairy tale character.

    The local press will often pick the story up and sensationalize it, even though no record of the phone call and no newspaper ad can be produced. College administrators sometimes go to such lengths as increasing campus security, imposing curfews, banning the Halloween costume specified in the rumor, and even evacuating dorms.

    Of course, no crime takes place–aside from the usual alcohol-fueled traffic incidents and assaults, which are scary enough. But you can bet that somebody else will fall for it again next year.

    It could be that what we’re seeing now is a fusion of the previously more localized phantom clown scares with the more widespread yet seasonal coed spree killer prophecy panic into national-level mass hysteria. It’s an urban legend perfect storm.

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