From late August to early October of 2016, creepy clowns terrorized civilians in forty-four states. The first clown sighting of the series occurred in Greenville County, South Carolina, where a group of clowns reportedly tried to lure children into the woods with money. Naturally, the Greenville parents panicked, and I do not blame them. I myself would follow a band of sinister clowns into the dark for no less than a million dollars, and even then I would hyperventilate before I could claim my reward. Many others share my fear of clowns, which is perhaps why the mayhem spread so quickly. Within a month, the Greenville clowns inspired many more clown sightings, stretching from the East Coast all the way to Oregon and Washington.
News outlets continued to pick up stories and interview local witnesses, adding to the national collection of conspiracy and controversy. In mid-October, the New York Times asked, “What Do the Scary Clowns Want?” while USA Today asked, “Serious or just a sick joke?” No one cracked the case. As Halloween crept closer, many Americans prepared for a clown invasion—some even armed themselves. In an interview with US News, Palm Bay resident Kimberly Kersey said, “I’m terrified of clowns already and if one messes with me or my kids, it’ll be to the hospital or the morgue they go.” The country anticipated a horror movie climax that never occurred, and the headlines fizzled into silence.
Perhaps stations and papers actively decided to stop covering clown sightings, focusing on new headlines more likely to sell. Or maybe clown sightings stopped altogether. While terror around the clowns subsided in October of 2016, the sightings are not over. In an interview with Bangor Daily News, Stephen King predicted the legacy of clown sightings: “I suspect it’s a kind of low-level hysteria…. The clown furor will pass, as these things do, but it will come back, because under the right circumstances, clowns really can be terrifying.” King would know this better than anyone else; his 1986 novel, It, must have been the muse for some of these creepy clowns.
Though King’s novel, featuring the menacing, child-killing clown, Pennywise, catalyzed many readers’ fear of clowns, King himself did not create the first creepy clown. In an article for TIME, published amid the October sightings, Olivia B. Waxman unpacked the history of scary clowns. She relied on the expertise of English professor Andrew Stott, who argued that we have Charles Dickens to thank for the first terrifying clown. As Stott told Waxman, Dickens’s drunk, sinister clown from the Pickwick Papers “is the blue print” for contemporary clowns. He shared that clowns have “something sinister” about them, “which is absolutely what [today’s] scary clown thing is all about.” Perhaps Stott and King should collaborate on the next clown-thriller, Pennywiser: English professor by day, creepy clown student-killer by night.
As King mentioned, clowns retain a certain timelessness that will outlive the hashtags created in 2016—for example, #notclowningaround. Clowns will always scare those afraid of them, but they became especially terrifying alongside our recent political and cultural anxieties nationwide. Despite the sudden end to the clown sightings in 2016, I disagree with King’s statement that these clowns produce “low-level hysteria.” Civilian responses to clowns tell a different, frightening story. Professor of philosophy Joshua Delpech-Ramey argued that “what is genuinely ‘other’” about clowns “is not another human or a humanity we (tragically) cannot comprehend, but rather an uncanny inhumanity universally present within us.” If we turn our attention away from the clowns and to the civilian hysteria, we begin to question who is scarier—the clowns or us?
In Hampton, Virginia, about an hour drive away from my hometown, a thirteen-year-old girl reached out to a local clown on social media. The Davis Middle School student must have hated her homework assignment, for she requested that the clown kill her teacher. The police did not release her message publicly, so I wonder what she sent the clown: Hey. U look pretty creepy… Ugh I hate my math teacher Mrs. Smith. Can u kill her for me @ 3:25pm tomorrow? That’d be SOOO great. THX! Hampton Police had to take the threat seriously, since the student not only listed the teacher’s full name but also specified a time. Lieutenant Jason Price reported that the student used her personal account on social media, which made identifying her all too easy. They arrested the student and charged her with threatening to kill by electronic message.
In another bizarre interaction with police, Winston-Salem resident David Wayne Armstrong filed a report saying that a clown had knocked on his window. Armstrong, with bushy hair and dark circles under his eyes, somewhat resembles a clown himself. He reportedly chased the clown into the woods. Later, he admitted that he fabricated the entire story, so the Winston-Salem Police charged Armstrong with filing a false report. The Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office made a statement following this event: “We realize that fear regarding incidents involving clowns in South Carolina has spread, and unfortunately, some are using it to play pranks. To many this is not a joking matter. Baseless and false reports take away from the Sheriff’s Office resources and ability to work other criminal investigations.” What motivated Armstrong to lie? Perhaps he wanted a few seconds of fame, or he got caught up in the clown mania. Armstrong has not released a statement to clarify.
Murder threats and false reports related to these clown sightings haunted the country—and so did vigilantism. Students of Pennsylvania State University riled each other up after hearing reports of clown sightings nearby. A rumor spread between them that a clown was hiding on campus, which inspired the students to go on a clown hunt. More than five hundred students flocked the streets. One student, Addison Carson, filmed the stampede and shared the video with a caption: “3 Clowns spotted at PSU allegedly. So naturally 6,000 kids mob the streets to hunt it down. I love Penn State.” Ironically, most of the students in his video ask, clueless, “Why is everyone running?” and “What the fuck is happening?” Gabby Santoliquito filmed her classmate scaling a tree and trying to rally the troops with his battle cry: “Fuck the clowns! Fuck the clowns!” I imagine with horror what would have happened had they found those poor clowns, if they even existed.
Some law enforcement officers share my concern. Around the same time Kimberly Kersey started packing heat to protect herself and her family, the Palm Bay police cautioned those thinking of dawning on a clown mask. Lieutenant Mike Banish released a statement saying, “The problem is that someone dressed like a clown could scare someone and there’s a possibility—a possibility—you could end up with someone getting shot.” Banish’s warning legitimates the threat that vigilantes pose to the clowns, most of whom intend only to taunt and harass but not physically harm. He shows more concern for civilian retaliation than for the fear the clowns instill in the community. After all, the more inhumane humans become, the more human the clowns seem.
In early October, a man named Chris arrived early to a screening of Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of It, but he was not alone. Four rows from the back sat a ghostly clown, holding the string to a single, red balloon. As if that sighting was not creepy enough, the clown eventually stood up and began pacing around the theater. Under the handle @HG_Hohbes, Chris tweeted two pictures of the clown and gathered over one million and two hundred thousand post engagements. Most of Chris’s followers suggested that he flee, but Chris stayed put alone with the clown for ten minutes. He tweeted later, “Had a chat to him, he’s actually alright.” Perhaps Muschietti was right when, during an interview with Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline Hollywood, he said that “clowns can be our friends.”
Only a year has passed since the 2016 clown sighting hysteria, but this new film may jumpstart more sightings and violence today. Maybe, as King suggested, clown furor has come back already. Halloween, after all, is right around the corner.