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Clownology 101: Your Resident Folklorist Weighs In

by on October 05, 2016 5:00 AM

Everywhere I look, I see creepy clowns.

Except I’m not actually seeing them. No one is.

Well, there may have been a sighting or two. Mostly, though, there have been rumors and false reports.

The New York Times reports that there have been “12 arrests in multiple states,” but the only clowns who have drawn the attention of law enforcement so far have been the kind who think it’s funny to waste the cops’ time by calling in hoaxes or staging pranks.  

Consistencies across all these supposed sightings strongly suggest that we are in the realm of the urban legend or the copycat enactment of an urban legend:

  • The clowns are usually seen on the edge of a forest or stepping out from behind a tree or a bush.

  • Many of them are carrying machetes or kitchen knives.

  • Many are chasing or trying to lure children, sometimes with candy. (Note the similarity to familiar scare stories around booby-trapped Halloween candy – most of which, like the clown stories, are also groundless.)

What worries police in our trigger-happy land is not that one of these costumed creepos will commit an evil deed but that some harmless clown-costumed copycat is going to spook the wrong person and get himself killed.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Penn State had its own clown-less incident on Monday night. While sensible sorts were asleep in their beds, hundreds of students, some armed with baseball bats, hockey sticks, tennis rackets and golf clubs (clowns, apparently, are vulnerable to sports equipment), according to Onward State, heeded a social media summons to a clown hunt.

They came up empty.

What is this madness about? As a certified member of the tiny band of eccentrics who have earned graduate degrees in the scholarly study of folklore, I’m glad you asked.

First, an observation: It is no coincidence that creepy clown hysteria has erupted in early fall. ‘Tis the season when pop-up Halloween costume emporia appear on America’s highways and byways, stimulating lively imaginations and a few early adapters who just can’t wait ‘til the end of October to mask up.

In Fall 1998, rumors swept the Penn State campus – and elsewhere -- that a psychic who had appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” had predicted that a maniac dressed as Little Bo Peep would commit mass murder on a Big Ten campus.

The story had circulated on college campuses for decades, with only the name of the talk show host changing with the times: Phil Donahue, David Letterman, Johnny Carson, Montel Williams, Geraldo Rivera, Joan Rivers…

Though the rumor was amply debunked, some Penn State students reportedly played it safe by going home for the weekend anyway.

So we seem to be susceptible to tales of costumed characters intent on mayhem. Other than on Halloween itself, disguise arouses suspicions. A masked person is hiding something. He must be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  

Then there’s coulrophobia – fear of clowns. Let’s face it: Clowns can be pretty creepy, even the ones that don’t have jagged teeth, angry eyes or smeary face paint, a la Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Picture little kids trying to make sense of this great, big world. Bit by bit, their categorizing brains bring order to the chaos of experience: These kinds of creatures are people. Those kinds are dogs. These other creatures are cats. Pretty soon, familiarity with the person/dog/cat categories keeps our young explorers from freaking out at every new person/dog/cat they encounter, unless the new sighting happens to be a particularly grotesque version of the familiar.

But then we throw a clown at them, or a giant Goofy at Disneyworld, or even the beloved Nittany Lion, and some kids will recoil in terror. Clowns, in particular, take ordinary human features – nose, mouth, eyes, hair -- and grossly exaggerate them.

Even smiling clowns arouse suspicions. Anyone who needs to paint a giant smile on his face must be trying to hide a profound sadness – or madness. The clown embodies a folk idea: the figure who’s laughing to keep from crying.

Serial killer John Wayne Gacy, aka “The Killer Clown,” along with a series of movie and television send-ups of creepy clowns, doubtless contributed to clowns’ fall from innocence in the public imagination – though a Smithsonian Magazine piece notes that the kid-friendly Bozos of mid-century America were actually a departure from the more sinister clowns of yore. Think of the 19th century opera “Pagliacci,” which features a murderous clown.

But why Little Bo Peep panics one year and creepy clown scares another? Well, can you think of anybody with a strange complexion and fright-wiggy hair who is popping up all over the country this fall making creepy and clownish pronouncements?

I’ll give you a hint: He’s running for president of the United States.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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