Back in August 2016, an independent filmmaker in Green Bay, Wisconsin came up with a brilliant idea to promote his new short film. Since the 16-minute horror short focused on a scary clown named Gags, director Adam Krause hired an actor to dress up like a clown and stand silently in various locations around Green Bay. It was classic low-budget viral marketing. A few weeks later, the entire country was in an uproar. Enraged mobs rampaged through the streets hunting for clowns, while terrified parents organized armed posses to protect trick-or-treaters from the red-nosed menace. The Great Clown Panic of 2016 had begun.
It's easy to forget just how huge this thing was. Multiple school districts went into complete lockdown for fear of clown attacks. A Kentucky man mistook a woman walking her dog for a clown and burst out of his house firing an AR-15 into the air, which has to be the worst way to learn you're wearing too much makeup. College students were particularly susceptible to panic, as students at multiple universities armed themselves with baseball bats and pepper spray and roamed the campus searching for clowns. Please take a moment to feel sorry for any parent who scrimped and saved to help send a kid to university, only to see them on the news waving a bat with a nail through it and threatening to fight an imaginary clown.
By October, America was in the grips of clown madness. Hundreds of scary clown sightings were pouring in every month, although most were determined to be hoaxes (it's possible that "we'll shut the school if someone anonymously sends us a picture of Bozo on Instagram" was not a great precedent to set). Vox even published an explainer claiming the entire thing was fake, which is a bit of an exaggeration, since a chainsaw-wielding clown charging at you is scary whether or not the guy in the costume is just doing it for his YouTube prank channel. But even those jackasses were rare. Most of the time, somebody just posted "lol, I saw Pennywise in the woods by the middle school" and within 24 hours half the town was on fire and the mayor was on top of an armored school bus waving a shotgun and screaming that the executions would continue until the clown came forward.
Before long, the clown frenzy had spread overseas. In Sweden, a teenager was stabbed by a clown, while in Germany a clown was stabbed by a teenager. Brazil's "good clowns" held a rally to protest against evil clowns. In England, the police were so overwhelmed that the country had to deploy its unstoppable legions of reality TV stars, who took to Instagram promising to battle the clowns supposedly lurking around every corner. And in New Zealand, a guy in a clown mask grabbed a case of beer from a convenience store and threw it to an accomplice, who pedaled away on a bicycle, because there is literally nothing New Zealand can't make adorable. Seriously, the store owner said he initially became suspicious after realizing the guy wasn't his regular customer who always wore a clown mask. What is even going on down there?
An early sighting in Greenville, South Carolina helped set the pattern for the panic. On August 19, a small boy told his mother he had seen clowns in the woods, "whispering and making strange noises." By the next day, dozens of kids in the same apartment complex were reporting creepy clowns beckoning them into the darkness of the woods. Adults also saw the clowns, flashing green lights and attempting to lure kids to a derelict cabin in the trees. The cabin itself turned out to be under renovation and the new ownership denied the presence of any horror villains, pointing out that nobody managed to pull out a phone and take a quick video of the supposedly constant clown harassment. Police patrols through the woods also discovered no clowns, but by then the sightings were spreading through Greenville and beyond.
One of the weirdest incidents took place at Penn State, where Twitter rumors of a clown sighting prompted at least 1,000 students to sweep across campus, hunting for clowns. The mob eventually left campus and began rampaging through the streets, chanting "What do we want? Clowns!" It was later clarified that what they actually wanted was no clowns, but nobody has ever accused Penn State students of overthinking a riot. An emergency meeting of poetry majors ultimately produced the catchier slogan of "Fuck Clowns!" The only clown in the area turned out to be a still image projected on the side of a building, making the entire riot the equivalent of running to the front of a movie theater and trying to roundhouse kick The Joker.
Many people speculated the clown panic was related to the upcoming release of the movie It, but weirdly this was not America's first clown panic. Or even its tenth. For example, in 1981, five years before Stephen King's It was even published, Kansas City went into a complete frenzy after kids claimed to see a "demon clown" wielding a machete. The police department reported "a hysteria...we've had calls at the rate of about one a minute." That same year saw reports of a clown roaming Boston while nude from the waist down. There's no word on whether he was also wearing clown makeup down there, because every reporter in the '80s was a coward.
The sightings soon spread all the way to Pittsburgh, where rumors flew about men in clown costumes luring children into vans. No clowns ever turned up, although the police did eventually locate a guy in a pink bunny costume bothering children. Unfortunately, the rabbit outran the cops long enough to slip into a local bar, where they were apparently unable to identify him. It's unclear why this was so difficult, unless the bar was holding one of Pittsburgh's famous "creepy sex crime rabbits drink free" evenings. Although at least the cops learned a valuable lesson about the real-life flaws in "The Tortoise and the Hare" fable.
Further clown scares were reported across the country every few years, with only minor updates over the years. In the '90s, for example, the nation's children largely abandoned Stephen King references and were instead being terrorized by "Homey D. Clown," a Damon Wayans character from the sketch show In Living Color. Presumably Wayans did not hope for his grumpy clown character to terrorize a generation of children, before eventually being beaten to death in a sewer, but that didn't stop kids in the Chicago area whipping themselves into a frenzy with rumors that "Homey" was driving around in a van abducting people. Kids started running screaming "It's Homey!" every time a van went by, while others mustered up the courage to go out hunting for the monster.
It got to the point that Chicago's professional clowns were complaining about "discrimination against clowns in general." Sadly, the Million Clown Rally in protest had to be called off after the small car everyone was driving there in hit a banana peel and spun uncontrollably through a cream pie factory. The cops ultimately dismissed the "Homey" sightings as an urban legend that spiraled incredibly out of hand. They now apparently respond to all inquiries about the incident with something along the lines of "that never happened, screw you asshole," although in fairness that's just how the Chicago police department answers the phone most days.
Over in the UK, a major clown incident took place in 2013, when a guy dressed like Pennywise from the 1990 It miniseries was spotted standing silently around Northampton. The creepy sightings went viral around the world, with reports that the clown had "sworn to continue his reign of terror." A rival "Northampton Clown Catcher" even emerged, promising to take the clown down. The only people who weren't frightened were the citizens of Northampton, where the clown quickly became a beloved figure, since "Northampton: The Clown Will Strike Again" is a way better tourism slogan than "Northampton: A Town That Exists" or "Northampton: Something Has To Go Here On Maps."
The Northampton clown was eventually revealed to be a local student who had initially created the clown as part of a college assignment to promote a short film, then kept it going when he realized he could use the sightings to harvest Facebook likes. But by that point, posts about the sightings had attracted the attention of Green Bay filmmaker Adam Krause. Which is right back where this whole article started. Yes, that's right, this whole thing started when a guy tried to promote his short film by ripping off a creepy Internet legend, which was itself created by a guy trying to promote his short film. It's goddamn short films all the way down here.
The 2016 scary clown sightings eventually petered out around November, about the same time that America's politicians stopped knocking on doors. But like we mentioned earlier, scary clowns have been popping up every few years for decades. So you may be pleased to hear that scary clowns are back on TikTok, where numerous users have posted videos of supposed clown sightings. Maybe we're just old fashioned, but we preferred it when clowns would just kill you with a chainsaw. Now you have to watch them doing body rolls to Ke$ha's Cannibal as you go?! Where's 1,000 drunken Penn State students when you need them?
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