This week, as a public service announcement, we offer this tidbit of advice: Stop freaking out about the stupid clowns.
Pranksters dressed in menacing clown outfits have been all the rage lately, with creepy sightings being reported from coast to coast. It's a trend that can be traced back to the small California town of Wasco where, in 2014, a couple took a series of photos posing in ghoulish clown gear as a Halloween stunt. Their images went viral on social media, inspiring a slew of imitators and even a B-rated horror flick called “The Legend of Wasco.”
The South Sound has been a hotbed of clown-related shenanigans of late. In the last month, the Pierce County Sherriff’s department has taken dozens of calls from citizens alarmed by sightings of people dressed in scary clown garb; and while most of said clowns haven't engaged in any criminal activity, a 17-year-old Rogers High School student was arrested on suspicion of felony harassment after texting clown-themed threats to other students, apparently a prank gone awry. Clown-related calls spiked last week, prompting the Pierce County Sherriff's Department to draw the line. “If there's a clown walking down the street, we're not responding,” spokesman Ed Troyer said, “unless they're stepping into traffic, trespassing, causing a problem intentionally or displaying what appears to be a weapon. But if it's just a clown in the woods, it's a clown in the woods. If anybody makes threats to schools or threats to people, we'll do just like we would in any other case, and we'll track 'em down and put 'em in jail.”
So relax. Odds are that clown you spotted lurking around South Hill was just a bored kid, not a demonic entity here to terrorize the local populace, à la Pennywise from Stephen King's 1986 novel “It.” Still, many don't trust those bulbous-nosed freaks, whether they have homicidal intent or not.
It's a sentiment captured by local punk act Warning Danger. The band specializes in comedic songs about threats that lurk around every corner, everything from the hazards of “crop dusting” to cougar attacks (not the animal kind). Their 2013 album “Keep Out” includes a track called “Clowns” that seems especially timely this week.
Front man Mark Ostler rattles off a rapid-fire list of clowns he's not down with, backed by a campy country and western groove. “Circus clowns, rodeo clowns, hamburger clowns, birthday clowns, killer clowns in hospital gowns – clowns they freak me out!”
He is only halfway joking. “Clowns do kind of freak me out,” he confessed earlier this week. “Somebody like Red Skelton is kind of cool, but clowns somehow have become synonymous with ICP (Insane Clown Posse) and violence and serial killers and stuff like that. So people who choose the path of the clown nowadays, it's a little bit questionable.”
Ostler is at least open-minded enough to accept some clown culture. Warning Danger's song also mourns the closing of the Funhouse, a clown-themed punk club formerly located near Seattle Center where his band cut its teeth. For others, though, the mere sight of someone wearing a frizzy, red wig and giant shoes is enough to trigger a full-blown panic attack.
An abnormal fear of clowns is called coulrophobia, though the American Psychiatric Association does not list it as a recognized disorder. Tiffany Artime, an assistant professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University, shed light on why some people might have a fear response.
“Throughout our lives, our behavior is influenced by associations we make between two things, like a clown or a clown mask and danger,” Artime said. “When we're very young, we have a natural tendency to be afraid of strangers and novel, new things because that helps to keep us safe. Let's say we encounter a clown that gets right up in our face, and is very colorful and big. That might then create this learning experience that clowns are dangerous.”
Artime also speculated about the appeal of dressing up. “I think we can make many possible guesses to what that might be about,” she said. “Part of it is probably the ability to impact people in anonymous ways. You get a rise out of people, but nobody knows who you are. That probably feels powerful, and you have control. Part of it is also social norming or social modeling (so) we get lots of copycats doing it.”
Whatever the reasons, many are ready for creepy clowns to be gone. “We hope these guys that are doing this can go back to their mom's basement, change their clothes and go back out and look for Pokémen,” Troyer joked. “If they dressed up as Pikachus, people would probably go take pictures and hug 'em. If they want attention, that might be a better costume.”
Fictional characters and real-life maniacs that may have ruined clowns forever
The Joker: The Clown Prince of Crime has been slaying Gothamites since he first appeared in “Batman” No. 1, way back in 1940. But seldom has he been creepier – and more fun – than when the late Heath Ledger portrayed him in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” in 2009.