Creepy Clowns

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So now it has come to this:  Ronald McDonald is on administrative leave.  And the funny thing is that I can assume that you already know exactly what I am talking about.  Yes, the creepy clown invasion: the next best thing since zombies.


Because that's really what it's all about: people, as Halloween approaches, looking for the latest in camped-out pop cultural horror.  Not that creepy clowns are going to have anything like the staying power of zombies (this is a fad, not a trend), but the clowns bear a family resemblance to these popular humanoid monsters (vampires belong to the clan, as well) and appear to be part of a larger fascination with the macabre in contemporary American culture.  Except that there's a lot more to it than that.


Because unlike zombie walks and costume vampire fangs, the creepy clown phenomenon does not have its origins in pre-existing stories and entertainments.  Vampires are an ancient part of our lore, and even zombies (of the walking dead variety) have a lengthy genealogy.  Creepy clowns, by contrast, are a newly minted product of the instant-fad-creating potential of the Internet.  And more importantly, unlike vampires and zombies, they're real.  Zombie walks shouldn't frighten anyone.  Vampire events are pure camp.  But frighted-up clowns coming at you in the dark with real knives are quite something else.  A certain amount of not-so-make-believe terrorism is going on here, so the semiotic question must be: what on earth does this signify?


It's best to begin at the beginning with such a question.  So, the whole business apparently started in August, down in South Carolina, when someone in some sort of clown suit was spotted trying to lure children into the woods.  This may have been a "prank," or a real case of predatory pedophilia, but the key to the matter is that it got reported, and the report went viral.  In no time, it seems, doing oneself up as a maniac clown became the prank of the town.


Creepy clowns, then, are signifiers, at least in part, of the enormous power of virtual technology to stimulate actual behavior—a kind of postmodern case of "monkey see, monkey do" on a truly mass scale.  You know, "I saw it on the Internet so it must be cool."


Not that faddish behavior itself  is anything new, of course, especially in a mass consumer society.  Hula hoops, Cabbage Patch dolls, pogs, the original Pokemons, mutant ninja turtles - all of these instances of what I shall call "sudden mass hysteria syndrome" percolated throughout America (and the world) without benefit of social media.  The Internet just makes the process a lot faster, generating an endless stream of ice bucket challenges, twerking events, flash mobs, and, yes, creepy clowns.


But, as in any semiotic analysis, we must look at the crucial (one might say diacritical) difference that sets the creepy clown fad apart from other such fads, in order to arrive at its most profound significance.  And this difference can be found in the really sinister nature of the thing.  Confident in the anonymity that a mask provides (there is a compelling connection here to the phenomenon of anonymous online trolling), the prankster-clown is genuinely frightening people.  In an era of daily terroristic threats, and when parents (alas, for good reason) no longer allow their children to go trick-or-treating unaccompanied, this is no joke.  The fact that a growing number of "clowns" think that it is only a joke, or do not even stop to think of the effects that their "fun" may be having on other people, is what is really significant here.  A lot of otherwise ordinary people in the digital era are apparently losing their capacity to empathize with the feelings of other people.  Traditionally, this has been the hallmark of the psychopath, but there is a growing body of evidence that the Net is behind this new expression of social anomie, fostering what might be called "mass psychopathology."


Happy Halloween.

Source: Why Are You Laughing? by davocano on Flickr, used under CC-BY 2.0 license 

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.