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The “Killer Clown” Phenomenon Takes America by Storm

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In all began on August 20, 2016, when the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina got the first call. An anonymous tipster claimed to spot a suspicious person dressed in clown clothes, with a white painted face, trying to lure children into the woods near Fleetwood Manor Apartments. Then a second anonymous call came in, claiming gunshots were heard in the area. Both callers were uncooperative and refused to give their names.

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Deputies were dispatched and found nothing on the scene. One woman reported that her son had seen several clowns in the woods “whispering and making strange noises,” then flashing green laser lights before they ran away. Her older son told the deputy he had heard chains and banging on the front door of their home that same evening. Yet another resident spotted a large clown standing under a lamppost at 2:30 a.m., his nose blinking in the dark, while he waved at her. A curfew had been imposed. The local media was alerted and the story broke. A week later new reports surfaced, but the police could not locate a single clown in the area.

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The story instantly captivated the nation’s imagination, and new sightings were made, each more freaky that the previous claim. A machete-wielding clown was spotted in Forstyh County, North Carolina. A 20-year man wearing a clown costume while hiding in a ditch was arrested in Middleboro, Kentucky. Another took to Twitter to threaten kidnapping and murder at high schools across Tampa Bay. Social media sightings have whipped up frenzied storms at Penn State, MSU, and Belmont University. Thus far, sightings have been reported in more than two dozen states and across Canada.

The “killer clown” phenomenon has gripped the public imagination, inspiring sightings of “phantom clowns,” hoaxes, and actual acts, including two adults ns five juveniles were arrested in Alabama, facing felony charges for making terrorist threats. Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton told Alabama.com, “We wanted to make an example and crack down on clown-related activity in our city.”

As Halloween approaches, the incidents are being reported with increased frequency, engendering backlash from the professional clown community who have banded together to form “Clown Lives Matter.” “I fear for me life,” Jordan Jones, who works as Snuggles the Clown, told Time. “At the end of the day, people look at me like I’m trying to hurt them. I feel that people are out clown hunting because they think it’s cool now. I’m scared that someone might take a swing.”

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Jones’s fear was not misplaced. Today, the Empire Herald reported the clown-related first death. On Tuesday, October 4, Newark, NJ, police responded to a report of shots fired. The reported to the scene to discover Carlos Mendoza, 31, lying wounded on the entrance ramp of Oraton Parkway by Vailsburg Park. Mendoza, who was dressed in a clown costume, had been shot in the head around 10:30 p.m. He was taken to University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Coulrophobia, or “fear of clowns,” has existed as long as clowns have been around. Clowns are grotesque by design, with exaggerated facial features and body parts in jarring colors. Their comedy uses deformity and aesthetic dischord unnerving effect, while their fashion choices are straight out of a Dust Bowl era hobo’s bag. They tend toward loud and overprounced gestures and aggressiveness, convinced “everyone loves a clown,” when, in fact, many do not.

Perhaps the nail in the coffin of the clown archetype was John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer who sexually assaulted and murdered 33 teenage boys and young men in his home in Cook County, Illinois, between 1972 and 1978. The media dubbed Gacy the “Killer Clown,” after it came to light that he dressed as “Pogo the Clown” for fundraisers, parades, and children’s parties. Gacy was arrested in 1978, tried and convicted in 1980, and put to death by lethal injection in 1994. It is reported his final words were, “Kiss my ass.”

In the early 1980s, a wave of clown sightings gripped the nation once again. Crytozoologist Loren Coleman, who studies the folklore behind mythical beasts like Bigfoot and the Lochness Monster, dubbed this phenomenon “The Phantom Clown Theory.” The theory supposes that many children have a “primal dread” of clowns, which sparks a wave of mass hysteria.

To add fuel to the fire, popular culture loves an evil clown, whether it’s Stephen King’s Pennywise from It, a novel turned into a film, or Ronald McDonald, who shills products that cause real-life illness, as illustrated in Supersize Me. One thing is clear: so long as there are clowns, they will exact fear: it’s the by-product to pushing an archetype is inherently repulsive to many people.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.