This article was originally published on October 26, 2016.
One Georgia girl brought a knife to school to protect herself; police in New York City have urged residents to stay calm; even Ronald McDonald is laying low for a while. We’ve seen clowns lurking outside homes after dark, trying to lure kids into the woods, just being creepy in public or intruding on our lives in random ways. Last week, all of this prompted an actual response from Randy Christensen, the president of the World Clown Association (yes, that exists):
“We believe the art of clown is something to be treasured and enjoyed by audiences worldwide. We bring a happy, joyful, creative, caring, positive, and fun experience to our audiences,” the statement reads. “We stand with our safety officers who call for an end to the traumatization of individuals and communities. Anyone making a threat of violence should be arrested, whether this person is wearing a mask or not. This clearly is not the act of a professional clown.”
But, for the most part, clowns are goofy and kind to children and exist to bring joy into the world — so, what is it about clowns exactly that is so unsettling?
Part of it is that our brains simply don’t know how to process clowns. Earlier this year, the first-ever psychological study of creepiness found that unpredictability is one of its main components. And this makes perfect sense when applied to clowns: A clown may present as jolly and fun, but we can’t predict his behavior — or whether we’ll be his next target. (Anyone who’s been to the circus and knows the particular terror of being pulled from the audience to participate knows this is true, even of “nice” clowns.)
According to Benjamin Radford, author of Bad Clowns and research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, we actually have clowns all wrong from the start. “People who aren't really familiar with the cultural history of the clown think, ‘Oh wow, Stephen King made this thing evil,’” he says. “No, you were mistaken for thinking it was good!”
The original clown was never cheery or safe, Radford says. Think of court jesters, the only people who could make fun of the king, or mythic trickster figures and devils. For hundreds of years in England, children and adults alike have enjoyed the Punch and Judy puppet shows, featuring Mr. Punch, “this nasty, evil, hook-nosed, red-capped malcontent [who] beats his wife with a bat and throws his baby out the window because he's crying.”
At its heart, the clown is all about contradictions and crossing boundaries, and that both thrills and unnerves us.
Also, there’s the ambiguity of how clowns look. “With a clown, we know rationally that the person underneath that makeup is a person, and yet, that person is in many ways inhuman,” Radford says. “They have these characteristics that are exaggerated and grotesque and caricatured — their faces are too big, their hair is too big, their glasses are too small, their props are oversize. They oftentimes have sort of quasi-supernatural powers. They're not quite like us: They have roses that will squirt water, they can fit 15 of their friends in a tiny car, they can fall off a ladder and not get hurt.”
All of this together can be paralyzing, as our brains struggle to slot the clown into an easily definable category, such as “safe” or “dangerous,” “good” or “bad.”
Americans’ beliefs about what is possible in the world only complicate things. According to the most recent Chapman University Survey of American Fears, in 2015, about half of Americans believed in the likelihood of the paranormal. Nearly half agreed or strongly agreed that spirits can or do haunt the physical realm. An evil, supernatural clown isn’t a big leap from there.
And of course, a setting where you’re not expecting to see a clown — as in outside your door randomly or in the woods behind your house — adds another layer of spookiness. “If you come upon a single clown somewhere, and they see you, you are forced into their world,” Radford says. “You are unwillingly drawn into whatever the hell they're going to do. That's a line that real clowns don't cross, but these sort of prankster clowns do.”
The original clown scares of the 1980s spread in part thanks to a public primed for “stranger danger.” With an especially stressful election season this year, in addition to increased access and exposure to bad news worldwide, Radford urges all of us to look at clown stories logically. “I would just encourage people to step back, take a breather and just realize that the creepy clowns in their imaginations are far worse than the hoaxsters and pranksters and copycats and legends that are in the news today.”