BY RAINA ZHAO
It all started in August when a middle aged woman in South Carolina reported being followed by a man dressed as a clown. Then, reports surfaced of children being lured into the woods by clowns, first in South Carolina, and then in North Carolina. These instances have grown to more than 100 reported incidents involving clowns across the country. Although injuries have been rare, some schools have received threats of violence, resulting in hysteria. These fears have sometimes resulted in serious repercussions; for example, Reading Community City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio shut down after a woman was attacked by a clown. The terrifying image of the grotesque clown costumes, often accompanied with real weapons, certainly does not help to quell the fear. While this craze has rendered many paranoid, some have found humor in the situation, responding in a way modern pop culture is all-too-familiar with–memes and pranks.
For example, #IfISeeAClown was recently a trending hashtag on Twitter. Amongst the tagged Tweets are comical GIFS and jokes. One Tweet from @YoungAdolf_, for example, says “Ronald McDonald, My 5th grade math teacher, Crusty the clown, Bozo, Mr. Noodle, IF I SEE YOU, ITS SMASH ON SIGHT!!” @PARGANEXTDOOR_, in his Tweet, attached a GIF of Michael Scott from The Office clumsily and comically shooting guns, saying “this gon be me.” Politics have even made their way into the hashtag; a Tweet from @iMinikon wonders, “#IfISeeAClown and a Cop while being unarmed and black.. Who would you run toward?” The most popular response to the poll in the Tweet was not cop or clown, but a third option: “Ask Harambe to save [the] room.”
While these jokes are amusing, they should not detract from the seriousness of the issue. Though injuries have been rare, they have still occurred. In Britain, 17-year-old Owen Russell was left bleeding and in need of stitches after an attacker in a clown costume severely cut his head. In another incident, a clown wielding a 10-inch knife sliced through the hand of Simon Chinery, resulting in possibly permanent damage. Chinery needs reconstructive surgery and cannot return to work. In Gainesville, FL, three men dressed as clowns shot a woman with BB guns, injuring her nose and arms. In Durham, four children were followed by a clown carrying a knife on their way to school. Although no physical injuries occurred, the incident is still incredibly serious–it is ludicrous for the safety of children to be threatened in such a way.
Some may argue that these jokes are simply that–jokes, something intended to make people laugh in spite of a frightening situation. But by treating these grave situations in such a trivial manner, viewing them merely as a new trend to pass around, laugh at and forget about a month later, we are not giving the actual victims the respect they deserve. These victims did not suffer what can be a traumatic incident to become part of the punchline of what is merely seen as a massive joke. How do their family and friends feel, seeing the circumstances around their loved one’s gruesome attack commodified and trivialized? There must be a point at which we differentiate the joke from the reality of the situation. If we treat serious problems like this one and others in the future as a mere joke, we run the risk of dismissing issues that may impact our lives.
Furthermore, what are intended as harmless pranks can have serious consequences. In Poughkeepsie, New York, for example, a 13-year-old was charged with making a terroristic threat after he created a Facebook page pretending to be a clown and posted “If you want to die come to PMS [Poughkeepsie Middle School] on Friday.” According to the police statement, the page was created simply to prank classmates at the teen’s school. Legal repercussions aside, it is unacceptable to place an entire school in such fear over a perceived threat simply for a few laughs.
The widespread chatter on social media about the clown craze, whether in a joking manner or not, has done more than trivialize the matter. In some cases, it has also achieved the opposite by overblowing the danger of the clown attacks and inspiring hysteria. This is a problem as well.
Although there have been many clown sightings, the chances of the average person being attacked by a clown are extremely small. However, because of social media’s ability to spread fear and misinformation, many feel as though a clown attack is imminent.
Because of the mob mentality found on social media, many have been whipped into a frenzy against all clowns–including benevolent ones. At Penn State University, for example, the mass hysteria compelled students to attempt vigilante justice by rallying a large group to hunt down any potentially killer clowns. Police in the area have deemed the rampaging students a large enough threat to issue a formal warning against shooting any clowns, spelling out the potential legal perils.
Building paranoia against clowns, exacerbated by social media, can have negative impacts. Professional clowns have seen the craze negatively impact their jobs, and some even fear they are in danger from trigger-happy vigilantes such as the Penn State students. In an interview with Time magazine, Jordan Jones, who works part-time as Snuggles the Clown, says “At the end of the day, people look at me like I’m a clown trying to hurt them…I feel that people are out clown hunting because they think it’s cool now. I’m scared that someone might take a swing.” A Clown Lives Matter Facebook group has even been started to bring to light the hostility against clowns.
The right way to approach the issue is to strike a balance. We cannot let memes and jokes trivialize the matter, leading to immature pranks that can have serious consequences. Nor can we allow the topic to be blown out of proportion on social media, especially when for most people there is no imminent danger. Such fear-mongering only results in negatively affecting innocent bystanders who are just trying to do their jobs. As Stephen King, author of It, one of the most iconic horror works involving a murderous clown, Tweeted himself, it’s “time to cool the clown hysteria — most of em are good, cheer up the kiddies, make people laugh.”