‘Batman’ Vs. Creepy Clown Panics: What Drives Copycats?

October 20, 2016

The rash of scary clown reports that have plagued America over the past two months have recently spread to other continents including Australia and Europe. It’s gotten so bad that schools in the United States and Canada have been put on lockdown, and Ronald McDonald has (temporarily) been put on ice.

According to Yahoo News, “Seems the scary clown craze is not only in America. There is an issue with people dressing up and frightening people in England, but they pissed off the wrong person: Batman. Someone in Cumbria, located in North West England, has been chasing off those dressed as clowns in the hopes of making children feel safe, according to The Telegraph.”

As I discuss in my new book Bad Clowns, This is not the first time that a costumed real-life superhero, of sorts, has come to the rescue of people in clown peril. Shortly before Halloween 2013, a man was seen and photographed prowling the streets of Northampton, U.K. at night. The clown, unimaginatively dubbed “The Northampton Clown,” did not harass or attack anyone, but seemed content to cause creepy consternation (and sometimes pose for photos, which were shared widely on social media). Soon, however, a man dressed in his own blue muscle-padded superhero costume and glasses, calling himself “Boris the Clown Catcher” vowed to put a stop to the creepy clown sightings. Some suspected a sort of meta-hoax-that both Boris and his prey were the same person-but in any event both “The Northampton Clown” and Boris have not been seen since. Over a dozen people have been arrested, and the vast majority of these scary clown reports are hoaxes, rumors, and copycats. But why would anyone–much less dozens of people–dress up as a clown to scare people?

Psychology of the Copycat

The recent panics have copycats on both sides of the clown mask, both people who are inspired to dress up as a clown to scare people, and people who are inspired to make up false reports of encountering creepy clowns.

For most of the copycat clowns, the prank is a high-yield, low-risk stunt: If he or she is successful, their photo or video will go viral and be included in news coverage; if unsuccessful, the clown will simply be ignored or, at the most, arrested for a minor crime such as loitering or menacing. Scaring people out walking at night is not a high-priority crime. The Troup County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia received a 911 call earlier this month about clowns standing outside a white van looking suspicious. Police investigated and found a white van at the given location but no clowns in sight. The van was searched but nothing clown-related was found–not a rubber chicken, oversize shoe, or seltzer bottle in sight. 

According to WSPA News, “deputies contacted the man who made the 911 call about seeing the clowns. Smith says 26-year-old Brandon Jerome Moody admitted he called 911 about seeing clowns hanging around a white van on Hammett Road. Deputies say after they questioned him more, Moody changed his story and told investigators he actually saw the clowns and the van the day before. Finally… Moody admitted to making up the story about seeing the clowns and he knew the stories about clowns in the area and schools on lockdown. The suspect says his sister-in-law 27-year-old Rebecca Moody also made false 911 calls about the clowns.” An Ohio woman called police to report that she’d been attacked by a knife-weilding clown who jumped over a fence and cut her hand. Police investigated the report but found no evidence of any attack, and the woman admitted that she faked the attack as an excuse for why she was late for her job at McDonald’s.

Why would people falsely report having seen a stalker clown when they didn’t? Loren Coleman, author of The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines, told me in an e-mail that he believes the current social and political climate have created fertile ground for these clown scares: “The 2016 election is so disruptive, in terms of stability, and so strange, in terms of unbelievability, that these clown panics appear to be a perfect distraction for the media. The motivation of the individuals dressing as ‘stalking Clowns’ seems to be purely based on getting attention, and being mentioned in social media and by the mainstream media.” Most of the cases are people who are inspired by news stories of previous scary clown pranksters or reports. Many do it for fun or attention, and anyone reporting a clown sighting (real or fake) amid the national coverage is guaranteed a place on the local news, if not national attention. It seems harmless, since after all they’re not actually accusing any real person of anything, and therefore no one will be arrested–though of course they waste police time and resources and needlessly scare the public.

Legend Tripping and Social Media

In addition to the desire for attention–even anonymous attention–some people engage in what folklorists call “ostension” or legend tripping, which is a form of legend transmission in which two or more people actually cast themselves in the story or legend, and play a role in it to some degree. My friend and folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, in his Encyclopedia of Urban Legends notes, “The concept of ostension applied to the study of urban legends recognizes that sometimes people actually enact the content of legends instead of merely narrating them as stories.”

Some people may also take a vicarious thrill in inserting themselves into a sort of real-life urban legend. Ostension is often harmless and occurs, for example, when ghost hunters seek out spirits in a reputedly haunted location, and basically play a role in a script. Many of these clown reports are the result of people seeing and hearing about these crazy, creepy clown stories and having an urge to participate. In other words they see the consternation that other pranksters are causing (and the attention they’re getting) and decide that for little more than the cost of a clown mask and an hour of their night, they can play a role in the unfolding drama.

Obviously, the same clowns are not causing trouble on three continents (and good luck getting through the TSA screening line with a red nose, green fright wig, and twenty friends packed in your carry-on). Instead, copycats are inspired by international news reports and social media, with photos and videos of scary clown antics going viral. If previous clown panics are any guide, the fad of pranks and copycats will soon fade away. These real-life scary clowns, like all clowns, perform for an audience and seek attention. And that, according to Coleman, will be key to getting the clown craze under control: “There is only one way to cease the copycat effect of the repeated clown sightings. The media needs to quit paying attention to the attention-seeking elements of these stories, and report seriously on the potential for danger underlying this 2016 flap.”