The 2016 Clown Sightings: Was It All Just a Hoax?

Evil clown

(Tom Roberts/Unsplash)

As if 2016 wasn’t already weird and miserable enough, remember when people started seeing creepy clowns lurking everywhere and we were all like, “Sure, why not, death in a sewer, here we come”? What was going on there? Were there really roving bands of evil clowns roaming the country, waiting in the shadows to pop out and do… whatever evil clowns do? Of course not. It was a combination of marketing stunts, staged videos, and good old hysteria.

The Green Bay Clown (Was a Publicity Stunt)

Gags the Clown (2018)

(Doppelganger Releasing)

It all started on August 1, 2016, when a bald clown holding a bunch of black balloons was seen wandering around Green Bay, Wisconsin at night. The next day, an official Facebook page for “Gags the Clown” popped up, and within a week and a half, the whole thing was revealed to be a guerilla marketing campaign for a low-budget horror movie called Gags. It has a 38% Rotten Tomatoes score and not even enough audience reviews to register. Here’s hoping it was worth it.

The Greenville Clowns

Greenville, South Carolina

(Excel23/Wikimedia Commons)

Clowns must love towns with “Green” in the name, because a few weeks later, residents of Greenville, South Carolina reported seeing clowns trying to lure children into the woods. Weirdly, police couldn’t find any evidence of clown predation, and the adults who supposedly saw them refused to give them their names, probably because anyone who actually wants to lure children wouldn’t also try to make them shit their pants.

Carolina False Reports

It was a good thing, too, because the police of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at least, proved they were completely willing to make arrests for false clown reports after a local man admitted to making one up. It was just one of several reports in the aftermath of the Greenville incident that couldn’t be verified.

The Macon Clown

Macon, Georgia

(Soglad2005/Wikimedia Commons)

By September, clown fever had spread to Georgia, where a group of children claimed they were chased away from their school bus stop by clowns. It was actually the third clown report in Georgia that month, none of which -- get this -- could be substantiated.

Georgia False Reports (Are You Seeing a Pattern?)

Sure enough, within days, three more people had been charged with making false reports of clown sightings in Georgia. One of them claimed it was a group of clowns who injured him in a drive-by shooting rather than a drug deal gone bad, which, to be fair, is exactly what we’d say if we didn’t want to admit to dealing drugs.

Alabama Threats

From there, clown hysteria came to Alabama, where “clowns” were actually getting arrested, but not for creeping in the shadows. Nine people were arrested for claiming to be clowns and making threats, usually over social media, most of them kids who were probably trying to get school shut down for a day. You know how algebra tests are. By the end of September, 12 people across the country had been arrested for clown-related threats, but only a pair of Virginia teenagers had actually bothered to dress up. That didn’t happen until September 28, because…

People Actually Start Doing It

The only credible sightings of clowns, like the 20-year-old guy arrested in Kentucky for lurking in the woods in a clown costume in late September and the video of a clown hanging from the back of a Detroit bus in early October, didn’t occur until the panic was in full swing. It was a classic case of life imitating art, if art were a bunch of kids making up stories. One video from Florida was posted by a known conspiracy theorist, suggesting that at least some of these clowns were explicitly dressing up to get six seconds of video and then bailing before the fuzz showed up.

Clown Crime


(Eduardo Soares/Unsplash)

Then people just started using the hysteria as an excuse to commit crimes. In late September, a group of people in Arizona stuck up two fast food restaurants and another in Memphis robbed a bank while wearing clown masks, though it could be argued that they were just as inspired by The Dark Knight as the rich history of clowning.

People Start Getting Stabbed

Shit got stone-cold serious in late September and early October, when people started getting stabbed. In one incident, a teenage boy in Reading, Pennsylvania was killed during a fight with a masked man, though it was technically a Purge mask, and another who was dressed as a clown was stabbed after trying to scare a friend in Germany. Pranks have prices, people.

The Clown Community

Friendly clown

(Ben Wicks/Unsplash)

Actual deaths notwithstanding, the real victims of the 2016 clown panic were the real, flower-squirting, nose-honking clowns of the world. They started seeing circus audiences and requests for party clowns go way down and even started fearing violence just traveling from gig to gig. No one should have to worry about getting stabbed just for wearing their work uniform.

The Costume Ban

Ronald McDonald

(Erik Mclean/Unsplash)

Speaking of clown costumes, as Halloween drew nearer, stores like Target and Canadian Tire (which is basically Canadian Target) started pulling clown decorations and costumes from their stores and websites, and school districts threatened punishment for students who came to school dressed as clowns. Even Ronald McDonald was forced to take the holiday off out of “mindful of the current climate around clown sightings.” As if clowns were out there committing hate crimes.

Campus “Clown Hunting”

Michigan State University

(Jeffness/Wikimedia Commons)

As with most frenzies, nowhere was frenzier than college campuses, where “clown hunting” became the extracurricular activity of choice in October 2016, usually in response to phony sightings or Photoshopped images. After one supposed sighting at New York’s St. Bonaventure University, students posted an “anti-clown army” sign-up sheet, and a mob of 200 students actually went out on a clown hunt at Michigan State University after one student tweeted an image she created of a clown lurking on campus and then went back to her homework, totally oblivious of the panic she caused. Nothing could top, however…

The Penn State Clown Riot

Penn State University

(Penn State iGEM 2008/Wikimedia Commons)

On October 3, somewhere between 500 and 6,000 (yes, that’s three zeros) students poured out of Penn State dorms, armed with a variety of sporting equipment and chanting impolite suggestions as to what they’d like to do to clowns, to “let the clowns know how they feel.” The cause turned out to be a projected image on the side of a nearby apartment building. Yes, some Walmart projector caused a full-blown riot, though there were no reports of injuries or property damage, so it was pretty tame, as far as riots go.

Oh No, It’s Halloween


(David Menidrey/Unsplash)

Things reached a fever pitch, of course, on Halloween, when a bunch of assholes on social media threatened a great “clown purge” was coming, scaring residents of various communities into locking themselves in their homes or going out armed for trick-or-treating, because no level of violent threat will keep some people from their god-given right to candy. Of course, nothing happened except one family was attacked in their car by a group of teens they recognized from their neighborhood.

It Wasn’t the First Clown Panic and Won’t Be The Last

Bozo the Clown in 1980

(Tony/Wikimedia Commons)

Like most of the horrible things that happened in 2016, the clown sightings actually weren’t uniquely bad or widespread. National clown hysteria dates back to at least 1981, and it pops up reliably every five years or so, which means we should be seeing it again in… aw, fuck. We’re due.

Top image: Tom Roberts/Unsplash

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