It goes without saying coulrophobia is a fairly common ailment. The leering fixed grin of gaudy prankster was never not going to invite terror more often than humour. Helped by the horror genre and the depiction of clowns as killers, notably It by Stephen King, the perception that clowns are abnormal and “the stuff of nightmares” has cemented itself in the public consciousness.
The recent resurgence in clown related nonsense has exacerbated issues. Since Greenville, South Carolina, America has been treated to fairly regular reports of individuals dressed as clowns, performing antisocial acts. Roaming the streets with knives, attempting to lure children into the woods in the Greenville case, and attempting to scare local communities.
Of course it was our pre-existing “hate-hate” relationship with clowns which allowed these isolated events to build into a phenomenon, while the mythos created by real crimes, fiction and urban myth provides a model for ‘clowning’. The targeting of children chillingly copies John Wayne Gacy, the serial ‘Killer Clown’. Public reaction has encouraged the behaviour. Local and national news spread mass hysteria rather than containing it. But the impact of mass hysteria should not in itself be ignored. Certainly incidents would not have spread and then been picked up by national news if it had not been for the “sado-masochistic” attitude we have towards fear, and the morbid fascination with the strange and the threatening. It’s the same psychology which causes horror movies to rake in hundreds of thousands of pounds in movie tickets. People enjoy being scared. People enjoy the macabre. It is people who turn serial killers into figures resembling celebrities.
It should not, then, be surprising that the jokers have invaded the UK, emphasising the threat even more as it now seems possible that you will experience the craze first hand. I would ask however, if there is any difference between the non-clown fronted behaviour and when an individual does assume the clown persona.
Clearly to mainstream and social media it matters. Part of the sensation directly involves Twitter and Facebook as a method for wannabe clowns to spread their gospel of fear and to tantalise the public. The availability of ‘Clown Sighting’ Twitter accounts support the notion that the public have a ‘difficult’ relationship with clowns. They are clearly engaged – these accounts becoming viral- but is it only due to a fear of clowns?
What the popularity of the accounts do challenge however, is which aspect of the new sensation is actually captivating the public. The majority of the videos only showing clowns chasing individuals, rather than the more extreme cases from the news. Could this then suggest that it is merely the costume which generates horror? I’d argue it is a combination: these accountsdon’t have to show the violence, as the association is now so strongly attached to the concept of clowns. However, what the videos and images do achieve is placing the incidents in a personal context – seeing a clown from a snapchat video creates the impression that it could happen to you.
Although the severity of some of the cases should not be overlooked or mistaken for simple ‘tomfoolery’. Part of the phenomena is that the face paint and outfits allow for the anonymity of those pursuing these endeavours. And it appears that part of ‘clowning’ is deliberately being extreme to ‘spook’ the local community, hence the targeting of children. Social media allows for an easier way for these individuals to target others, as the recent case of a 13-year-old girl being threatened with rape over Instagram by a clown account demonstrates. The clown? A 13-year-old boy, who was later arrested for malicious behaviour.
This is the more worrying aspect of the craze, the growing participation rather than merely observing. It begs the question whether the “trend” is encouraging the behaviour, or facilitating it and revealing what’s actually going on behind the mask of normalcy.
Coulrophobia isn’t just common anymore, we’re experiencing a mass epidemic. But the phenomenon goes beyond blind fear. It’s the strange fascination with clowns, and the resulting violence and public disorder. It’s the growing thin barrier with fiction; the latest response to the clowns exemplifies this. In Cumbria a man dressed as Batman is now fighting them. I won’t blame children, but everyone else? Perhaps we’ve brought this circus upon ourselves.