-By, Juliet Isselbacher
America’s very first clown sighting occurred three decades ago, right here in Massachusetts; in 1981, Brookline children reported that a clown attempted to lure them into his van with candy. The subsequent wave of purported sightings died down within a month, only to be revived in 1985, 1991, and, now, in 2016.
Some type of comic entertainer can be identified in almost every culture. Take, for example, the jester YuSze who amused Imperial Chinese emperors, or the fool stupidus who delighted Ancient Roman rulers. Yet the first true antecedent of our modern clown was Joseph Grimaldi, who diverted the masses in nineteenth century London. Grimaldi, who suffered from depression, alcoholism, and constant bodily pain, would tell his audiences, “I am grim all day, but I make you laugh at night.” Charles Dickens took on the project of Grimaldi’s memoir, in which he examined the dissonance between the man’s internal suffering and external humor. This “straddling of opposites” –which Freud would define as “unheimlich,” or uncanny– triggers, in most people, powerful feelings of unease and discomfort. Dickens thus introduced a degree of creepiness into the public’s conception of clowns.
But clowns only began to invite real suspicion in the 1990s, when John Wayne Gacy, who often donned the persona of Pogo the Clown, was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing dozens of young men. Before his arrest, Gacy remarked to police, “You know…clowns can get away with murder.”
“The Great Clown Scare of 2016” began in August, when children in South Carolina reported that clowns had attempted to lure them into the woods with flashing green lights. Sightings soon swept across most American states, nine Canadian provinces, and eighteen other countries, including Australia, Mexico, and Germany. Many chalk this clown scare up to mass hysteria. Yet perhaps these sightings should not be entirely dismissed as harmless hoaxes: some have forced school closings and resulted in arrests, while others have been linked to robberies, assaults, and the fatal stabbing of a sixteen year old boy. The Clown Scare has even prompted a comment from White House press secretary John Earnest, who assured reporters, “Obviously, this is a situation that local law enforcement authorities take quite seriously. And they should carefully and thoroughly review perceived threats to the safety of the community, and they should do so prudently.”
Predicting that pranksters would dress as clowns on Halloween, some Americans resolved to arm themselves before trick-or-treating. “I’ll be carrying for sure,” reported one Florida resident. “I’m terrified of clowns already and if one messes with me or my kids it’ll be to the hospital or morgue they go.” Halloween indeed proved scary for many: Margaret Michalowski ’17 shared, “On Halloween, I was chased by a clown with a chainsaw…It was pretty terrifying, since it’s impossible to tell the difference between a kid trying to scare people and a real threat.” That’s why, in fact, police across the country warned people against dressing as clowns on the holiday, even with the threat of criminal prosecution and civil liability.
“Only in America,” sighed the President of the World Clown Association.