Creepy Clowns Explained, Folklore-Style

 

Creepy clown hysteria is all over my social media feeds, and I figure, what use is a Ph.D. in folklore if not to break down the most entertaining and pervasive urban legend* I’ve seen in years?

Urban legend? You cry. This isn’t an urban legend. The White House addressed it. Schools have gone on lockdown. Time covered it.  There are videos on twitter. Creepy Clowns have actually been arrested. Stephen King’s tweet, for crying out loud!

It’s an urban legend, up there with alligators in the NYC sewers and urine in Corona bottles. It’s absolutely textbook.

The textbook in question is Jan Harold Brunvand’s “The Vanishing Hitchhiker,” which isn’t the most recent academic book on urban legends (hey, 1981), but it’s the most influential. You can pull the main defining qualities of an urban legend from pages 3 and 4 of my paperback copy. According to Brunvand, the defining qualities of an urban legend are:

  • they are believed to be true.
  • the stories gain credibility from specific details of time and place or from reference to source authorities.
  • the event they describe happened recently and often nearby (though the geographic element is more metaphorical than literal nowadays; Brunvand wrote this in 1981, pre-internet-as-a-mode-of-everyday-information-sharing). Often, in the telling, the event itself happened to a friend of a friend or something similar (a coworker of a cousin, aunt of a neighbor). Folklorists use the acronym FoaF all the time when talking about urban legends–it’s that common.

Most of my encounters with this creepy clown craze have been on social media, both in people’s descriptions of their experiences with and their fears of the creepy clowns and in the media stories that people have linked, and these items always apply. Here’s my favorite one, used with permission from the person whose page it was on, with names blurred out to protect the innocent:

clowns-1.gifclowns2.gifclowns3.gifclowns4.gifclowns5.gif

Comparing that with Brunvand’s list:

Believed to be real: check. A number of people in this comment thread clearly take the threat of creepy clown attacks very seriously.

Gains authority from specific times and places and references to source authorities: check. See: “reports from school principals and other sources… in our area,” and the other one that references a sighting “close to us… last week.”

FoaF: SO MUCH THIS. “[Name] has seen two sightings close to us… last week.” “[Name] told me yesterday that an unknown suspect was driving…” Note that nobody in the thread claims to have seen a creepy clown directly. There’s always a degree of remove involving a person not immediately present to give their account of events.

Another urban legend hallmark:  they tend to contain an element that’s… hard to believe. How many of us have believed stories about people getting drugged in nightclubs and waking up in hotels minus a kidney, never mind the fact that for a person to wake up, unaided, from a kidney removal would require complex anaesthesiology and sophisticated medical equipment? (I’ve got a long list of these. I wrote up four more and then deleted them for length.)

You can see, in that facebook exchange, that people believe in the clowns, but… nervously. Almost apologetically. “I know you’re probably laughing,” says one person. “Shoot it. Mock it. Shoot it again,” says another — a sentence that can be read, per your preference, as joke or a literal threat.

People sort of believe the story, but then, they sort of don’t, probably because they know there’s something of the horror-movie ridiculous to it. And as far as I can tell, there are no accounts of these creepy clowns delivering more than threats and scares.

“But Sarah!” you say. “People have been arrested dressed up like clowns! Creepy clowns have made threats on social media!”

Yes.  We could quibble over the likelihood that a person who announces an intent to commit a crime on Facebook really wants to commit the crime or whether they just want to scare people and get arrested. But regardless, creepy clowns are doing creepy things. And the reason for that is called ostension, which is the academic term for, basically, acting out legends. More specifically, for re-telling legends by acting them out.

The behavior follows the story, not the other way around. The reason we have people being creepy clowns now is that we already had narratives about creepy clowns. People acting like creepy clowns are, in their own way, retelling a story that existed before them.

I haven’t read Bad Clown by folklorist Benjamin Radford (though he’s published some good stuff in the past, so I’m inclined to guess that it’s good), but in this CNN article, he points out that the scary clown stories we’re hearing right now aren’t new: they’ve been around since the 80s, at least. It’s not unlike how the urban legends about AIDS in the 90s (remember those? Intentional infections by needle-sticks in nightclubs or in the change compartment of a Coke machine, or by predatory women coercing family men into extramarital sex? were updated versions of contagion narratives as old as the black death.

So here’s the TL;DR question: if this narrative has existed since the 80s, why the hell are people latching onto it right now?

And that’s the million-dollar question we’d need ethnographers to figure out. Brunvand theorized, in Vanishing Hitchhiker, that urban legends took hold because they spoke, in some way, to popular fear associated with some kind of cultural change. (My gloss, here, not his words.) It’s a theory that’s a bit simplistic, but mostly makes sense. AIDS urban legends don’t circulate now they way they did in the 90s probably because we understand AIDS better now than we did then, and we have effective treatments for controlling it, so we don’t fear it the way we used to.

Based on that CNN article–and I really should read his book–Radford’s taking the Brunvand route, attributing the clown craze to anxieties associated with our local and global political climate. He talks about fear of terrorism and fear of school shootings, too. Someone in that facebook post above talks about how the scary thing with clowns is that you never know who’s behind the makeup. You never know which sweet-faced kid in your daughter’s class might bring a gun to school. Stephen King’s “most of ’em are good” is the kind of thing that people say in response to Islamophobia. The problem with an Islamist terrorist is the terrorist part, not the Islam part. The problem with a creepy clown is the creepy part, not the clown part. Some folks would say that clowns are, by definition, creepy. But some folks would say that Muslims are, by definition…

(And just to be clear on my stance here: those people would be absolutely wrong. And the folks whom I know from the facebook thread up there would agree with me. There’s parallelism, not equivalence, between the narratives.)

My hypothesis (not theory — just the hypothesis I’d try to test if I were turning this into research) is that the creepy clown narrative has latched on right now because of a cultural encouragement to fear smiling, unfamiliar faces. Fear the smiling Syrian refugee who says she’s trying to escape war, because she might actually be a terrorist. Fear the friendly neighborhood gay man, because he might be a pedophile. (To be clear, I subscribe to neither of those fears). It’s an election year, so we’re being inundated by people making promises they probably can’t deliver and fostering in us the fears that encourage us to align with their respective political camps.

I mean, I think Donald Trump is enormously terrifying and kind of a clown.

 

 

 

*Fellow folklorists: yes, we can pick apart the accuracy of the term “urban legend” to describe this kind of phenomenon until I’m grey. This is a blog post; KISS property applies, let’s roll with it.

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