Killer Clowns from Eight US States (and Counting)

When you imagine a clown, do you think of a happy memory from childhood, or are you convinced it plans to kill you in your sleep? I’m firmly in the second camp, and as much as I love Halloween, the clown costumes and scenes absolutely terrify me. My strong aversion to clowns brings great joy to friends and family, as they tease me and pull a variety of clown-related pranks year-round. The thing is, my excessive fear of clowns is a real, documented phobia (coulrophobia) in the psychology world, and I’m far from being the only one who feels petrified when I see a circus scene at Halloween. It turns out that 2% of the adult population is afraid of clowns, and Charles Dickens’s writing about famous pantomime, Grimaldi, shed a light on the darker side of clowns way back in 1838 (McRobbie, 2013).

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I was never sure about the origin of my clown panic, but experienced my “aha moment” a few years ago when a friend sent me this Smithsonian article about the history and psychology of clowns (one word…Poltergeist). The article lists multiple examples of scary clowns in popular culture, to include a long list of movies starring these creepy, murderous beings. If you’re with me in the 2%, you share my horror regarding the recent reports of clowns in South Carolina trying to lure kids into the woods with candy. Even if you’re not afraid of clowns, you have to admit that the reports are extremely disturbing. To make matters worse, as of two days ago, the sinister clown sightings have been reported in eight states (Kennedy, 2016).

So, here’s the question…WHY are there creepy clowns terrifying people across the country? One operating theory is that this is all a viral marketing campaign for Rob Zombie’s new horror movie 31, or even the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s, It (“South Carolina clown sightings,” 2016). While that theory seems reckless and insane, pressure is growing on marketers to create viral advertising that gets people’s attention (Elliott & Vega, 2013). And you know what? Anyone who saw these stories in the news now knows about the movie releases.

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The studios affiliated with both movies deny any association with the clown sightings, and police believe some of the clowns are copycats or even hoaxes (Reinstein, 2016; Kennedy, 2016). Perhaps the movie studios are telling the truth, or maybe they are distancing themselves from a growing public relations and legal nightmare. Regardless, both studios and their movies are in the news. How does this end, though? Was this a clever, yet unethical, boundary-pushing marketing campaign that’s gone too far? Or do the 2% of us finally have the validation we never wanted? Let’s hear your thoughts.

References

Elliott, S. & Vega, T. (2013, May 10). Trying to be hip and edgy, ads become offensive. The   New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/11/business/media/trying-to- behip-and-edgy-ads-become-offensive.html

Kennedy, M. (2016, September 24). Sinister ‘clowns’ are scaring people in multiple states.   NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/09/24/495298587/sinister-clowns-are-scaring-people-in-multiple-states

McRobbie, L.R. (2013, July 31). The history and psychology of clowns being scary.                 Smithsonian.com. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-and-psychology-of-clowns-being-scary-20394516/?no-ist

Reinstein, J. (2016, September 8). Those scary clown sightings aren’t a movie marketing     stunt. BuzzFeedNews. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/juliareinstein/those-       scary-clown-sightings-arent-a-movie-marketing-stunt?       utm_term=.skg5VkEdnG#.pu66nZ7XQl

South Carolina clown sightings could be part of film marketing stunt. (2016, September 4). theguardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-           news/2016/sep/04/south-carolina-clown-sightings-could-be-part-of-film-marketing-stunt

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4 Responses to Killer Clowns from Eight US States (and Counting)

  1. Amara says:

    Hi Kathleen,

    This is a great post! I am not in the 2% however I can relate to having a real phobia, that of snakes. That aside, having a phobia is not fun, so using it as a tactic to generate attention and buzz for a new movie just crosses an ethical line. I would not be surprised if the studios had something to do with this viral campaign. I heard about the clown sightings but did not put two and two together, so when I read your blog I literally said “OH” out loud. The studios are getting what they want, regardless if they take responsibility for it. However, the reports of clown sightings are very disturbing, causing a panic across the country. It is ridiculous and disappointing that it has escalated this far. The studios should reevaluate their marketing tactics…

    Best,
    Amara

    • Kathleen says:

      Hi Amara-

      Thank you for your comments! The clown sightings continue to increase, and phobia aside, I’m extremely curious to know why this is happening. I agree that so far this is benefitting the studios, as long as they aren’t implicated in the clown infestation. They could hire us for their crisis communications if they are. 🙂 Thanks again.

      Kathy

  2. Lydia says:

    Hi Kathy,

    If this epic emergence of clowns from whatever dark and sinister place they come is a publicity stunt, it’s brilliant but should have been stopped by legal. I read the other day that a murderous clown surprised a pregnant woman who then went into premature labor. Imagine if a film studio were to take credit for the clowns to promote a new movie? The lawsuits would come pouring in for certain. Additionally, there are clowns who are now physically assaulting people. I understand that marketers are having trouble cutting through the clutter and possessing the holy grail of disruption, but there is a fine line between good and bad publicity. Clowns fit into the latter. Your fundamental point is excellent though, if terrifying clowns are part of a publicity stunt, has guerrilla marketing gone too far?

    Loved your post! Will not torture you with clowns.

    Lydia

  3. Mahta says:

    Kathleen,
    I am also afraid of clowns. Something else that terrifies me is the ice cream truck. To me, there is no music creepier than the ice cream truck jingle!
    I don’t recall watching any of the classic horror movies that had crazy clowns in them while growing up. At least not until I was much older (in my late teens).
    I do however remember a clown doll that someone had gifted me when I was about four years old. It was a marionette. It was carved so it could cast shadows in the dark. It was next to my bed with all the other stuffed animals and dolls. At night, when the shadows would fall on it, I was mortified. As for the fear of ice cream trucks, I have no clue where that originated…
    There is an episode of Frasier titled “Boo” – it is worth a watch. Here is a short clip: https://youtu.be/xhTQMuhOB8E
    I think your hypothesis that the “Killer Clowns” were a marketing strategy is very plausible. It reminds me of the Blairwitch Project marketing campaign, where they ran a documentary on the Discovery channel. The clown stories didn’t really stay top-of-mind for a very long time. Maybe the timing was not right. The elections seem to have really overtaken all social chatter during the months leading up to the elections.
    Cheers,