What's With The Creepy Clown Sightings? And Why You're Afraid Of Clowns

Oct 20, 2016

People dressed as clowns have been scaring people on streets and forests across the country since August. Earlier this month, there were even sightings in western Washington and Oregon.

KING 5 reports clowns were seen in Tacoma, Spanaway, Graham and South Hill. KUOW described one covered in blood walking around Green Lake in Seattle. Seattle Schools issued a warning to parents.


There was even an attack in Portland. Speaking to Oregon Live, Crystal Foster said while she was in a car, a man wearing a silver clown mask banged on her windows and tried to force open all four doors. She sped away and reported the incident to police.


This year's creepy clown sightings didn’t start in the Pacific Northwest. The first was in Greenville, South Carolina – and way before the Halloween season. In late August, children told their parents clowns offered them money to follow them into a nearby forest. The story gained traction when an apartment manager released a letter to tenants warning of “a clown or person dressed in clown clothing…trying to lure children in the woods.”


Greenville County police have not been able to confirm any of the sightings. Now clowns have been reported in nearly every state, and even in the United Kingdom.


There have only been a few cases of legitimate attacks. KIRO 7 reports that the majority of clown-related arrests have been for making false reports or chasing people while dressed in a clown costume.


Pierce County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Ed Troyce told the Tacoma News Tribune that most of these cases are probably people jumping on the bandwagon.


So why are people afraid of clowns? When did they go from fun, even loveable entertainers to the things nightmares of made of?


Clowns have been around for centuries - even ancient Egypt and Rome had jesters and jokers of their empires.


A real change in perception can be traced back to Joseph Grimaldi, often lauded as the father of the modern-day clown. Grimaldi introduced pantomiming, physical comedy and full, exaggerated face makeup to his character, performing until his death in 1837.


The Smithsonian Magazine reports that Grimaldi’s stage persona – comedic, light-hearted, upbeat – was far different than real life. He grew up with a hostile father, continuously battled depression, lost his son and wife and fought through debilitating physical pain.


Grimaldi had grown so famous in London that his clown persona was closely associated with his being. When his memoirs were published after his death, they depicted a horrifying image of the man underneath the clown makeup: inebriated and wasting away.


At about the same time another clown became immensely popular. Frenchman Jean-Gaspard Deburau also donned white face paint and red lips, and worked mainly through pantomime. After making a name for himself, Deburau killed a boy with his walking stick in 1836, after the boy insulted him on the street.


So, as the Smithsonian Magazine put it, “the two biggest clowns of the early modern clowning era were troubled men underneath that face-paint.”


Add to that serial killer John Wayne Gacy who dressed up as a clown at charitable events, and Stephen King’s It, a demon disguised as a clown to attract children - and there you have the birth of the modern creepy clown.


But a dark undertone has always followed clowns.


As French literary critic Edmond de Goncourt put it in 1876, “[A] clown’s art is now rather terrifying and full of anxiety and apprehension, their suicidal feats, their monstrous gesticulations and frenzied mimicry reminding one of the courtyard of a lunatic asylum.”


A BBC study found that most children (between the ages four and 16) found images of clowns scary. Psychologist Rami Nader told KUOW that about 12 percent of adults are uncomfortable with clowns.

There is a word to describe the fear of clowns: coulrophobic. It's not as widespread as recent reports might suggest. A phobia is a debilitating fear. But people just plain don’t like clowns.