Illustration: Hanlin Chng

The 2016 clown sightings began 29 August in Greenville County, South Carolina, when a person wearing a clown costume was reported to be luring children into the woods around an apartment complex. In the following months, more and more clown sightings were reported in the United States, Canada, and numerous countries around the world. Incidents involved individuals chasing people, standing still and staring at passersby, and even committing robberies or assaults—all while in clown costume. While this may seem like all fun and games to some people, it has numerous negative social implications.

Circuses have predictably been impacted, with the creepy clowns sightings souring public opinion of clowns in general. They have caused some circuses to drop clown acts, affecting people’s livelihoods. In October, McDonald’s decided that public appearances made by performers dressed as their mascot, Ronald McDonald, would have to decrease.[3] This Halloween, many communities advised against dressing up as clowns, and parents of trick-or-treaters in Florida even decided to carry weapons to protect themselves from potential clown scares.

Why have these occurrences become so widespread? Perhaps people do it for the kicks. Maybe it is fun to creep people out. Maybe it makes for an amusing story to tell friends the next day. And don’t forget the pranksters looking for the next joke to post on YouTube. Dressing as a creepy clown in public is not actually illegal, but it definitely attracts attention.

In some cases, these incidents have escalated from mere annoyances to criminal activity. On 15 September, 22-year-old Makayla Smith and two underage accomplices were arrested for threatening students at Escambia County High School and Flomaton High School on social media, dressed as killer clowns.[1] In Phoenix, two juveniles wearing clown masks were arrested for robbing fast food restaurants.[2]

Clowns already have a reputation for being creepy; the exaggerated smiles and face paint hide any discernable emotion, causing people to tense up with the possibility that something dangerous could be hiding behind the mask. The sightings are only aggravating these fears. It is unsettling when a clown appears out of context, such as in the woods or the shadows on a street at night. Clowns typically cause mischief, so people are predisposed to be alert around them, unwilling to be rude but also reluctant to be the subject of an embarrassing prank.

It is possible for a prank to go too far. Scaring family and friends for fun is one thing, but chasing children at night while armed is another. Doing so is not only traumatizing for the victims, but also a hindrance to local authorities that have to waste resources on the lookout for troublemakers. These incidents are unnecessary and on the rise because of their Internet popularity. What about the parents of the children who are chased through parks and whose schools are threatened?[4] A single threat is enough to put an entire community on edge.

The creepy clowns are only the most recent example of the many practical jokes which quickly rise in popularity through the Internet. What starts out as a seemingly harmless joke can quickly turn sour. While there is nothing wrong with having a little fun, reactions and consequences need to be considered before pulling any pranks. From a teen who was shot egging a neighbor’s car to a car accident caused by tampering with a stop sign, remember that pranks do not always go as planned. [5]






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