“Masked hysteria” (Clown sightings)


Five weeks ago, I addressed the phantom clown panic in Greenville, S.C. There had been sporadic reports like these since the early 1980s, but this was the first in a few years.

These trends are usually like delivery pizza. Good to consume for a few hours, and under certain conditions, can still be ingested two days later. After that, the pizza becomes unpalatable and the social media trend is supplanted by the next outrage, racial remark, Pop Warner football play, or celebrity mishap.

But like the classic compact car skit, the clowns just keep coming and coming. Even a divisive presidential campaign can’t keep a bad clown down. There have been reported clown sightings in at least a dozen states, and Moline had its first reported sighting yesterday. Despite not knowing the who, when, where, why, or how, the Dispatch-Argus posted this grainy image on its website.

Faux news sites are generating clown stories that get passed around as legitimate. In these hoax articles, the clowns can be either the victims or perpetrators. One story had a clown being gunned down in Indiana, while another article centered on clowns murdering 23 Canadians, as the absurdity assumed an international flavor. One widespread image even appeared on the Tennessee Highway Patrol Facebook page and was supposed to be of a clown that had tried to lure children into the woods. The problem was that the location kept changing depending on where poster sharing the image lived.  

Twitter has a ClownSightings hashtag so people can share photos and videos of menacing Bozos. The photos are often revealed to be downloaded stock footage, while with the moving pictures, it’s impossible to tell if someone happened upon a clown or fabricated the whole shoot.  

Almost every day brings at least one piece of clown news, but in no case has anyone been harmed or abducted. In fact, the only threat seems to be from keyboard warriors who promise to harm, mutilate, or murder any hometown harlequins they come across, dad nab it.

Even a couple of police officers have publicly endorsed the shoot first, ask questions later approach. I suppose a cream pie to their painted face might be acceptable, but how did we get to a state of condoning second-degree murder because someone looks funny?

One update from my previous post is that there now have been nearly 20 arrests, though not usually of clowns. Three were of persons in clown outfits, but most were for filing false reports of said costumed individuals. One young woman made up a story to cover for being late to work. And some teens were caught insinuating that an insane clown posse would swarm their school. Similar online threats were made in Texas, California, and New Jersey, the latter suggesting that a “Wally” was about to go bonkers.

As to the arrested clowns, a Fairmont, W. Va., man was taken into custody after donning a mask and chasing children with a baseball bat. Then two teens in clown masks were arrested for a similar offense perpetrated with sticks.

Those arrests were justified, but people are calling to report the mere presence of a clown, and law enforcement officers are jumping in the Batmobile and chasing these Jokers, then putting out warnings to the public. This raises the matter of what crime is being committed. There are some jurisdictions where covering your face is illegal, and where that’s not the case, prosecutors might be able to finagle a charge of intimidation or something similarly vague.

A man in Middlesboro, Ky., was arrested for simply wearing a clown mask, as a city ordinance prohibits covering one’s face in public. So if seeking a clown career, avoid Middlesboro, and the same goes if desiring employment as a welder or hockey goalie. Meanwhile in Lakeville, N.Y., Christopher Hooper posted a picture of a clown he said he had seen in a park. He cautioned parents to not let their children go out alone or after dark. When it was discovered he had made this up, he was arrested for filing a false report even though he had never contacted law enforcement.

Despite the dubious nature of some of these charges, and despite no one being harmed or threatened, police resources are combating this phantom menace and the public seems mostly supportive. And civilians are not necessarily waiting for the police to respond. An anonymous woman in Auburn, Maine, reported that a clown mouthed the word “bang” at her while driving by and positioning his finger like a gun. She allegedly responded with an authentic firearm, and the car made a speedy getaway, presumably to Yakety Sax. A few days later in Bardstown, Ky., a man fired into the air after mistaking a woman for a clown. “Oh, sorry, Miss, but with your curly orange hair, and me being without my glasses and all.”

Some police seem ready to endorse such vigilantism. In a Dallas suburb, police officer Latrice Pettaway wrote on her personal Facebook page, “Pop a cap in the first clown you see. Someone needs to just hit one and the rest of these fools will learn.” In West Virginia, in the clownish-sounding town of Paw Paw, police chief James Cummings threatened, “If someone sees you dressed like this they have the right to defend themselves. I will stand behind anyone who feels they need to protect themselves from clowns. You should expect for citizens to beat you.”

Though not endorsing this Charles Bronson Death Wish approach, police in Modesta, Calif., nonetheless warned, “If you see individuals dressed as clowns, avoid contact and report the circumstances to us immediately.” “Um, yes officer, I’d like to report a highly Caucasian male with bright red hair and size 25 shoes peaceably assembling. He appears to be searching for some semblance of a life.”

The top non-firearm overreaction goes to the San Jose, Calif., school district for banning Halloween costumes that conceal the wearer’s identity. Why not go all the way and ban candy and any sense of merriment as well?

These aren’t second graders concerned about monsters under their bed. These are persons aged 20 to 60 freaking out about unverified jesters. Even a member of the White House Press Corps asked press secretary Josh Earnest about his take on it. And the Dallas CW affiliate pondered if law enforcement should be tracking sales of clown costumes. “Do you have a license for that comically oversized nose, sir?”

These panics happen all the time, with previous focuses being on witches, Jews, Satanists, communists, Dungeons & Dragons, or heavy metal. The huge difference now is social media. With ease, any prankster can produce an image that gives the satisfaction of instant feedback. Such Tweets and posts are the descendants of campfire stories and sleepover tales, just with a less intimate audience and more imagery.

I liken this to another great farce, Spinal Tap. They were initially a fictitious band, but blurred the lines by releasing albums and touring. Similarly, the clown sightings were at first fabricated, but now seem to have entered a phase where at least a few of the sightings are real. They are being perpetrated by those who want to be part of this insatiable phenomenon, and their antics in turn fuel more anxiety. This is a self-perpetuating phenomenon, and the more it grows, the more people there are that want to pull a prank, pull a hoax, or pull a trigger.

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