Hoax. Marketing ploy. Prank. Criminal intent. A country inundated with random acts of racial and religious a violence for years – currently considering a presidential candidate whose platform is built on fear – is now plagued by an assault of… creepy clowns?
It all started on August 21st, when a child in South Carolina told his mom that he saw a clown lingering along the wooded area near their home. The boy's older brother claimed the clown was rattling chains against their door, though their mother never saw a thing. But their Greenville apartment complex quickly became a hotspot for clown sightings. Soon, more children claimed the clowns tried to lure them into the woods. No one found any physical evidence of a clown, though, and adults believed the panic was nothing more than their imaginations. But a few days later, 17-year-old Caden Parmalee posted a now-viral video of a clown lingering in the woods near his Florida home – and all of a sudden there were sightings up and down the East Coast. Since the initial stories, there have been dozens of reports of creepy clowns.
Overall, the panic over these clowns is benign. Despite a few arrests across the country, there have been no substantiated attacks perpetrated by clowns and police departments from Oklahoma City to New York have announced that they do not deem threats of clowns credible.
In his 1981 book Mysterious America, cryptozoologist Loren Coleman coined the phrase "Phantom Clown Theory," which refers to the way a few sightings of clowns 'luring' children into vans, cars and forests can turn into mass hysteria – even though no clowns are ever actually caught. He says that, though this phenomenon has existed for over 30 years, the recent spate has become worse because of social media.
"The initial sightings were classic Phantom Clowns," Colman tells Rolling Stone, referring to the early reports in South Carolina. "Then, this was then diluted by 'Stalking Clowns': real people dressing up to scare, be seen and be photographed." There is a real danger here – just not where one might expect. "Place this 'Clown Sightings' flap in the middle of an extremely violent year, with so many guns available, and you are going to have potentially dangerous events occurring," he says. "Not for the 'Phantom Clowns' but for the human 'Stalking Clowns' who will be the targets of angry, scared citizens."
Coleman's prediction is becoming reality. Last week, students at both Pennsylvania State University and Nashville's Belmont University announced campus-wide search parties for clowns after sightings were reported on both campuses. But an amusing evening turned potentially grim as students armed themselves with bats during the march. One student leader "underestimated the power of hysteria" that their marches against clowns would stir up. While those searches luckily stayed peaceful, videos from elsewhere, under the tag #ClownLivesMatter, show people encountering clowns, who appear non-threatening aside from their creepy ensemble, and beating them up. One video even shows a clown being beaten senseless with a baseball bat.
In response to the recent violence, some of the professional clowns behind Clown Lives Matter organized a march on October 15th in Tucson, Arizona. According to the event flyer, "[the march] is a peaceful way to show clowns are not psycho killers…. Come out, bring the family, meet a clown and get a hug!"
One activist, who identifies as Zweebo the Clown, believes that clowns are facing a real danger. "They are being unfairly targeted," he says. "Being threatened with violence. Worst of all, this is driving them out of their jobs." As Zweebo points out, even those tasked with protecting them aren't taking this particularly seriously. "There have been sheriffs who have even said that 'if you are wearing a clown costume, expect to be beat up'. What kind of message is that sending to people who do it as a job?"
When asked if he believed they are trying to equate their plight to Black Lives Matter – a serious group attempting to combat decades of institutionalized racism – Zweebo responds that they are "not really trying to equate it. It's just a catchy thing."
For once, clowns just want to be taken seriously. "The person that is a 'bad' clown is just trying to get that response out of you," Zweebo says. "If you just don't show fear and act like the whole thing is a joke, then 99 percent of the time they won't do anything and will probably be disappointed." So basically, ignore the mean clown and it will go away? That might be the best advice of the season.