Notes from the middle of the 2016 clownpocalypse
“There’s nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight.”
― attributed to Lon Chaney
It’s end of October, and we’re in the middle of a weird cultural moment. I don’t mean the presidential election. People are seeing or reporting scary clowns all across the United States. We’re being spooked by clowns standing where they aren’t supposed to be, staring at us, grabbing our arms, leering, holding chainsaws, pointing rifles, and grinning those terrifying smiles the entire time, even though there isn’t really a clown menace in reality. Stephen King is telling us to chill out. The Great Clown Panic of 2016 is under way.
I’ve been tracking the Great Clown Panic of 2016 on my little, long-running Gothic interests blog, Infocult. Over the years I’ve noted scary clown stories off and on, both in fiction and in journalism, but the fearsome big tent has really blown off over the past month. It’s taken dozens of posts just to try keeping up with the craze. Every day, every few hours someone emails or tweets me another story.
Know that being terrified of clowns is an established trope going back years, both in fiction and circus-haunted real life. Coulrophobia is a useful and accessible term, although the DSM doesn’t include it (yet). Arguably Edgar Allen Poe’s “Hop-frog” (1845) is the progenitor of the trope, a tale about a violent, terrifying, scheming jester who overturns a social order. However, Poe’s hero is, well, the hero, an avenger of injustice, only an object of fear to the bad people who pay a terrible price for their crimes. Hop-frog isn’t quite the clown we dread in 2016.
The Joker (1940) is closer to our version. He is purely evil and insane, capable of epic scheming and cruelty. He has some important differences, however. At no point can he pass as an acceptable adult, unlike clowns (so far). His targets are usually adults, too. And he is often too strange or stylish to mimic the classic clown, who is a buffoon in the strict sense of the term.
His visual inspiration, the title character from The Man Who Laughs (1928), is closer while being further away. We feel sympathy for Gwynplaine, as he is suffering, good, and skilled at his trade (a comic performer, naturally). He is trapped in that perpetual grin, which adds to our sympathy and horror. But that grin is eerie, unsettling, simply wrong, much like the leer of today’s evil clowns. It’s hard to unsee:
Our modern clown is largely its own thing. Its arrival dates to around 1980. Jesse Walker points to a series of local clown panics in the early 1980s, which were spread by television. John Wayne Gacy’s killing spree preceded those stories, as that bad clown killed throughout the 1970s, only being caught in 1980. Perhaps popular and titillating news accounts of his crimes inspired people’s imaginations to the point of envisioning terrors in their own lives. Perhaps, too, those stories would have really taken off and inspired imitators had tv “news” been as sensationalist and desperate as it is now. Widely available social media could also have accelerated their spread. As it was, the early 1980s clown panics just sank into cultural memory.
That memory then issued forth more stories in other forms. Clown-fear fictions followed those early coulrophobic waves, like Stephen King’s epic 1986 novel It and the cheerfully deranged 1988 movie Killer Klowns from Outer Space. 1982’s Poltergeist has several memorable scary clown scenes. A 1992 Simpsons episode sees Bart so terrified by clowns that he chants “can’t sleep, clown will eat me”, inspiring Alice Cooper’s circa 2000 song. I’m especially fond of the great Thomas Ligotti’s Lovecraftian clown mashup “The Last Feast of Harlequin” (1990), which connects playful clowns with cthonic terrors.
These are all fictions with varying ranges of popular engagement, ranging from art horror to popular tv and music. By the time Alice Cooper sang about killer clowns the trope was already established, if not dominating cultural life. In 1999 Mark Dery thought “we’re living on top of a cultural landfill of (barely) buried clownophobia”. Seventeen years later this very precise fictional fear has erupted, gone mainstream, and entered everyday life, with reports from all over north America and parts of Europe. What can we tell about the panic from inside of it? What has made this very specific anxiety so general at this time?
To an extent the panic is a self-perpetuating machine. Setting aside its origin for a moment, it continues because it continues — i.e., coverage in traditional or social media spawns interest from other producers and consumers. The low bar of entry to staging a clown story (borrow a costume and make an appearance, or simply tell a story to a reporter or Facebook friend list) lets anyone play, taking a shot at Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, either on tv or Twitter. The panic is a panic because it is a panic.
More importantly, the panic keys off of other cultural currents. Many perceive the 2016 presidential election as unusually chaotic, seeing several insurgent candidates (Sanders, Trump) achieve significant political success. In turn, their candidacies were (are) based on overturning existing norms and policies, from introducing unusual or previously excluded ideas to mobilizing first-time voters. In an atmosphere of sustained, massively discussed uncertainly and upset, the fearsome clown can appear with some resonance. The normal clown is a socially sanctioned form of unrest; its fearsome variant, a sharper, punk version. You don’t have to draw a link between Trump’s goofy orange color and a clown’s makeup to feel that shared carnivaleque vibe. If you support or oppose insurgency, the clown is a fine figure for the promise of upset. The scary clown of 2016 might be an echo of a wild, sometimes clownish presidential election.
The election has also tapped into all kinds of social anxieties. The middle class is shrinking according to some accounts and popular feeling, global warming is progressing nicely, crime seems to be having an uptick after a generational decline, ISIS continues to lavishly produce fine horror videos, and some variously privileged populations feel threatened by the rise of others. Democrats fear Trump heralds fascism, racism, and social regression, while Republicans dread a Clintonian crypto-socialist-matriarchy. Clowns don’t connect specifically with these, of course, but may just be a convenient avenue for expressing that swarm of anxieties and instabilities in an entertaining, thrilling, and even popular form.
The clown’s simplicity and sometimes blankness (that face so close to metal music’s corpse makeup!) are fine surfaces to write upon, accessible to anyone, lacking any particular social identity or political brand. Like Mostar’s Bruce Lee statue, the clown doesn’t belong to any faction, and therefore can be owned by anyone. No other popular culture figure has offered such a vehicle for the expression of anxieties this year.
We can see some of this clown-as-chaos-avatar in the popularity of the otherwise unremarkable Purge movie series (2013, 2014, 2016). In this sketchy world a firmly established social order reigns, only to briefly give way to ritualized madness. Some people hole up in safe locations for those Purges, but others mask themselves to commit mayhem. Various worries surface when the latter attack the former, from economic insecurity to racial anguish, generational tensions to the suburban fear of both country and city. People have already openly connected the Purge movies with the clown panic in new urban legends, a social media threat, and, appropriately, a carnival ride. This is the clown as carnival sign, the reverse of social order. Classically that appeals to both self-styled rebels who would overturn the system they abhor, while safely thrilling those attached to that system.
What about other figures of terror? Why the clown instead of any other member of our collective imagination’s rogues’ gallery? One leading candidate is the shambling dead. For several years we’ve been in a zombie mood, from tv to movies to computer games to costumes. But that has lost its ability to shock thanks to repetition over time. If we see a zombie shambling along a street, we don’t panic or reach for a gun. Instead we wonder which Walking Dead character they are emulating, or if there’s a zombie walk nearby. Zombies are familiar, even friendly figures. Other monsters are even less effective. Vampires are massively domesticated through romance, as are the less popular werewolves and ghosts. Amidst this replay of Universal Horror monsters, only the scary clown stands apart, grinning fiendishly in the moonlight.
Perhaps there’s a generational component to the Great Clown Panic of 2016. After all, many of the “sightings” center on high schools and alleged threats to children. I’d like to suggest that the scary clown wave is the first major cultural moment for Generation Z/the Homeland Generation, their coming-out party on the multi-generational American stage. They are tugging at the cultural subconscious, and have hauled forth a fine monster.
That monster is one associated with children, after all. The nominal or benevolent clown is one who purportedly delights young people. Indeed, to be an adult is to go beyond being able to appreciate clowns in that way. Unlike vampires et al, the clown is a creature specific to childhood. Its horrific aspect brings back childhood terrors at a world of (occasionally dire) possibility, of being out of control, of being small. No wonder the Killer Klowns from Outer Space are so huge. Today’s clown also evokes fears of child molestation, an anxiety that has racked American culture for a generation.That’s why it’s the children and not the adults in Poltergeist who confront the scary clown. With 2016’s fearsome clowns Generation Z gets to express their coming of age this way, by owning their childhood (apparently extended, if the Millennial example is anything to go by), then having the power to pervert it. The scary clown is not just about childhood, but also adulthood and the passing of time. (Hence the clown’s famous tears)
At some point the incidence of clowning will decline. Some will speak of our having passed Peak Scary Clown, and the story will enter folklore. Years from now people will wonder at 2016’s madness, and imagine how people could have been so strange as to generate such a national panic. In 2021 Facebook will remind you that you shared a Clown Panic story five years ago. Perhaps the occasional aging Gen Zer will take out a Purge mask from a plastic storage bin and remember a crazy stunt they pulled. And maybe some folks will print up costumes to wear as clowns, then go stand by the side of highways entirely populated by self-driving cars, waving at occasionally screaming passengers, and soaking in coulrophobic nostalgia.