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Phantom Clowns in South Carolina Are Nothing New

Killer Clowns From Your Imagination

Since late August 2016, police in Greenville County, South Carolina, have been besieged with reports of children being stalked by phantom clowns. Authorities have investigated the stories but come up empty. Most of the reports were vague. What are we to make of these accounts?

The literature on folklore and mass psychology teaches us to be skeptical. Police have done the right thing: take the reports seriously and investigate. Yet, in the absence of hard evidence, they should be skeptical, otherwise they run the risk of wasting valuable time and resources. Stalking Clown folklore has been with us for decades and appears to be part of the ‘Stranger Danger’ moral panic of the 1980s. Moral panics are periods of intense fear that crop up from time to time, and involve exaggerated threats from perceived evil-doers. A classic example was the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany or the fear of Muslims in Europe and North America today. While the threat of Muslim terrorists is real, it has been exaggerated.

Since the early 80s, there have been several localized rumor-panics in North America and Europe involving sightings of phantom clowns attempting to kidnap children. They have also been referred to as Killer Clowns and Kidnapping Clowns. At first glance, it would be tempting to think that there may be a group of criminals dressing up as clowns. Yet, when you examine the reports, a curious trend appears: they are almost never caught, and vanish into the shadows. There is also a lack of tangible evidence. All police have to go on is eyewitness testimony, which is notoriously unreliable, especially given that most witnesses are children. Another curious fact is that the children always seem to get away. The clowns appear totally incompetent.

In 2014, a group of teenagers in southern France dressed up as clowns and went around threatening and scaring people. At least 14 were arrested. This episode should not be confused with outbreaks of phantom clowns that crop up from time to time, which appear to be a combination of urban legend, rumor-panic and moral panic.

The Killer Clowns motif appears to have taken hold in popular culture during the 1980s with the release of a series of creepy clown movies and books. Perhaps most influential was Stephen King’s chilling 1986 horror novel, It, involving a homicidal clown, and films such as Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988) and Clownhouse (1989). Even Steven Spielberg's 1982 film Poltergeist featured a creepy clown. In 1990, there was an entire TV mini-series based on It – and the IMDb movie database lists no less than 186 films involving bad clowns – almost all since the 80s. Thanks to these films, the association between clowns and evil is ingrained in popular culture. Clowns were natural candidates for the bad guy (occasionally it’s a female) as they possess unnatural, exaggerated features that render them not quite human. They are what anthropologists refer to as ‘the Other.’

The Bad Clown motif quickly made its way into public consciousness as a genuine threat, especially in the minds of children. While the reports of clowns on the loose in South Carolina should be fully investigated, until more concrete evidence is found, we should tread carefully. Clearly, most outbreaks of phantom clowns have turned out to be the products of overwrought imaginations and represent a form of modern myth in the making; a kind of living folklore. Until more concrete evidence is uncovered, we should treat these stories with great skepticism.

I am not suggesting that criminals do not dress up as clowns in order to stalk children or that we should not take these reports seriously, but when there is a lack of supporting evidence, clusters of creepy clowns is a matter best dealt with by folklorists, sociologists and social psychologists, not law enforcement.

Sighting clusters typically begin with a dramatic initial report or rumor, followed by saturation media coverage. Local residents begin to scrutinize their environment for evidence of this new threat, and begin to redefine ambiguous stimuli within their new stalking clown mind set. Some children may exaggerate or even make up stories for attention. The bottom line is that no clowns are ever found. It’s a similar formula for sighting clusters of chupacabras, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster. That is why all of these subjects belong to the realm of folklore as they break out in waves, are driven by media reports including social media – and proof of their existence is never found.