Fear of the ‘Joker’ Copycats

October 1, 2019

Over the past week, police and parents have expressed concern over the upcoming new film Joker, and its possible influence on unhinged people. As ABC News reported, “The soon-to-be released psychological thriller Joker starring Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix has prompted a ‘credible potential mass shooting’ threat on a movie theater somewhere in the United States, military officials warned in a memorandum issued this week. The alarming notice was sent out on Monday by military officials at Fort Sills Army base in Oklahoma, and was based on intelligence gathered by the FBI from the ‘disturbing and very specific’ chatter of alleged extremists on the dark web, officials said.”

It’s not just the FBI that’s concerned. As CNN reported, “A group of people whose loved ones witnessed or were killed in 2012’s Aurora theater shooting are calling on Warner Bros. to help combat gun violence as the studio prepares to release its rated-R comic book film Joker. In a letter addressed to Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff and obtained by CNN, five family members and friends of victims of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado ask the studio to ‘use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns … . Over the last several weeks, large American employers from Walmart to CVS have announced that they are going to lean into gun safety. We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe.’” 

The studio responded, in part, that “Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”

The Dark Knight Shooting: A Closer Look

The Aurora, Colorado, killings are widely—but mistakenly—thought to have been inspired by the Joker character. On July 20, 2012, James Holmes opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing twelve people and injuring dozens more. He showed up, apparently in costume, as many others did for a midnight premiere screening of the much-anticipated Batman film The Dark Knight Rises.

The question immediately turned to motive: What would make a former university student commit such a horrific crime? The answer seemed obvious to many, and in the hours and weeks following the massacre, the news media was abuzz with speculation that the dazed-looking Holmes had been inspired to kill by the Batman film where he executed his rampage. Many in the public, including journalists, pundits, and even some police officials assumed that there was a clear connection to either the Batman film or its characters. Media critics in particular used the shooting as an opportunity to criticize violent entertainment: Did fictional shootings, killing, and mayhem involving clowns lead to real-life tragedy? 

The rampant speculation focused on several key pieces of evidence. It’s easy to see why people would jump to the conclusion that the film and the massacre were related, but it’s equally clear that the film itself did not inspire Holmes. The attack had been planned for months, starting long before the film had released; the audience he was part of, and that he fired on, was seeing the first screening of the film. 

Therefore, The Dark Knight Rises could not have inspired his violent shooting, because Holmes himself had not even seen it. The speculation then changed from suggesting that the film had inspired the killing to the idea that the film’s villain, Bane, had been his inspiration. Even though Holmes could not have seen the film, trailers and publicity photos had been published showing Batman’s nemesis, and he might have seen those and modeled Bane’s murderous actions and garb.

Holmes was dressed in a bulletproof vest and a riot helmet at the time of his attack, along with a gas mask; in the film, Bane also wears bulletproof armor and breathes through a mask (though not a gas mask). It could be seen as a case of a real-life fan dressing like a movie villain, or it could merely be a case of dressing appropriately for the plan of attack: if a person is planning to be in a shootout and use of a gas or smoke grenade, then a bulletproof vest and a gas mask are logical equipment for the purpose and have nothing to do with Bane. Still, the connection was far from clear, and the news media finally settled on a different, and seemingly much more likely, Batman villain: the Joker. 

Enter the Joker?

The speculation that James Holmes was inspired to kill in imitation of the famous fictional murderous clown rested on two pieces of evidence: the fact that Holmes had dyed his hair red or orange; and a claim made in news reports that just before he opened fire Holmes shouted “I am the Joker!” New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stated at a press conference that “it clearly looks like a deranged individual. He had his hair painted red, he said he was ‘The Joker,’ obviously the enemy of Batman.” Such commentary launched a media frenzy; the New York Daily News stated that “the flame-haired freak accused of staging the Dark Knight movie massacre may have drawn inspiration from a twisted and even darker cinematic take on the classic Batman story…The 24-year-old accused mass murderer dyed his hair and declared he was the Joker—Batman’s arch-enemy—when was arrested shortly after the massacre.” An ABC News story added yet another element, “While there has been no indication as to the motives of James Holmes … new evidence suggests that he was inspired by the Batman series of comic books and/or movies. Law enforcement sources confirmed to ABC News that Holmes said ‘I am the Joker’ when apprehended by authorities. His hair was painted red [and] Holmes also booby-trapped his apartment, a favorite technique of the Joker.” 

DC Comics was of course aghast that their most famous fictional villain might have inspired a real-life mass murderer and immediately issued press releases expressing their condolences and outrage. The film’s opening was delayed, and Batman actor Christian Bale visited hospitalized shooting victims. It seemed to many that a real-life killer had indeed adopted an evil clown’s persona to carry out his crimes. 

However as the weeks and months passed, what at first glance seemed like a clear-cut case of a mass murderer playing the Joker turned out to be far weaker than assumed. The claim that Holmes was inspired by the Joker would be much stronger if, for example, he had worn a Joker costume (which are relatively inexpensive and easily available), or if he had been in clown makeup. He did not wear the Joker’s costume or any makeup at all. 

What about Holmes’s dyed hair? For many people that was a clear imitation of the Joker—but what the news media missed is that the Joker doesn’t have red hair. Neither Joker in the films (played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) had red or orange hair: the Joker’s hair is—and always has been—green. If Holmes was imitating the Joker, he seems to have done a very poor job of it, neglecting to adopt the character’s makeup, hair color, costume, or any other characteristic of the iconic villain. In fact, Holmes didn’t use any part of the Joker’s image in the attack.

But what about the numerous reports stating that Holmes explicitly claimed to be the Joker? As John Miller reported on the CBS show Face the Nation, that initial claim “turned out not to be true.” In fact, Miller noted, “Every single witness that [the police] have spoken to, and that we [CBS News] have spoken to, has said that he did not say a word, he just opened fire. And in fact he was wearing a gas mask with a movie going on in the background so had he actually elected to say anything, no one would have heard him anyway.” Holmes never claimed to be the Joker or even invoked the character. 

Part of the confusion may have stemmed from a news report around the same time. There actually was a gunman who claimed to have shouted, “I am the Joker! I’m gonna load my guns and blow everybody up” in late July 2012. But it was a man named Neil Prescott, who threatened to shoot his coworkers in a mass attack at Pitney Bowes plant in Washington, D.C., one week after the Aurora theater attack on July 27. Ironically, this bit of information linking a Batman villain to a threat of mass killings also turned out to be a reporting error; news reports later clarified that Prescott referred to himself as “a joker”—not The Joker: he was not dressed like the villain, nor was there any connection to Batman. 

Claims about the Joker being an inspiration for Holmes’s massacre gradually faded as it became clear that the connection was little more than a media-created myth. There was no mention at all of the Joker during Holmes’s criminal trial in 2015; no Joker references surfaced despite extensive psychological examinations and investigations into the killer’s past and motives. Nor was the Joker mentioned in notebook diaries kept by Holmes as he wrote down his plans to kill as many people as he could—not in imitation of any clown but because of what he described as his “lifelong hatred of mankind.” Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and was sentenced to life in prison in August 2015. 

It is of course possible that someone might dress up as a clown and attack a screening of Joker (or any other film), but it would not be a true copycat crime of any Joker attack, because there never was an attack on a theater (or anywhere else) by anyone in a Joker or clown costume to mimic. There have been a handful of theater shootings, including a July 2015 incident in which a man named John Houser attacked the audience at a Louisiana screening of Trainwreck. But without some obvious referent to one of those shootings, there would be no reason to think it was a copycat crime.

Psychology of Copycat Clowns

As I discuss in my book Bad Clowns (University of New Mexico Press, 2016), there is a long history of people dressing as clowns to scare people or make viral videos. Shortly before Halloween 2013, a man was seen and photographed prowling the streets of Northampton, U.K., at night. The clown, 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). Other scary clowns emerged, including the Staten Island Clown in 2014, later revealed to be a publicity stunt for a horror film. Most 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?

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 most, arrested for a minor crime such as loitering or menacing. Scaring people out walking at night is not a high-priority crime. 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. 

Threatening clowns are nothing new either: In September and October 2016, schools across the country were threatened by clowns. Responses to the threats—many of them originating (or shared) on social media—resulted in increased police patrols and in some cases full lockdowns. For example, police in Flomaton, Alabama, investigated what were deemed credible threats to students at the local high school that were shared via social media. A total of about 700 students at Flomaton High School and nearby Flomaton Elementary School were told to shelter in place while the schools, following protocol, were placed on lockdown for much of the day while dozens of police and other law enforcement officers searched the grounds for threats. The threats had originated from two Facebook accounts, “FLOMO KLOWN” and “Shoota Cllown”; the digital trail led FBI investigators to one adult and two teens. Twenty-two year old Makayla Smith was arrested for making a terroristic threat while posting as an evil clown and sentenced to five years of probation.

Despite the panic and concern, there were no reports of any clowns—or anyone dressed as a clown—actually shooting up schools. Many other cases turned out to be hoaxes and in some cases both adults and schoolchildren admitted to making up stories of seeing threatening clowns. An Ohio woman called police to report that she’d been attacked by a knife-wielding 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.

Whether the credible threat to the Joker film materializes remains to be seen, but it’s not surprising that authorities would take it seriously. Any other time reports of threatening clowns would likely have been ignored or dismissed, but these copycat clown incidents came at a time when very real terroristic threats and school shootings are in the news. Parents can take comfort that no clowns are actually trying to abduct or harm kids—not a single credible report has surfaced of any child being hurt or even touched by a threatening clown, nor have any Joker figures killed anyone. Still, police understandably err on the side of caution, deciding it’s better to be safe than sorry.