Clown Hysteria in the Cycle of Moral Panic

by Matthew Chase

In the true spirit of Halloween, the sensationalized hysteria around the recent “creepy clown” sightings happening across the United States have been reaching new heights. News coverage on this nationwide phenomenon emerged back in late August, in Greenville County, Southern Carolina. The local sheriff’s department had received reports from residents at an apartment complex regarding the sighting of people dressed as clowns seeking to lure children into the nearby woods, at a house by the pond. Although the reports have so far been unsubstantiated, it nonetheless caused a growing fear within the community. It is a fear that has quickly spread like wildfire with similar sightings and incidents across several states like Florida and Colorado.

It is very important to note that most of the recent clown sightings being reported have been unsubstantiated or otherwise turned out to be hoaxes and pranks.  As of late September, at least 12 people have been charged with making false police reports or threats, or terrorizing people mainly to perpetuate the cycle of fear. The use of social media has been prolific in contributing to the rise in hoaxes and pranks.

It is not to suggest that all of the sightings have been unfounded. A few reports have been verified by police. For example, a young Kentucky man was arrested and charged for disorderly conduct by dressing as a clown with a bloody mask while walking in the woods next to an apartment complex at night. Although there is some truth to a few out of the many reports surfacing over the last few months, it does not warrant the gratuitous amount of media coverage and fear mongering by people of influence.

To put it more into perspective, the “many” sightings across the nation really only amounts to over a hundred reports across multiple states, with only a handful of them being verified. In most cases, the source of the report mainly involved youth dressing up as clowns or calling the police with a fake story. Some have indeed caused schools to go into lockdown due to a few students making threats of violence over social media, using the fears around these clown sightings to generate terror. None of these threats have actually turned out to be credible. Criminologist and sociology professor, Scott Bonn, told Time: “It’s an adrenaline rush. It’s a party. It’s a game.” It is likely that these hoaxes and pranks are largely symptomatic of the hysteria, seeking to feed off the public fears and media sensationalism.

Perhaps more interesting than the possible reasons for people to dress up as clowns to terrorize others are the public responses to the phenomenon, which has reached a point of unnecessary hyper-vigilance. Locals have taken to arming themselves with guns to fend off possible clowns in their area. Schools have prohibited their students from wearing clown costumes at school events. A large crowd consisting of more than 500 Pennsylvania State University students organized a hunt in the streets on October 4, 2016, searching for a clown that had been allegedly sighted as “on the loose” earlier that day near campus. Michigan State University students also joined in on the clown hunting after a Photoshopped picture was shared on social media of a clown with black balloons walking near a campus cafeteria. Even McDonald’s has recently decided to limit the public appearances of their own franchise clown icon, Ronald McDonald, at community events in light of the national climate.

While we should not condone the use of terror at any level or capacity, we also need to reexamine our own fears and how we are responding to them. The few substantiated cases of criminal activity cannot justify a nationwide panic. Unfortunately, this kind of societal overreaction is not a new phenomenon. This clown hysteria is more than likely a product of a moral panic. A moral panic is defined as a fear-driven public awareness of an issue created between moral entrepreneurs and the mass media. Moral entrepreneurs, put simply, are ones in official positions of influence regarding social norms and morality (e.g., school administrators, politicians, police, celebrities, social organizations, etc.). It is not to imply that this phenomenon is entirely to blame on police and schools. In fact, many police departments and school districts across the country are trying to assuage public fears and inform that these reports are mostly unfounded. Yet we still need to take our participation in the hysteria into account, by critically assessing how we might be resolving the panic and also how we might be reproducing it. Both public officials and the mass media outlets continue to engage in the panic despite the lack of solid evidence to justify the national response.

Other notable examples of moral panics in the United States include the satanic panic of the 1980s and 1990s,  and the recent public scares regarding transgender bathroom laws. These moral panics seek to increase public emotion around an issue, often for the purpose of reinforcing societal rules by way of hyper-criminalization, fear mongering, and normalizing prejudices. The underlying motivations for such panics are often embedded in larger social issues such as racial tensions, terrorism, and social anxieties toward immigrants. It is the modern age of folklore in many ways as much of our fear is being perpetuated by rumors and mass misinformation. Sociologist Robert Bartholomew told The Guardian that the current clown panic is the result of a national fear of otherness, playing as “part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers and terrorists in an increasingly urban, impersonal, and unpredictable world.” This fear extends toward all who might be considered strange, different, and other.  He also notes the pervasive power of social media in proliferating moral panics at the global scale in this day and age. The clown scare has even reached other countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

We are feeding the monsters that we actively create and fear, concealing the real horrors beneath the panics. They often serve to distract us from the more meaningful issues to be addressed in society, such as institutional racism and the sexual harassment and violence against women. Consider how one woman sought to organize a “peace march” under Clown Lives Matter, which would imply that the clown hysteria is somehow equivalent to the police killings of blacks and the general abuse of people of color. Such panics appeal to our emotional reactions, so we must exercise our intellectual and critical abilities in order to meaningfully confront the true monsters of inequality terrorizing us every day.


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