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The Great Clown Panic of 2016

Emma Frank


Ok, so why were there killer clowns in 2016?


I’m sure “The Great Clown Panic of 2016” was something we all can remember, even if faintly, as a distant memory or what feels more like a fever dream. At the time, the news would report a growing amount of stray clown sightings with suspicion but more so laughability, but the people I knew showed more fear. Among my primary school companions, there was talk of the clowns spreading their ring to Australia by late October. America’s problems that we usually revel in were now our own. That year, I went trick or treating with my 6th grade friends, protected only with a kitchen knife tucked inside the backpack of one of my more unsupervised friends. Halloween was the night of the clown mass attack, forewarned by every trashy news outlet, but to our surprise, nothing happened. Clown sightings grew sparser and soon after, it was forgotten. To this day we never got an answer: was it a cult? a prank? Or just mass hysteria?


Well, today I will investigate “The Great Clown Panic of 2016”: a retrospective.


The Paranoia

Although not the first sighting, the Wisconsin clown (seen below) was arguably the catalyst of the hysteria. Photos of a lone clown roaming the Green Bay area, Wisconsin, began circulating the world wide web on August 1st, 2016. It was later revealed these photos were a marketing stunt for the short film “Gags” which was released a few years later. Still, Fox News and other very reliable (and not at all Murdoch-ed) new sources were making noise, and they couldn’t get enough.



Online clown sightings popped up left and right, from South Carolina, to Georgia, to Florida, then seemingly the clowns packed their suitcases and were jet-set for Scotland, Australia and 17 other countries. Here was the idea: these clowns were hellbent on luring children into the woods; conducting their regime through an internationally linked ring of killer clowns, they had eyes everywhere, walking and living among us, waiting for their next victim. Okay, well, not really. For the most part, in high-clown-sighting areas there were more arrests for false reports than for clowns walking the streets. The thing is the clowns didn’t really do much, aside from a few robberies and “clown bomb threats” (whatever that means: is the clown the bomber? Is the clown the bomb? Does a clown come out of the bomb?). In all the viral videos the clowns were just standing there, maybe waving or slowly approaching a much faster moving vehicle. We didn’t know what they wanted – and that was the scariest part. It’s something we’ve never had to consider before: what do you do when faced with a clown staring at you, leering from the other side of a dark street. What happens next?


The Consequences

In early October 2016 in Varbeng, Sweden, a teenager was stabbed by a man wearing a clown mask, marking a more sinister turn of events. As hysteria spread, many stores pulled down their clown memorabilia and costumes for the Halloween season. Even Ronald McDonald took a step back, taking an early retirement from McDonald’s image. Many professional clowns were out of work, some even being harassed. Some eager individuals took to “clown hunts”, herding their frats and swinging their makeshift weapons towards an absent enemy. In Pennsylvania, 16-year-old Christian Torres, wearing a clown mask perched atop his head, was stabbed to death for creating a “neighbourhood controversy” in a moment of paranoia and frenzy from the attacker. This event initially contributed to fear as it was reported incorrectly as “clown masked attacker stabs 16-year-old boy”, instead. Online threats foreshadowed a clown purge on Halloween Eve. The night the clown revolution was to reign supreme, amounted to the lone attack of a Floridian family at the hands of a mob of twenty pathetic people in clown masks.


Was it a hoax or a genuine threat?

As rumours do, it all fizzled out; the clowns retired to hiding, they had gone home to their families, returned to their 9-5s and went back to their university dorms to live quietly. In reality, most of the identified clowns were people who capitalised on the hysteria to scare some kids. For some people, it was for a laugh, a chance to feel powerful or maybe even get famous. Still the threat of danger was understandable as some attacks were violent. Overall, the surge of clowns can be attributed to prank YouTubers pumping out clown “sightings” (to get famous) and copycat clowns, along with violent people who did want to hurt others under the guise of unbelievability. However, all these efforts were erratic and random, each with individual motivation, and without collective purpose. It was likely largely catastrophised on social media and through misinformation in reporting. If there truly was an underground clown society they certainly wouldn't try very hard to actively terrorize us (and that is NOT a challenge to any clowns reading this).


2016 was packed to the brim with unrest: the Syrian Civil War, the Zika virus emerging, several mass shootings, including the tragic terrorist attack at the Orlando Nightclub. All this solidifying by October, with Trump’s looming presence over American politics, accompanied by his “post-truth world” where any allegation would be dismissed as “fake news”. Mass hysteria blossoms in uncertainty - when xenophobia is the standard, excitement and community can be found in paranoia. Did we orchestrate this ourselves? With every anxiety, measure and news story fuelling the fire, ultimately, constructing a narrative based around a mere misunderstanding. Anyway, here’s to the retirement of the clowns! May it be long lasting and prosperous!



If you want to learn more, Atlas Obscura has a map marking all the Clown Sightings in the USA (with explanations) and Izzzyzzz on YouTube has a video on the matter.








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