10 Scare-inducing Moments in History


The Great Clown Scare of 2016

Ah, remember the clown panic of 2016? SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Ah, remember the clown panic of 2016? SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Every decade is defined in part by some quirky event or fad. The 1950s had UFO sightings, the 1970s had Disco Demolition Night and the 1990s had people going into survivalist mode in the months leading up to Y2K. What defines the 2010s? Probably people dressing up as creepy clowns and scaring the pants off of other people.

It all started in August 2016 at an apartment complex in Greenville, South Carolina, where a boy told his mom about a frightening experience: Two clowns tried to lure him into the woods outside their building [source: Teague]. The story was unsubstantiated, but copycats soon emerged. A woman in Alabama created a Facebook page for "Flomo Klown" and threatened to kill people at a local school. Police arrested a man in Kentucky who was dressed like a clown and hiding in a ditch [source: Teague]. In just a few months, people had reported more than 100 clown sightings and threats in the United States, and the phenomenon began to spread to other countries, including England, Canada and Australia [source: Shilling].

The public reaction was frightening as well. People began threatening to shoot clowns, and a mob even formed at Penn State University in response to a clown sighting. All the hysteria prompted author Stephen King — whose murderous clown character Pennywise from his novel It probably contributed to the clown craze — to issue a statement calling for people to cool it [source: Carlson].

All this begs the question: Why clowns? Certainly, popular culture has conditioned us to fear clowns, with fictional portrayals like those in It to actual events like the serial murders committed by John Wayne Gacy, known in the press as "The Killer Clown." But there may be something more fundamental. For one, clowns are unpredictable: You never know if they're going to squirt water on you or pull something from their sleeve. The exaggerated face paint also makes them uncanny — human, but in a strange and mysterious way. We just aren't wired very well to deal with this uncertainty, and the Great Clown Scare is proof [source: Romm].