Alice Cooper was wrong: if you fall asleep, clowns won't eat you. Contrary to what the noted rocker and golf enthusiast sang about in "Can't Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me," there aren't evil clowns out lurking in the night looking for fun, frolic, and cannibalism. It's understandable if the news has made anyone think otherwise—there's been some kind of clown panic across the nation.
The current wave of weird and troubling reports about malevolent clowns—there was another in the early 1980s—began in late August. Soon social media reports and hoax reports of strange clowns exploded, and by the middle of September there were occasional school lockdowns in some states and warnings from serious law enforcement organizations like the Tennessee State Police. Not that the clown sightings were supernatural, of course, but that they could be child predators:
There were also complaints from actual clowns who make a living as entertainers. A clown named Hip Hop Kidazzle told the AP that it was hard to keep her business going. People were "already fearful," she said, "and now they have clowns that are terrorizing or making people fearful it just makes it very hard you know run a business."
A Rolling Stone article noted that there have indeed been multiple reports from North Carolina to Pennsylvania of incidents as terrifying as a clown with a machete trying to "lure" a woman to an autistic boy who simply liked Stephen King's IT and wanted to wear his Pennywise costume a month early.
There have even been arrests, though they've been for things like "terroristic threatening" and in one case, chasing kids.
There have been various people doing what amounts to performance art as roaming nightmare clowns for years, even posting photos of themselves on Instagram in 2014 hanging around empty town squares. The whole thing is a combination of real shenanigans—sometimes to intimidate, sometimes in an effort just to mess with people—and simple psychology. A New York Times article about arrests related to clown sightings ran down commentary from some experts:
The experts weighed in with explanations. David G. Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Mich., attributed the epidemic of sightings to “mass hysteria” as people’s fears and feelings fed on one another. Jason D. Seacat, an associate professor of psychology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass., suggested another motive for the outbreak: a need for people to feel connected to a news event that had garnered national headlines.
“Since the event appears to be difficult to verify, the claim that one has had such an encounter is easier to make and relatively free from the risk of being called out as a fraud,” he said in an email. “So, low risk of being called out for lying and the benefit of positive attention for reporting such a claim may motivate some people to lie.”
The fear one expert expressed to the Times is such panics never end well—and the AP has reported that a boy was stabbed in Pennsylvania by an assailant in a clown mask who "provoked a confrontation."
There could be the same or worse to come, but it's as likely to endanger the clown as anyone encountering them.
The whole deal is a messy stew of actual events, hoaxes, and panic—and the chances are great that it will likely vanish after Halloween.
Then we'll have another wave to likely look forward to next year—probably right around the time the new movie version of Stephen King's IT premieres in September 2017.
h/t Rolling Stone