FATE Issue # 731
In August 2016, Greenville, South Carolina, erupted in a wave of phantom clown sightings and encounters. Children reported evil clowns who frightened them and attempted to lure them into the woods. The wave spread to nearby states, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. As news flashed around the internet and media, phantom clown sightings were re- ported across the entire country in more than two dozen states, and even elsewhere around the world. Sinister clowns suddenly were every- where, banging on doors, shooting guns, leering, rattling chains, peering in windows like peeping Toms, and driving around in vans and pickup trucks. Children were terrified and parents were alarmed. Police were on alert. Some of the cases were soon proved to be not supernatural, but people perpetrating hoaxes. Scatterings of arrests were made. When the wave of clown encounters died down, more than 100 reports had been made from one end of America to the other. The wave left behind unanswered questions. What started it, and why? There are no good answers—which may be part of the joke played by scary phantom clowns, a real and unexplained phenomenon that has stalked human beings through the ages. Phantom and killer clowns are not isolated, but are part of a sprawling web of the Unexplained that spreads out in many ways. Prior to the 1970s, most people in the West—at least in the suburbs and rural areas—felt relatively safe in their communities. They did not worry much about their children being kidnapped, terrorists wreaking havoc, or uncontrollable and fatal epidemics (such as AIDS) laying waste. They did not worry about gang violence, drug trafficking, and rioting. As those horrors crept into all layers of society, people felt increasingly unsafe and on edge. “Stranger Danger” emerged as a collective fear. It is no surprise that waves of phantom and killer clown activity followed in the wake.
Fear of Clowns Human beings hold a deeply embedded fear of clowns, called coulrophobia. Fear of clowns usually affects children and can be carried into adulthood. An informal poll of 1,999 Americans taken by Vox.com and Morning Consult in October 2016 showed that 42 percent of American adults are afraid of clowns to some degree. Children are expected to laugh at clowns and be entertained by them, but even the zaniest clown can make children cry instead of laugh—and not by deliberate intent. Clowns are deformed—they have exaggerated body parts and grotesquely painted faces. They are not quite human. Their appearance evokes a response called the “uncanny valley,” a term coined in the 1970s to describe the unsettled feelings and revulsion toward robots that look nearly, but not quite, human. They are uncanny, causing reactions of uncertainty and even fear. So it is with clowns—they are not quite human. Coulrophobia lurks below the surface in many adults, judging from the collective fright/fascination reactions to evil clowns such as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in Stephen King’s horror novel, It (1986), and other horror books and films. King’s plot revolves around a monster or being of unknown origins that periodically preys upon people, especially children, slaying them, and taking various forms to induce the greatest fear in its victims. It shape-shifts to a mummy, were- wolf, vampire, witch, leper, and more, but It evokes the most dread as the killer clown Pennywise. Deep down inside, we know there is nothing funny about clowns. Their grotesque and exaggerated appearances, especially faces, are only masks covering something dark, dangerous, and evil. Phantom Clown Scares The clown scare spread across the country. In Ohio, a knife-wielding clown chased people. In Kansas City, Missouri, school children reported a frightening, sword-wielding clown in a yellow van. The descriptions were all the same: a man with a white wig, black face paint, bulbous red nose, a black shirt with a devil on it, black pants decorated with candy canes down the sides, and big red shoes. Similar reports cropped up in Omaha, Denver, and Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, the clown mutated to a man in a pink rabbit suit, driving a van. Police once gave chase, and the giant rabbit leaped out of the van, hopped away, and disappeared into a bar—vanishing completely. Meanwhile, another mutation of the clown scare occurred in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, where thrill-seeking teenagers said they were stalked by a “vampire” in a cemetery. The vampire, seen by police, was a large man with a white face, wear- ing a cape. He escaped by jumping effort- lessly over a six-foot barbed wire fence— a seemingly supernormal feat, and one embodied by other mystery figures, as we shall see below. A caped male reappeared in 2004, reportedly jumping out of trees at people. The phantom clown scare of 1981 ended as it had begun—suddenly and without explanation, as though some fan- tastic Trickster had played rude jokes on a huge number of people. Other phantom clown scares erupted after periods of dormancy. Some of them involved mystery clowns, and some were a mix of mystery figures and real people imitating the mystery, as happened in the 2016 scare. America was not alone; Eng- land, France, Canada, and other countries reported waves as well. In Central Amer- ica, one scare featured clowns supposedly abducting children to harvest their organs. Benjamin Radford, author of Bad Clowns (2016), observes that most clown waves start with children and spread to adults. The waves also are related to urban legends about kidnappers, murderers, and danger. Loren Coleman, a leading cryptozo- ologist and frequent contributor to FATE, studied the 1981 scare, sending out 400 letters asking for accounts. Soon the rsponses were overwhelming. In his “Phan- tom Clown Theory,” he attributed mass hysteria stemming from children’s reports as a cause of the waves. Once sightings are reported in the media, mass hysteria can take over, and spawn more sightings as well as hoaxes. These factors are present in many of the waves of various sinister figures documented through the years. Are clown scares only cases of hysteria? That is a likely factor—but there is much more below the surface.