The clown craze that has spooked the U.S. and the world will soon go away, but not before wreaking more havoc on Halloween, experts predict.
What began in August with clowns luring kids into the woods in Greenville, South Carolina, quickly spread globally — courtesy of the internet.
“These sorts of fads are self-limiting,” Radford said in an interview. “Like all fads, they burn themselves out. People want novelty. They get bored when it’s no longer a novel. Some people get arrested and they say, ‘you know what?’ we are moving on here.”
Based on media reports across the country, the so-called fad has led to clown sightings in 48 states of varying levels of severity, Business Insider reported, from citations or arrests to school lockdowns, closures and attempted kidnappings.
“Even though this is the first time most people have heard about it, this is not the first time this has happened,” Radford said. “It’s just the highest profile.”
Radford credited social media for amping up the phenomenon as copycats, hoaxers and pranksters posted photos and videos of scary clowns on social media channels accessible to viewers around the digital world.
“Twenty years ago, it would have taken a couple months or maybe years to spread from one city to another, or maybe even to another country,” Radford said. “These days, with a couple clicks of a mouse, it goes overnight.”
It’s clear the internet has changed the game and extended the playing field. But why now?
“One of the reasons this is happening now has to do with latent social anxiety,” Radford said. “We are in the middle of a contentious presidential election. Many people are concerned. There is a role of social anxiety that I think can crystallize into these clown panics. That sounds weird, but this has happened before in the 1980s.”
In the spring of 1981, a wave of clown sightings — dubbed "The Phantom Clown Scare" — swept the nation, starting in Massachusetts where clowns were reported to have tried to lure kids into vans with candy.
By the end of that year, the phantom clown reports began to fade, though they would resurface again in later years following similar patterns.
Radford and other experts expect the same cycle this time around as the last month before the election, Hurricane Matthew and other more pressing national issues draw attention away from the recent clown panic.
Rami Nader, a Canadian psychologist from North Vancouver whose practice is treating anxiety and anxiety disorders, said coulrophobia (the irrational fear of clowns), isn’t so much about clowns as it is about antisocial behavior and the ambiguity of appearances.
“(Clowns are) the vehicle that these antisocial folks are using to scare people and participate in the trendy thing that’s happening now," he said, "But Americans need to focus on what a clown actually is and the context in which you are interacting with a clown."
Twelve percent of the population reports being uncomfortable with clowns, which Nadar believes is not an insignificant number.
He attributes the painted-on, artificial facial expression of a clown to why people get so creeped out. The artificial appearance creates ambiguity because on the surface, it looks like the clown is smiling but what lurks beneath the smile is unknown.
“There is a discrepancy between what it’s presenting versus what it may be feeling,” Nader said. “You don’t know what the clown is thinking or what it feels. That ambiguity and a sense of what is real is a big part of what drives people’s discomfort with clowns."
Nader pointed out this does not mean that 12 percent of people have a phobia of clowns. He said there is a difference between being anxious about something and something causing distress and interference in a person’s life.
“Clowns are just people who are just dressed up,” Nader said. “They are not necessarily inherently dangerous. There is nothing creepy about them other than the meanings you put on them.”
It's important for parents to explain that distinction to their trick-or-treaters who will see others dressed up as clowns.
Parents should also be cautious, according to Dr. David Anderegg, a psychologist and author of "Worried All the Time: Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It."
"Parents should continue to do what parents do, which is be vigilant, but not hypervigilant," Anderegg told CNN. "Let kids go out and about. There's no need to be overly suspicious, but certainly continue to teach kids not to accept things from strangers or be alone with strangers."
Amy Inverson, a columnist with deseretnews.com, advised parents to talk with their kids about the consequences of spreading rumors of clown sightings via social media.
"Children need to understand there will be consequences for their actions, even and especially on social media," she wrote. "Making a threat against others or a school is never OK, even if a student claims they are just kidding."
Dangers of overreacting
What Nader finds most intriguing about the recent phenomenon is the psychological makeup of those dressing up as the clowns.
“They are going out there intentionally to scare people,” he said. "It’s kind of a form of psychological assault.”
Nader believes these clowns are mostly males who have an antisocial bent. When they decide to stir up trouble by scaring and upsetting people, you get groups coming together saying "enough with it."
At Penn State University earlier this month, students formed a mob on campus after hearing about a nearby clown sighting, the Daily Collegian reported, whipped up during a rally that turned into a hunt-down-the-clown event.
This might be considered comical for some, while it may be a serious coping mechanism for others.
“They essentially say, 'Look this is not funny,' and put a stop to it,” Nader said. “We are essentially going to be vigilantes and go after the people — not necessarily clowns — who are trying to enact psychological harm upon others."
Radford fears an overreaction backfiring, sending the wrong message to children.
Multiple schools, including one in Alabama and another in Edmonton, Canada, went on lockdown because of clown threats. Radford said such a reaction can conflict with parents trying to calm their children with assurances that the threats were just rumors or a hoax and that clowns aren't inherently scary.
“What this can do is legitimize the threat in the public’s mind,” Radford said.
“I hope that parents and others will take a step back and recognize virtually all of what we are seeing are teenagers doing pranks,” Radford said. “They are hoaxes by kids. Behind all the smoky mirrors, or underneath the grease paint and the fright wig, if you will, there is not actually one or more going around trying to kill or abduct kids. They just aren’t.”
Radford, however, understands local school and police are in an impossible situation. As the Deseret News reported, law enforcement is having trouble deciphering legitimate, credible threats from hoaxes, thanks to the frenzy social media has created.
“You can’t ignore it,” Radford said. “What if you’re wrong? What if you say, 'don’t worry about it' and sure enough, some idiot shows up at a school wearing a clown mask and carrying a machete. The chances of it actually happening are slim to none, but they get criticized either way.
“They are criticized for underreacting or overreacting. It’s a no-win situation. So of course, they are going to err on the side of caution.”
Although the phenomenon will soon end, it will eventually reappear, Radford predicted.
“There will be another clown panic outbreak following similar patterns to what we saw this time. It will probably be less dramatic than what we are going through now, but they will be back. There is no doubt about that."
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