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2016 Clown Sightings

A picture of an evil-looking clown being handcuffed by a police officer. The clown in dressed in black and white and is wearing a sinister-looking white mask.

In 2016, clowns were on everyone's mind. They were on TV shows and movies, YouTube videos... there was even clown erotica, I kid you not. All of this was the result of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of so-called "evil clowns" all over the world, from America to Australia, the United Kingdom to Fiji. People reported being menaced and even attacked by people dressed as sinister clowns, and it felt as though one couldn't go three feet without metaphorically tripping over a video or news story about them. It all became known as the 2016 clown sightings, and there seemed to be no explanation as to why any of it was happening.

Except this wasn't an isolated event, and it certainly wasn't a recent one either. The 2016 clown sightings were a unique mix of hoax, urban legend, and mass hysteria that actually happens in cycles - ironically similar to the Stephen King novel IT, which some believed was the inspiration for the clown sightings to begin with.

The first clown sightings on record actually happened in the 1980s - 1981, to be exact. In Boston, on May 6, there were reports of "one or two men wearing clown outfits", who were driving around in a van, apparently full of candy, near a school. On May 7, a similar report came in from a nearby playing field, except that this was just one man and he was only in half a clown suit, as he was reportedly naked from the waist down. An article in the Boston Globe from this time states that students were advised to "stay away from strangers, especially ones dressed as clowns."

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman was working elsewhere in Massachusetts at the time, and he took notice of this odd developing trend. Referring to the sightings as "phantom clowns", he reached out to his network of around 400 fellow cryptozoology enthusiasts to ask them if there were any similar clown sightings elsewhere in the country. In response, he was sent newspaper articles from all across the country detailing clown sightings, from Cleveland to Kansas City.

From this, Coleman developed the "Theory of the Phantom Clown":

There's a clown, often seen in a van, kids being approached and telling adults, and then the clowns never being caught.

Back in 1981, it was eventually decided that all the clown sightings had come from children's imaginations. Aside from one poor unfortunate clown who was on his way to deliver a clown-o-gram when he was stopped by the police, not a single clown was ever found. "We've had over 20 calls on 911, [but] no adult civilian or police officer has ever seen a clown," one officer was quoted as saying.

Three of the clowns from the 1980s horror movie Killer Klowns From Outer Space. The three clowns are made up as caricatures of traditional clowns, with large red noses and tufts of brightly coloured hair

During a similar "shudder" (that's apparently one of the terms for a group of clowns, along with "alley", "pratfall" and "harlequinade") of clown sightings in Chicago in 1991, the Chicago Tribune wrote:

They seem to be reaching near mythic proportions, tumbling out ffrom different parts of the city like clowns falling out of a Volkswagen.

Some people, however, believe that the notion of the "sinister" or "evil" clown comes from even further back than the 1980s. Benjamin Radford, the author of Bad Clowns, has argued that the very first "scary clown" by modern sensibilities can be found in Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers:

His bloated body and shrunken legs - their deformity enhanced a hundredfold by the fantastic dress - the glassy eyes, contrasting fearfully with the thick white paint with which the face was besmeared; the grotesquely-ornamented head, trembling with paralysis, and the long skinny hands, rubbed with white chalk - all gave him a hideous and unnatural appearance.

Then there is the famous quote from "Man of a Thousand Faces" Lon Cheney, who observed:

A clown is funny in the circus ring, but what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight and finding the same clown standing there in the moonlight?

Returning to more modern times, the first clown sightings of the 2010s can probably be traced back to 2013, when a "creepy clown" was sighted in Northampton, England. This clown turned out to be the handwork of three local filmmakers, who even went so far as to start a Facebook page for the "Northampton Clown" to gain more publicity for their own publicity stunt. Then, in 2014, Matteo Moroni, who owned the YouTube channel DM Pranks, started to make videos where he would dress up as an "evil clown" and menace unsuspecting passers-by. His videos got billions - not millions, billions - of views over the years, with 1.7 billion on one video alone in 2016. (Most of these "killer clown" videos have since disappeared from his channel.)

In 2014 a documentary called Killer Legends was released, and it included a segment called "Why Are Clowns Scary?" It looked at the aforementioned sightings in Chicago in 1991 and 2008 and suggested a link between the Phantom Clown sightings and serial killer John Wayne Gacy (who dressed up as a clown in his spare time for parties, but as far as we know never actually killed any of his victims while dressed as a clown), as well as good old fashioned Stranger Danger. It should be noted that some early 2014 clown sightings in the US occurred shortly after the release of this documentary.

But of course, it was in 2016 that the clown sightings really began in earnest. Starting in August 2016, people began to report seeing clowns in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Greenville County, South Carolina; clowns were said to be attempting to lure children into the woods with money and treats. Similar stories came from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, although the clown allegedly fled when the police arrived on the scene.

A map of the United States, showing with orange dots the locations of clown sightings across the country in 2016.
Clown Sightings across the US, 2016

At least some of the clown sightings - at least the ones in Green Bay - turned out to have a prosaic explanation: they were a viral marketing stunt for a horror film called Gags the Clown. This, and the timing of these sightings in general made some people believe that some or even all of the sightings might have been nothing more than publicity stunts for similar movies - particularly the 2017 remake of Stephen King's IT - however, not only did no-one involved in the film's production and marketing ever admit to any such publicity events, the movie itself wasn't released until September 2017. Even if the 2016 sightings had been an attempt at publicity for IT, they were far too early to have had any sort of meaningful effect on the film's marketing.

By October 2016, clowns were being sighted across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Occasionally it wasn't just clowns either - the area I lived in at the time had one or two Slender Man sightings in local parks mixed in with the clowns. Communities were "horrified" by the sightings and demanded the police do something about the sudden influx of clowns allegedly jumping out at unsuspecting passers-by... but of course, police never managed to catch any of the clowns.

In the US, it was claimed that 12 people had been arrested in relation to the clown sightings, although at least half of these arrests seem to have been for making false police reports rather than actually being clowns. Unfortunately, after one incident where a prowler wearing a clown mask was reported in Reading, Pennsylvania, a 16-year-old boy was stabbed to death (the Purge movie franchise, which we shall get to shortly, was also blamed for this).

At this point, I think it's safe to say that things were getting very much out of hand. None of the previous clown panics, or flaps, or pratfalls, had even had things get so serious as to end up with someone being killed. Most likely, this was because of the sheer prevalence of social media in 2016, as opposed to the 1980s and 1990s. In 1981 and 1991, the tales of the phantom clowns were limited in how they could be spread, with local news stories and word of mouth being the primary means of doing so. By 2016, however, stories and videos of clowns lurking in woods, stalking people, and apparently setting ambushes at night were all over Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and so on. The stories were no longer confined to small localized areas; now they were going worldwide and feeding on each other in an infinite cycle.

The Russian Embassy in London issued a warning to Russian and British citizens about the clowns (to be clear, their warning was about "killer clowns" spreading "fear and bewilderment", and not about the panic and scaremongering). In Fiji, the police issued a warning to people, telling them not to participate in any clown-related activities. Shops in New Zealand stopped selling clown costumes. Everything continued to build and build as Halloween approached - schools banned clown costumes, towns specifically asked people not to dress as clowns for Halloween, and Ronald McDonald went into hiding. Sociologist Robert Bartholemew, an expert on mass hysteria, said:

It's a bad time to be a professional clown.

Two individuals dressed as "evil clowns" standing on the side of a road and apparently approaching the photographer

In the final weeks of October, the mass hysteria reached a new level. A teenager posted on Facebook that the evil clowns were planning to go on a "Purge", as in the movie franchise, on October 30 (aka Mischief Night or "Devil's Night"). "Stay inside, keep all pets inside, and keep all doors and windows locked," the Facebook post read. The teenager who posted this meant for it to be just a joke for his friends, but quickly got a lesson in how false information and mass panics work, because it wasn't long before police nationwide were inundated with calls from concerned members of the public. College students at several universities - including Pennsylvania State University and Michigan State University - formed mobs to hunt down clowns, and some people in Florida decided to go trick-or-treating while armed that year.

Of course, nothing happened. Well, one family in Florida was attacked by a group of around 20 people wearing clown masks and Purge masks and wielding weapons while the family was driving. One of the victims claimed to have recognized one of the teenagers involved when he managed to remove his attacker's mask, but no arrests were made. But other than that... nothing. After this, the clowns seem to have just evaporated back into the shadows they apparently emerged from, and are no doubt still lurking there as they wait for the next panic to start. After all, as we've seen, these Phantom Clown flaps are cyclical in nature, and from looking at past events, we might even be overdue for the next one...


Collective nouns for clowns (GKNXT Encyclopedia)


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