The Social Contagion of Psycho Clowns

This fall, should we expect a repeat of the clown scare from two years ago?

Posted Oct 17, 2016

Myk on Flickr
Source: Myk on Flickr

There is no need to panic!  Mutant psycho clowns are not breeding along the edge of the forest in your town.  I don’t believe there is a pattern of connected underworld criminals dressing as clowns in locations around the world.  Call me a skeptical behavioral scientist.  However, there are very real psychology principles worth discussing here.

What Is Happening?

Let’s go back to South Carolina in August, 2016.  Apparently, there were reports of several clowns with green laser pointers lurking along the edge of a forest.  Children reported seeing the clowns, but we don’t know if the clowns were teenagers or adults.  When police investigated, nothing was found.  Later that evening more sightings were reported along with some unusual noises around an apartment complex. 

In the weeks that followed, clowns were reported in multiple cities mostly in the eastern part of the United States.  The creepy clown epidemic has since spread to Australia, Britain, and other parts of the world.

It turns out that children in Greenville County, South Carolina had been promoting an urban legend that people were living in an abandoned house not far from the first clown sighting.  My guess is that teenagers, or young adults, nearing the end of a long summer, decided to have some fun by exploiting the already existing fear of the woods-people from the house.  When the ruse successfully frightened the kids, they may have decided to try it again later at night closer to homes. 

Who Are You?

Anonymity is a big issue in this so-called “clownpocalypse.”  Studies show that we are more willing to act aggressively when our identity is concealed.  This is true out in public or on the internet.  A Halloween themed study once looked at how much candy children would take from a bowl with a note asking them to take just one piece.  The bowl was left on a porch and the family was not home.  Children who came up to the house with masks covering the face helped themselves to more pieces.  So did children in groups.  Kids who were unmasked and by themselves took the least candy (Deiner, 1976).  Wearing a mask and being in a group helps to deindividuate us allowing us to make transgressions. 

Social Contagion

Eight days after the initial clown sighting there was a group of other reports not too far away.  Events like these tend to pop up in clusters.  Clown sightings are reported on social media and later covered by mainstream media.  Copycats and fakers join in and very quickly it becomes difficult to discern real clown threats from jokers and pranksters who intend no harm. 

Steve McKellar on Flickr
Source: Steve McKellar on Flickr

In a crowd, and online, if we see a couple people behaving in an aggressive way it makes the behavior seem legitimate.  In a group of several thousand, you might just see one or two who come ready to cause problems.  But once they do it validates the behavior for those people immediately around them.  And the problem grows exponentially until it is too big to stop. 

What’s Next?

When will it all end and what should you do?  Like any trend or social panic it will die down.  This one may last until the end of October, but once the post-Halloween high wears off, I expect clown sightings to drop.  My serious advice to parents and others is that you should always be aware of your surroundings and be cautious of anyone who seems odd or unstable.  If you are walking down the street at night and you see a clown behind a dumpster with a weapon, by all means turn the other way quickly! 

More importantly, remember to keep you kids off the road when cars a driving by.  Pedestrians are much more likely to get hit by vehicles than attacked by clowns.  Have a safe Halloween.