Fact or fiction? What to know about Clown-pocalypse 2016

Photo via Double-M
Photo via Double-M

Reports of people dressed as clowns have been documented across the country since late August, and now there are reports of potential copycats in Iowa City.

Initially, the University of Iowa Police reported two reports of a clown seen on campus over Homecoming weekend. Though the clown caused enough alarm to elicit a police notification, no violent or threatening acts have been reported.

Since then the Iowa City Police Log (which is typically intended to be a humorous social media entity, but still pulls from the daily activity log on public record for the City of Iowa City) has shown many fearful calls regarding the clowns or alleged sightings of them.

Pranksters or miscreants?

Initial reports of clowns in July of this year took place in Greenville County, South Carolina and immediately caused concern. The police reports varied by degree — some were relatively benign, such as a woman claiming she saw a clown under a lamppost who merely waved as she walked by; others reported multiple clowns banging on the doors of a home and instances where clowns in nearby woods offered children money while wielding knives.

Despite sightings in more than a dozen states, no violent crimes have been reported. In fact, due to some online posts regarding people planning to show up dressed as clowns, arrests have been made and warrants issued in light of these incidences, for false reports, making threats and disrupting schools. One clown was arrested in Middlesboro, Kentucky for disorderly conduct since it is illegal to conceal one’s identity with a mask in a public place.

Playing on existing fears

Photo courtesy of NY Daily News
Photo courtesy of NY Daily News

Coulrophobia, the scientific name for the specific phobia of clowns, is one of the most commonly reported phobias. The reasons can vary — the deceptive aspect of masks and face paint, the unnerving and unwavering smiles, the inhuman silence (traditionally, clowns do not speak), possibly a traumatizing experience at a circus or birthday party as a young child. This fear is played upon in countless haunted house attractions each year and horror films throughout history.

Real life examples have nurtured this stigma against these brightly-colored jesters. John Wayne Gacy, the American serial killer, would dress as Pogo the Clown for charity events and parties in Cook County, Illinois. He was later dubbed “the Killer Clown” after sexually assaulting and murdering more than 30 young men.

Promotional image for IT (2017). -- photo courtesy of New Line Cinema
Promotional image for IT (2017). — photo courtesy of New Line Cinema

Real or fictionalized, our repertoire of terrifying clowns is plentiful, and is perpetually refreshed. Promos for the new film version of Stephen King’s classic novel IT made the rounds earlier this summer, reawakening many people’s fear of clowns. More locally, Iowa City is getting their own dose of clown-inspired visitors with the juggalos of Insane Clown Posse coming to Blue Moose at the end of the month.

Some are suspecting that this increased frequency of clowns may just be a modern day witch hunt. In fact, students at Penn State did just that. After reports of clowns on campus, almost 6,000 students mobbed the streets with baseball bats and hockey sticks to find them. All of this was actively documented and broadcast via Snapchat Story.

Bringing social media into the mix, we can have complete access to these potentially unfounded reports and begin to feel like it is happening everywhere, all the time: Clown-pocalyse 2016, if you will. But this also means that pranksters and internet trolls can put in minimal effort to cause great amounts of fear across the country.

Maybe there was an initial incident or two, but reasons for this happening across multiple states don’t add up to any specific crime pattern. Rather, people like Scott Bonn, a criminologist and professor of sociology at Drew University, think that this could be one of two cases: the copycat phenomenon or a vamped up hysteria. It may be just that simple — autumn is here, Halloween is looming and many see this as the perfect time for spooking others.

Be alert and report, but don’t panic

While this flurry of sightings has caused fear over social media and news outlets, this may not be as odd as it seems. According to Slate, panic-inducing clown sightings have taken place sporadically over the past 35 years. More often than not, the people in costume seem to be doing this to terrorize people and gain attention rather than to cause actual physical harm.

Whether the reports called into police stations are of actual events or if people are making false claims, the police are taking these occurrences very seriously, because the sightings are terrorizing citizens. Contact University of Iowa Police (319-335-5022) or Iowa City Police (319-356-5275) with any information regarding clown sightings.

Active Endeavors offers some helpful (and punny) advice for these scary times. — photo by Kelli Ebensberger

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