Clown Hysteria Is Real and It’s No Laughing Matter

It’s no wonder so many people are afraid.
By  · Published on September 7th, 2017

The real killer clowns, the creepy clown sightings, and why the fear is justified.

This is a big week for clowns. Last night saw the premiere of American Horror Story: Cult, which features the return of Twisty and his reign of terror. This weekend sees Pennywise return to our screens for the first time in nearly 30 years, as the highly awaited It remake finally hits theaters. And if that isn’t enough clowning around for you, Circus Kane and Clowntergeist are hitting VOD, because why not? The clown-aissance is upon us, and that could spell trouble.

Following a sighting of a clown in Chelmsford, England, this week, local police are worried that It could spark another disorderly clown phenomenon similar to the craze of 2016. If you recall, around this time last year, North America and other corners of the globe saw jokers take to the streets dressed as clowns to scare unsuspecting members of the public.

The frenzy started in South Carolina when reports emerged of clowns lurking in the woods trying to lure kids away. Shortly after, the craze was worldwide, to varying degrees of inappropriate. Some clowns hid in bushes and jumped out at passersby. Others took to the streets with weapons and chased down members of the public.

The latest clown sighting comes shortly after a statement from the Pennsylvania State Police department was issued warning citizens that the new movie It could spark more clown sightings. As it turns out, they might be right: shortly after their announcement, red balloons were found tied to sewer drains. 

Another clown craze might sound funny to some, but for many it’s no laughing matter. Results from a survey carried out by Vox last year show that 42% of Americans are afraid of clowns. If the figure is to be believed, we generally find clowns more terrifying than climate change, terrorism, government corruption, and dying.

The majority of clowns are normal, hard-working people who just want to entertain and make an honest living. But there is still something inherently scary about their appearance. According to the Canadian psychologist and coulrophobia expert Rami Nader, people’s fear of clowns is fueled by their inability to trust them. As clowns wear disguises, it makes them unrecognizable as humans, and that makes some people uneasy. As he told the Toronto Metro, “You don’t know really what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, or what they’re going to do.”

The recent clown panic isn’t the first, though. During the 20th century, clowns made headlines for crimes that were much more sinister than questionable pranks. And while Pennywise has undoubtedly played his part in perpetuating some negative stereotypes, he’s as harmless as Ronald McDonald compared to some of his real-life counterparts  — or, as I like to call them, clownterparts.

Pranksters, bizarre urban legends, and even vicious murderers have triggered much hysteria. Let’s take a look at some of the events that have fueled social anxieties and given clowns a bad name.

John Wayne Gacy

The idea of the “evil clown” became mainstream in the late ‘70s when John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer and rapist convicted of murdering 33 people, including several young boys, was arrested. When he wasn’t slaughtering innocent people, Gacy was a party entertainer who portrayed a character named Pogo the Clown. This earned him the moniker “Killer Clown” by the media, which also introduced the notion of psychotic clowns to the widespread collective consciousness. 

Phantom Clowns

The early ’80s saw the emergence of the fear of ‘stranger danger,’ which was caused by alleged devil-worshipping child abuse cults and men dressed as clowns harassing kids. In the case of the latter, it all started back in 1981 when children in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, said that men in clown attire had attempted to lure them into vans with candy. Afterwards, reports of similar incidents began to crop up across the country. In Kansas City not long after the initial incidents, a man in clown makeup was reportedly spotted creeping around elementary schools waving a knife.

Similar reports surfaced in more states during the next few years, but no children were ever reported harmed, and no culprits were ever caught. Maybe the claims were as bogus as the satanic ritual abuse claims that also terrified parents during the ’80s, but if the alleged eyewitness accounts are true, the idea of these people still being out there is a chilling thought. 

The Murder of Marlene Warren

This one is another mystery, but unfortunately there was a casualty to prove it happened. In 1990, Wellington, Florida, resident Marlene Warren answered her front door to find a clown standing there with a bouquet of flowers and some balloons. He then shot her dead right there on the spot and sped away in his vehicle. To this day, the culprit has never been found. Some suspect that her husband was responsible, but it was never proven. As far as we know, the murderer is still out there.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.