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Why do claims of clown sightings creep out so many?

Pixabay - Public Domain

Reported sightings of creepy clowns loitering on the streets are on the rise. Most have been dismissed as hoaxes or pranks, including one reported earlier this week in North Tonawanda. The trend has taken on a life of its own in social media and, whether true or false, many are asking... why?

Sightings - or alleged sightings - of creepy clowns loitering on the streets are on the rise and have become a social media phenomenon.

Earlier this week, a reported clown sighting in North Tonawanda was dismissed as a youth prank. Other claimed sightings nationwide have also been dismissed as pranks or hoaxes. Yet supposed creepy clown sightings have Americans talking.

But why are these clown sightings supposed happening? And if someone is dressing up as a clown and just loitering, why do they do it? The reason why, suspects Andrew Stott at the University at Buffalo, is the current social climate.

"Frankly, we live in absurd times," said Stott, a professor in UB's English Department who has written extensively on clowns in culture. "You only have to turn on the television and tune into the political rhetoric to see that. I think there's some correlation."

Those who may be dressing up and standing there, Stott suggests, are certainly scaring people but are otherwise carrying out nothing more than a performance stunt. 

Clowns have gained a reputation for being creepy, dangerous or simply morally lacking through pop culture characters including Stephen King's literary character Pennywise, comic book archvillain The Joker, and Krusty the Clown of television's Simpsons. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy gave clowns notoriety by dressing as one and portraying them in his artwork.

Of course, there were beloved clowns in 20th Century pop culture as well, including popular children's television star Bozo, the Howdy Doody Show's Clarabell and iconic McDonalds character Ronald McDonald. But clowns, historically, have always been outsiders and always had some level of danger, Stott told WBFO.

"I think from the very earliest times, from the ancient classical world of Greece and Rome and through the Middle Ages in Europe, clowns have always contained within them a proximity to fear and danger and speaking out of turn," Stott said. 

Clowns became more innocent and child-friendly, he added, during the heyday of the American traveling circus. So when and why did it change?

"That period, from the 50s to the 80s and onward, spans the lifetime of a generation who grew up with clowns when they were children but then they come and return to the idea of a clown as adults," Stott said. "They begin to see some of the sinister nature of it as their own life experiences has changed."

While he does not suspect any clowns spotted on the street to be a serious threat, the ones who are being harmed, Stott suggests, are those who perform as clowns for a living. He sees this phenomenon as a threat to their reputation and their livelihood. The industry is already in decline, with professional organizations reporting fewer people taking up the art.  

So what would Stott do if he spotted a suspicious clown just standing there on the street? 

"I would maybe go and commiserate with them that the heydays of clowning are over and looking into retaining as something else, maybe a data analyst."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.