There have been reports from Greenville, S.C., in the last month about a clown attempting to lure children into the woods. Unlike claims of aliens or Elvis doing the same, this claim is believable and there have been multiple children and at least one adult who reported the incident, so there is probably some merit to the notion of clowns (or possibly multiple harlequins) in the woods.
However, I want to address the intent of those clowns, which admittedly involves some speculation. This is different from citing the scientific implausibility of applied kinesiology or pointing out inconsistencies of 9/11 Truthers.
Clown sightings in unexpected places have happened every few years in the U.S. and Europe since the early 1980s. Most of these reports turned out to be pranks, publicity stunts, fabrications, and even one instance of a photo essay being produced. The only crime ever associated with a roving band of jesters was when a 90-year-old Paris woman had her money snatched at an ATM from two men in clown masks, who were likely wearing them for concealment.
However, third- and fourth- hand reports of clown sightings aren’t suggesting they are movie promos, photo shoots, or senior muggings. Invariably, children are the target. Criminal clowns are the latest anonymous boogeymen out to snatch grade schoolers, following the terrifying trail blazed by witches, demons, homosexuals, and Satanists.
In the most recent case, the children suspected the clowns lived in a house near a pond and trail, but a police search of the area turned up nothing suspicious, jester-related or otherwise. The most specific account came from ABC News, which interviewed a woman who said she investigated a report and saw several clowns in the woods flashing green lasers. Child abductors don’t normally work in teams or employ light tricks, so the culprits were most likely bored high schoolers who became wannabe kidnappers after enough retellings.
No one was hurt, grabbed, or even touched, which makes this incident consistent with about a half dozen similar clown stories over the last 35 years. The first U.S. report seems to have been in 1981, in Brookline, Mass. In this version, clowns used candy to attempt and lure children into a van. In nearby Boston the next day, reports of children being bothered by clowns while walking to school surfaced. Police investigations turned up nothing and this set the pattern for every abduction-by-clown report since. The trend goes as follows: A child reports being approached by a clown, parents freak, warnings are issued, media outlets stoke the fear, and law enforcement comes up empty. No child is ever harmed, no suspect ever identified.
There are solid reasons to doubt whether kidnapping is the motive of clowns spotted outside of circus tents. First, child abductors prefer to be inconspicuous and stealthy, two qualities missing in someone with enormous yellow shoes, a bright red nose, and towering orange hair. Second, none of these alleged abduction reports have been successful, nor are there any instances of genuine kidnappers acknowledging they used this method. The only murderous clown ever verified was John Wayne Gacy, and he did not perform his deeds in costume, nor was he targeting little children, though some of his victims were teens.
Some of the scary clown tales have their genesis in an older child attempting to frighten younger ones. This same ploy is sometimes done with monsters or giants, and in these instances, parents can placate the fear. But when the perpetrator is a clown, this is believable, so the parents might instead spread the fear. Details are enhanced and the danger increases as the anecdote spreads from person to person. Even if the tale has a basis in reality, it can be exaggerated in retellings, either for effect or out of panic. But for these panicked versions to be true, there would need to be a series of nefarious clowns out there, who are incompetent at abduction, yet extremely proficient at escape.
Folklorists Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith assert that the clown panic was born in an urban legend initially circulated among children, and eventually fueled by parents in a time when there was no Snopes to squelch it. Today’s pranksters likely got the idea from this legend, and while these clown clones may be out only to get their jollies, motivation becomes irrelevant when panic spreads.
Part of the reason for the fright is location. Genuine clowns are performers that need an audience and spotlight, and for a clown to be alone in the dark contradicts that. The notion of someone dressed as a clown being a danger to children is also bolstered by circus clowns often failing so miserably at their jobs. While their role is to amuse children, a majority of preschoolers are instead frightened by the exaggerated features, strange colors, and over-the-top antics.
Another factor is the change in how clowns have been portrayed in pop culture. The 1940s gave us Emmett Kelly, the 1950s featured Bozo and Clarabell, and the 1960s saw the advent of Ronald McDonald. But there was a radical shift by the early 1980s. Now, clowns were more likely to be an animated doll pulling a boy under the bed in Poltergeist or terrifying Losers Club members in It. Less-known joyless jesters were portrayed in Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Clownhouse. This abrupt shift in portrayal matches neatly with the reports of clowns like the one in South Carolina. So while some of these events are probably happening, they are likely the result of successful pranksters, not unsuccessful predators.