Saturday, October 8, 2016
The Great Creepy Clown Panic of 2016
Up until Thursday, when my boss asked me to look into the creepy clown phenomenon, I had studiously avoided the subject, just because it seemed one of those scraped-from-the-corners-of-the-Internet kind of things. In mid-August someone dressed as a clown tried to lure children into the woods in South Carolina — maybe — the thing got on the Internet, where all sorts of scary clown videos and reports sprouted like mushrooms after a rain. Maybe a prankish teenager or two or 10 jumped the gun on Halloween and wore masks to frighten younger children, and a squad of Barney Fife police chiefs in various Hickburgs dutifully issued press releases and threatened any Bozos who would use their face paint and rubber nose to cause alarm to steer clear of their particular Mayberry.
It did not add up to anything significant, in my view, except for connoisseurs of mass delusions. I am neither frightened nor intrigued by clowns. They just seem another inexplicably popular and widespread phenomena, like stock car racing.
But I am nothing if not a dutiful employee, and if my boss wants me to "find one of these scary clown guys," that's exactly what I would attempt to do. Looking online, I saw the outlines of what seemed a classic case of hysteria—children seeing things—given a 21st century twist as the sparks of immature fancy were been fanned into a brushfire by the Internet.
"These are illusionary clowns," I told my boss. "They don't exist in the living world."
Except. One college student detained by security at University of Illinois—Chicago. There was a photo of his apprehension, though he explained that he was a "performance artist" doing some innocent, non-threatening activity, and they let him go. That seemed a good inroad into this nonsense. I phoned U of I and invited them to reach out to this unnamed student and offer him a chance to tell his tale of miscommunication, perhaps plug his particular brand of art (which, to be honest, I also doubted the existence of, assuming that "performance artist" was the lame excuse this mope blurted out upon apprehension).
But nothing was forthcoming from the school. I considered going to campus and poking around but, to be honest, that did not seem smart use of my time.
My boss was disappointed.
"I'd like to talk to one of these guys to understand why they thrill themselves by scaring people," he said.
I almost said, "Who doesn't?" I'm the guy who told my boys there was a monster living in our basement (in my defense, it was a scary, perhaps dangerous basement, and I was trying to forestall their exploring it). I also seem to recall telling a tentful of sleepover boys the "Hook" story and then returning to rake my fingernails along the side of the tent. It's the sort of thing people are doing now with clown masks and finding themselves subject to arrest.
I did observe that the Guardian had actually dispatched a reporter to South Carolina, as Ground Zero for the Clown Epidemic. No clowns were found, but a lengthy story nevertheless ensued, one of dozens if not hundreds. Perhaps I'd best set off Southward in search of scary clowns. Dedicate some resources. Work the story in the fine tradition of investigative journalism.
My offer was not snapped up.
As I like to say, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. As I was heading out the door on Friday, I noticed the mask above at our tech bar. Its owner, a colleague in her 40s who I should add is niceness incarnate, explained that they were yanking them from the stores so she snapped it up, for only $12. Her daughter was having a bonfire -- perhaps she would put it on and creep around the house. Or wake up another child with the mask.
You could see her savoring the thought.
But then the cold reality of our tremulous times sunk in.
"I'm hesitant to do that in my own yard!" she said, indignant. "You'd think people would have better things to worry about."
Which is the rub of it, in my opinion. They do. Which is why we have a clown scare, the same reason people worry about sharks but not heart attacks. These mass hysterias are caused, in part, by stressful time. Between the Scariest Clown of Them All, Donald Trump, still having a shot at the presidency, and Syria and ISIS and Zika and God knows what else, of course the kids would start seeing clowns in the woods, or thought they were seeing them. Mix that into a safety fetish that threatens to deform our proud culture beyond all recognition, a zero tolerance lack of discernment on the part of lower level authorities like school officials, then we have our current Clown Crisis based on next-to-nothing. And suddenly it is a terrorist act to wear a clown mask, just as joking was made into a crime by the TSA.
Enough. The Web is our Great Aggregator, and it can magnify things which are very small. Every hamlet has a walking man, some poor soul with mental challenges wandering the margins, muttering to himself. But if every small town paper began reporting on him, it would seem an invasion, and the larger outlets would investigate the Army of Muttering Men while pundits analyze What It All Means.
It means, to me, that — stop the presses — people are frightened and imaginative. That pattern recognition lends disparate occurrences the illusion of cohesion, of significance. That despite falling away in big chunks, there is still an awful lot of media. Maybe too much. Put "scary clown" into the Nexis database and 501 articles show up over the past month. Now that's really frightening.