by Dr Adam Lynes, lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University

The 2016 clown sightings, which have commonly been referred to by names such as “panic”, “uprising”, “epidemic”, and “invasion” , are a series of “evil” or “killer” clown sightings reported in the United States and to a lesser extent other Western countries since August 2016.

This “epidemic” appeared to be characterised by individuals dressing up in Halloween clown costumes before walking in public, with some of these individuals simply standing in one location while others have been reported to having chased people, including young children, with knives. The clown sightings were first reported in South Carolina.

By early October of this year, such sightings of “killer clowns” have been reported in over half of US states, eight out of ten Canadian provinces, and nine other countries.

With regard to UK incidents, Police in Northumbria have stated that six reports have already been made about creepy clown incidents in Newcastle upon Tyne since the beginning of October. While nobody was physically attacked during those incidents, some of these reports involve individuals dressed as clowns jumping out of bushes in order to scare children, whilst other incidents have also been reported involving clowns chasing people.

Why are people dressing as clowns and attempting to scare members of the public? Why has this particular story appeared to captivate the media? And how should members of the public react to these “clown sightings?

Firstly, it is important to consider the significance of Coulrophobia, which is a fear of clowns.  Clowns possess both human and inhuman qualities which can result in disturbing some individuals – this is known as the “uncanny valley” first introduced by Freud.

This phobia was arguably perpetuated by the contemporary “evil clown” archetype developed in the 1980s, notably popularized by Stephen King’s It movie, and perhaps influenced by John Wayne Gacy, a real-life serial killer dubbed the “Killer Clown” in 1978. There is of course also the Joker from Batman mythology who also personifies these qualities – these factors have created and perpetuated a cultural “mindset” that clowns are evil and not to be trusted. The individuals dressing as clowns may well be using this well-known fear of clowns as a motivation for engaging in their behaviour.

Another important element to consider is that, from an individual point of view, the very act of hiding one’s face is also very powerful – potentially leading these individuals to act in a way they normally would not when their faces are visible. This is of course not suggesting that everyone who hides their faces will engage in socially unacceptable behaviour. Instead, I draw comparisons to the London riots of 2011, in which individuals with no prior criminal records took an active part in rioting and looting when they believed they had anonymity amongst the crowd.

Lastly, with reports of members of the public attacking people dressed as clowns and taking part in “clown hunting” events, it is also important to examine these extreme responses to these clown sightings.

Firstly, people need to consider their consumption of media and social media, and understand that despite the coverage of these sightings, the actual number of such events are far lower than they may believe.

Second, these individuals need to remember that dressing as a clown is not in itself a crime, and that if they antagonize and attack people dressed as clowns then they are in fact the ones committing crimes.

What we are witnessing here is a “moral panic”, which is a disproportional and hostile social reaction to a condition, person or group defined as a threat to societal values. With this in mind, it is important for members of the public to remain calm and remember that these “clown sightings” are, despite what they may hear, far from being an “epidemic”.

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