The epidemic that has plagued the nation has arrived in the Bay Area: clown hysteria. .
The incidences began in early October when a woman in Concord claimed that a clown fled after she kicked him in the shin for trying to abduct her daughter. From there the hysteria escalated until three Bay Area school districts, including the San Jose East Side Union, and the San Mateo Police department received social media threats in early October.
However, are the majority of these sightings even real?
While many chalk up the recent slew of creepy clown impersonators to the upcoming adaptation of It, Stephen King’s infamous tale of a killer clown slated to be released in 2017, these sightings predate the movie and even the original book.
The first onslaught began after reported sightings in Boston in the early 80’s, just after serial killer John Wayne Gacy, “the Killer Clown,” was apprehended and executed for murdering and assaulting at least 33 teenage boys under the guise of his character “Pogo the Clown.”
The similarities across the years have also become eerily apparent: the clowns always mysteriously materialize in the weeks preceding Halloween, the reports always begin with tempting children with candy and sometimes escalate to assault with a weapon, and most importantly, no one is ever apprehended.
Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman first brought up the theory of the “phantom clown theory” in 1981 after the first wave of widespread clown sightings in the United States. She contends that the culture and panic that arises after the initial set of sightings fuels hypersensitivity that causes these false sightings.
Keeping in mind that most clown sightings are reported by children, Coleman makes a valid argument: it’s likely that playground banter, increased media coverage, and warnings from their parents have caused at least some of these children to hallucinate a creepy clown hiding somewhere in the woods, beckoning for them, only for it to disappear as soon as the child alerts any adult.
In his book Bad Clowns, Benjamin Radford cites social media as an alternative impetus for the creepy clown gimmick. The viral nature of social media today incentivises people to adopt the stalker clown persona in the name of likes and retweets.
This happened in real life when the “Northampton Clown” that terrorized a city in the UK for one month in 2013 turned out to be a local filmmaker and his friends who hoped to gain fame by dressing up as the clown and posting photos on his Facebook page. While Alex Powell, the man behind the mask, told police that he never carried a weapon while in the clown suit, many still reporting seeing him with one.
Aside from simply spreading fear and panic, these clowns also continue to perpetuate the image of the creepy clown, which hurts local career clowns who strive to defeat this stereotype and return to the origins of why we have clowns: to bring people joy.
“As a rule, we make people happy,” says Brian Wishnefsky, a professional clown who operates in the Bay Area. “I had a lonely childhood, and they made me happy. To have this happen, it breaks my heart,” he told the San Jose Mercury News in an interview earlier this month.
McDonald’s has even begun pulling back on their imagery of Ronald McDonald and public appearances in the wake of the increased fear surrounding clowns. Meanwhile, clown costume sales are up 300%, and 8 of the 10 top selling masks for clowns are marked as “evil.”
Historically, these sightings have begun to subside after Halloween passes, but with the release of the new adaptation of It only coming in September of 2017 this year could be the anomaly. But hopefully for Wishnefsky and those like him, the clowns will disappear just as fast as they have every year.