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The Great Clown Scare of 2016

Why the panic won’t last

The clown scare is a textbook example of a social panic. These social hysterias crop up from time to time and involve an exaggerated fear among a large number of people, about some evil threatening society. It is the latest in a long history of social hysterias. In the 1950s, the Western world was gripped by the threat posed by horror-themed comic books corrupting the morals of our youth. In the 70s, there was an outcry over gory 'blood and guts' films being sold on video. During the 80s and 90s, the Satanic Cult Scare and Stranger Danger Panic resulted in hundreds of false accusations of abuse in daycare centers.

The wave of clown rumors and sightings that is currently sweeping the United States, is spreading to other parts of the world, with fresh reports in a number of countries. The situation has many people on edge, and to the uninitiated, it may seem like things are getting out of hand. But rest assured, as someone who studies social panics, the scare will soon run its course and fade into the annals of history.

Hollywood bears much of the blame for the clown panic. Over the past three decades, there have been just under 200 films and TV shows depicting bad clowns. This helps us to understand what is happening today. Coincidentally, since about 1980, an urban legend has circulated around the world, about bad clowns on the prowl for our children. Hollywood has reinforced this evil image of clowns in the popular imagination. Bad clowns are the perfect terrifying figure as they are able to navigate in society with their identities hidden, so they could be anyone in our midst.

I predict that the clown scare will quickly fade away after Halloween, when it will morph into some new evil for society to obsess about.

Every social panic has an underlying moral or message. Creepy clowns reflect fears and uncertainties about what’s going on in the world today. They are part of a greater social panic about the fear of strangers and terrorists in an increasingly urban, impersonal and unpredictable world. In this regard, the Great Clown Scare of 2016 reflects our inner most fears; it is a form of collective anxiety attack.

Every era needs their evil-doers – some dark force to rally against, be it heretics, communists, or more recently – Syrian refugees. Phantom clowns are the most recent manifestation of age-old fears dressed up a different cultural guise.

But some new fear will quickly fill the void. It is part of the human condition. Even with education, we cannot eradicate social panics. They will keep cropping up. The best we can do is to identify them as soon as they appear, in order to reduce their impact.

It’s time to take a few deep breaths, relax, and put the scare in its historical perspective. This too, shall pass.