The “Killer Clown” menace: the historical roots of our latest mass hysteria.
Aside from the political race, which is now (mercifully) almost over, the one subject that I’ve observed people talking about more often in the summer and fall of 2016 than any other is the whole “Killer Clown” thing. As soon as I write those words you will know exactly what I’m talking about. This year, and especially in the past few months, there has been a rash of sightings and encounters with menacing people, presumed to be predators of some kind, dressed as clowns. According to Rolling Stone magazine, reports of creepy clowns began in Greenville County, South Carolina in August, where clowns were said to be trying to lure children into the woods with promises of candy, and have since spread to six more states. Police have been taking these reports seriously, but the only creepy clowns anyone has actualy nabbed have turned out to be mistaken identity — one, for example, an autistic 12-year-old trying on a clown costume for Halloween. But killer clowns are definitely a thing. It’s a real fear.
What is really going on here? Given the reports, I have no doubt that there is some reality to the phenomenon — that somewhere, perhaps a lot of places, strange or disturbed people really are putting on clown costumes and lurking around to try to scare children. But was this happening before reports of killer clowns swept America, or have people been inspired to do it because of the notoriety? There’s a fine line between objective reality and mass hysteria, especially when social media is involved. The image of some dangerous, deranged person dressed as a clown, and especially trying to harm children, has such an instant and visceral hold on our consciousness that one single genuine report could easily snowball into mass hysteria. The real truth of the 2016 killer clown crisis may never be known for sure.
What is clear is that a phenomenon like this has deep historical roots. This week, reading another “killer clown” news story, I was struck by the similarities between this and another bizarre case of mass hysteria, the infamous “Mad Gasser of Mattoon.” In Mattoon, Illinois, on August 31, 1944, a married couple, the Raefs, were overcome by weakness, nausea and temporary paralysis associated with a strange odor filling their house. Later that night another Mattoon resident reported a similar incident. The next day, another house in Mattoon filled suddenly with a strange gaseous odor, sickening the people inside, and some witnesses reported a prowler — a tall man in dark clothing and a tight-fitting cap — running away from the scene. The gas, if that’s what it was, entered the house through an open bedroom window. Between August 31 and September 13, 1944, a total of 21 “attacks” by the mysterious gas-spewing assailant were reported in Mattoon. Who did this, how or why was never determined; the police never nabbed the “Gasser.”
Incredibly, the Mattoon gas attacks appear to have happened before. Between December 1933 and February 1934, eleven incidents were reported in houses in Boutetort County, Virginia. The pattern of the attacks was remarkably similar to the Mattoon incidents a decade later. No one could ever establish a definite connection between the Virginia and Illinois incidents. In all cases the effects of the gas were temporary and no arrests were made. Something real was definitely going on, but many, including psychologists, were skeptical that there really was a “Mad Gasser” running around out there with some kind of spray instrument, attacking houses at random. Investigators and historians who have looked at the Mattoon case have ranged the gamut of explanations, from an actual assailant (in Mattoon, purported to have been a mentally disturbed man getting revenge on the town that shunned him) to purely a figment of the imagination. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Look at the similarities between “Killer Clowns” and the “Mad Gasser.” Both involve an unspecified threat of random violence — anyone can be targeted at any time. Both involve behavior that appears especially bizarre and deranged. Both have a geographical and temporal component: the sightings and “attacks” multiply across time and space, suggesting a disturbing upward trend. And both have a deep psychological element. Silent, invisible gas sprayed into your bedroom at night is something you can’t really defend against. Similarly, all parents are worried about predators targeting their children. Each case, “Killer Clowns” and the “Mad Gasser,” involve an unknown or incomprehensible motive. Why would someone want to gas random residents of Mattoon? What do creepy clowns in South Carolina want with children? In most cases we would probably decide we’d rather not know; the phenomenon itself is scary enough without trying to understand the motivation of presumed psychopaths.
Unlike the Mad Gasser, though, clowns are now especially marked in our popular culture and history as dangerous and frightening. This has happened almost exclusively since the late 20th century. As late as 1952, when James Stewart played a kind-hearted doctor on the lam disguising himself as a circus clown in DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth, clowns were generally regarded as a benign, funny and innocent delight for children. In the 1960s the McDonald’s corporation used the image of a clown as their mascot to sell fast food to children. Then in succeeding decades the image of the clown became sullied and dark. It may have been John Wayne Gacy, a horrifying serial killer from the 1970s who, when he wasn’t murdering young men and burying them under his house, moonlighted as “Pogo the Clown” for children’s charities. Certainly Stephen King’s IT, one of the best-selling books of the 1980s and the source of an iconic 1990 TV miniseries, did the clown no favors, depicting a monster called Pennywise (played in the movie by Tim Curry) who appears as a clown to lure children into a subterranean lair. It’s hard to forget images like these.
Even before IT made its mark as a TV movie, there was a noxious hip hop band called Insane Clown Posse, formed in 1989, which deliberately appropriated the image of clowns as deranged mischief-makers. ICP launched the cultural movement known as “Juggalos,” fans of the band ICP who paint their faces in bizarre clown makeup and whose annual drug-soaked festival has been described as “the scariest place in America besides jail.”
But I don’t think IT and the Juggalos really drove clowns’ descent into darkness and fear. They merely harnessed it for effect. In the late 20th century genuine cases of abduction and tragedy, like the 1979 murder of Adam Walsh, and fake reports of predatory conspiracies like the “Satanic Ritual Abuse” panic (another famous episode of mass hysteria), made us automatically suspicious of the motives of anyone who seems to have even an innocent interest in children. The clown, a cultural role deriving from medieval times and more recently (since the 18th century) associated with the entertainment of children, probably couldn’t escape being recast as a boogeyman. We no longer fear the sort of monsters and religious apparitions that, for example, terrified the people of Salem in 1692 and caused them to destroy numerous members of their own community out of fear. But we in 2016 do fear clowns. Who’s to say our fears are less superstitious or silly than those of 17th century Puritans, who loved their children as much as we do ours?
As long as these fears exist, someone will prey on them. The rash of “Killer Clown” sightings in the U.S. in 2016 isn’t new. In the fall of 2013, some guy, probably a prankster, terrified the town of Northampton, England by putting on a clown costume and just standing around staring at people. The incident received international coverage and may well be one inspiration for whoever is behind our current troubles. Inspiring fear is not only a means of achieving power, as a certain Republican Presidential candidate amply demonstrates, but it is an empowering act in and of itself.
I do not know, and can’t offer an opinion, as to how much of our “Killer Clown” phenomenon is real and how much of it is in our heads. But given the historical pedigree of boogeymen past, from cloven-hoofed demons in 1690s Massachusetts to a “Mad Gasser” stalking Illinois during the 1940s, I can be certain that some shadowy terror — real or imagined — will stalk us again in the future, or at least we’ll think it’s stalking us. It’s the same phenomenon. The face of the clown is only its latest disguise.