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.