August 2016: a young boy in Greenville, South Carolina tells his mother that two men, dressed as clowns, attempted to trick him into following them to an abandoned house at the end of his garden. A sinister enough beginning to the emergence of an ominous global trend.
Sightings in North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and New York swiftly followed; and then in the United Kingdom and Australia. A seemingly endless torrent of makeup-clad individuals appearing and disappearing, invading schools, emerging under street lights. A far cry from the traditional court jester or Pierrot of Commedia dell’arte theatre. Why now? And why do we find them so sinister?
On the face of it, the reasons for fear of these clowns may seem obvious. The clowns present an ambiguous threat, appearing as if from nowhere. Their anonymity leaves them seemingly free from experiencing the consequences of their actions. The shared uniform of the clown is a crucial element of their fear-inducing nature, perhaps in part due to the unity between the broader clown group that this seems to breed. An isolated case, such as that of Donna Arnold and her son, mentioned above, would have been menacing enough, but this disorganized, yet seemingly united, front of deviancy is enough to cause the global pandemic of fear that we have seen in the last few months.
While the motives of the clowns are unclear on an individual scale, there is a rich history of semi-anonymous organized groups with more explicit motives who are worth thinking about by way of comparison. Foremost amongst 21 st century anonymous groups is, well, Anonymous.
Originally formed on internet message board 4chan, Anonymous is a self-described “internet gathering”whose focus is loosely based on anarchic hacking of targeted organizations to enact social change. Infamous for their association with the stylized Guy Fawkes mask as made famous by V for Vendetta, they share several key elements with the clowns (although I hasten to add, not in terms of enacting physical violence). First, their anonymity (both online, and afforded by masks in public) is, counterintuitively, a tool for forming a cohesive group. Second, their aims and goals are often diffuse and hard to grasp.
Grouped loosely around issues of social justice, Anonymous has targeted child pornography websites, ISIS and Sony with equal vitriol. This justice focus distinguishes them from the clowns, with a motivation to destroy global corporations whose work is considered immoral by the broader Anonymous group. The clowns do not seem to share this inclination toward a targeted focus—their attacks, on the rare instance that they have happened, have been almost at random.
This is a key component of why such a group is fearful. What the clowns and Anonymous do share is a particular brand of “otherness” and desire to be seen as a deviant minority. Where Anonymous eschews broader societal norms and regulations to a specific end, the clowns take a more turbulent approach to disregarding generic societal expectations.
I use Anonymous as a comparison group purely for their 21 st century relevance, when really many other historical “others” could take their place. The important point to focus upon is the clowns’ very “otherness” as a crucial component of why they are feared. Anonymous, by threatening their practice and disregarding conventional means to achieve their aims, are feared by those who enact distasteful online (and real world) business. The clowns are feared by society because they present a public threat and disregard for societal norms, particularly in reference to the invasion of personal and private space.
I have made reference to the idea of “otherness” several times in this article. Historically, we have seen minority groups targeted for their very “otherness,” often on illegitimate grounds. Persecution and alienation often result from a group sharing characteristics perceived to be different from those of the majority. Nowhere is this clearer in our current world than in global panic over immigration. Immigrants are denigrated as a broad group (“immigrant” is hardly specific of course) and feared as a representation of “them” in a classical “us vs. them” scenario.
At every turn in the contemporary western world we are reminded to be fearful of invasion from the other—the migrant knocking on your door asking for refuge, the “Marxist” politician threatening a polite liberal status quo – the clowns are merely the logical end point of this deluge of “otherness.” Again, I stress that the clowns are not comparable to the complex issues surrounding immigration, but the psychological processes guiding our fear and attempts to understand (and then remove) them certainly are.
Crucially, what sets apart the clowns is the self-proclaimed nature of their “otherness.” Prejudice, fear and discrimination are not the goals of most minority groups. The clowns on the other hand, seem to thrive upon instilling fear in the general public driven entirely by this “otherness,” their deviance from societal norms and their anonymity. Is it really a surprise that such a group would emerge now by comparison to any other point in human history? The very idea of the clown in traditional theatre was to hold up a mirror to the human condition, at which point the viewer must laugh, or cry. Circus clowns breed chaos in an unconventional domain where the rules of the outside world do not apply. The current breed of clowns seems set on doing something similar—although admittedly, somewhat less concerned about holding up this satirical mirror and more focused on disregarding societal conventions to create a bubbling undercurrent of fear.
In the above article we have tried to present an understanding of why the clowns are feared. Rather than a focus on childhood trauma, we present an alternate case where the clowns are a minority deviant group who buck societal conventions in a complicated social world. They take the anonymous collective model of groups like Anonymous and twist it out of shape to suit their own seemingly random purposes. So, where does this end? Well, if we follow the argument that the clowns are a self-professed minority group with a disdain for social cohesiveness, it is likely that they will become victims of prejudice and active discrimination. Indeed, we have already seen attacks on clowns in public places—and it wouldn’t surprise me if such a pattern escalates to vigilante violence. While on the surface an unnerving phenomenon, the clown “pandemic” presents a fascinating insight into “otherness” in a confusing and complicated world. It is worth considering the clowns as a loose allegory for why we fear “the other” and what this can tell us about the ways in which society treats such groups.
Luke McGuire is a PhD student at Goldsmiths, University of London working under the supervision of Professor Adam Rutland. His work focuses on how moral development is influenced by our membership of social groups.