In a matter of weeks, the scary-clown craze has made its presence felt across the Anglo-American world. It began in smalltown America, where supposed sightings of a few clowns turned into a social-media-driven urban legend about vicious clowns chasing people with machetes and knives.
What’s remarkable about the clown craze is the speed with which it came to be globalised. By the start of this month, unsubstantiated stories of creepy clowns preying on people were being treated as hard facts by sections of the media. This was just weeks after the first report of clowns threatening people, which circulated through the media in late August, following an alleged incident in South Carolina. There soon came reports of clowns trying to entice children into the woods. The image of dangerous clowns preying on children caught the public imagination, and soon similar incidents were being reported across the US.
Thanks to the power of social media, rumours of scary clowns then spread around the world. Soon there were sightings in Canada, Australia and Britain. Urban legends can often provoke the most irrational of responses. Such legends are usually based on secondhand accounts. Typically, they are stories that someone heard from a friend, or from a friend of a friend. Historically, this internalisation of secondhand stories has led to phantom menaces being perceived as real and imminent threats to community life. The panics about the Satanic ritual abuse of children in the 1980s is a very good example of the ease with which absurd fantasies can acquire the status of hard fact among sections of the media and the public.
What distinguishes today’s clown craze from previous scary urban legends is the central role played by social media. Social media have intensified the speed at which rumours can circulate and can allow them to reach a far larger audience than could ever be achieved by rumours spread by word of mouth or even newspapers and radio. What’s even more important about social media is that they allow pretty much anyone to become, or to imagine they could become, part of the story.
By late August and early September, groups of individuals had launched Facebook pages providing information about clowns. Others posted or shared videos allegedly showing frightening incidents involving a crazed clown. Others published pictures of themselves in clown gear to gain attention and provoke a reaction. Still others decided to become part of the story by actually becoming one of the crazy clowns, donning a mask to try to rattle members of the public. In some instances, young teenagers tried to become players in the legend by putting on a clown mask to scare a few of their friends. Thanks to the internet, what started as an urban legend soon became the means through which individuals could act out their desire to gain some attention for themselves.