Creepy ‘killer clown’ craze spreads to UK

Funny business: Bill Skarsgard will star as the new Pennywise in a 2017 adaptation of It.

For months, towns in America have been terrified by reports of clowns brandishing knives or luring children into the woods. Now, as Halloween approaches, the phenomenon has reached Britain.

It began in Greenville, South Carolina. In late August, a young boy ran home to tell his mother that he had spotted two clowns in the woods. One had bright red hair. The other had a black star on his face. They ‘whispered’ to him.

Rumours began to spread. Some children said that the clowns offered them money. They became convinced that the clowns lived in a house amongst the trees. But when police investigated, there were ‘no signs of suspicious activity’.

Yet the reports kept coming. First in neighbouring towns, then across the country. One man was arrested for hiding in a ditch in a clown costume; another for making up fake clown sightings. Some schools went into lockdown; others banned clown Halloween costumes and other ‘symbols of terror’.

Now they have arrived in Australia and the UK, where at least 20 clowns have been spotted driving mobility scooters, carrying knives and lurking near playgrounds.

No one has been attacked. But ‘this is no laughing matter,’ said the police.

It is not the first time that creepy clown sightings have swept through America. It first happened in the 1980s, when fears about ‘stranger danger’ were rising, says Benjamin Radford, author of Bad Clowns. Reports have continued sporadically ever since — but this time social media has whipped them up into a national frenzy.

Why are clowns so scary? Many blame Pennywise, the murderous clown from Stephen King’s novel It. But jesters have always had a dark side. The first clown, Grimaldi, was beloved by Georgian audiences — and yet his life was plagued by death and addiction. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the fool is eventually hanged.

Some think the phenomenon goes back even further. ‘Since caveman days, people would smear ashes on their faces to make each other laugh,’ explains David Kiser, a circus recruiter. ‘Other times they would smear ashes on their faces to scare each other.’ Today, clowns are often listed as one of our most common phobias. Is this irrational?

Clowning around

Yes, say some. Clowns have been given a bad reputation by characters like the Joker and Pennywise. In reality, they are harmless children’s entertainers — even Stephen King himself agrees. ‘Time to cool the clown hysteria,’ he tweeted last week. ‘Most of ’em are good, cheer up the kiddies, make people laugh.’ This wave of clown panic will soon fizzle out.

Not likely, say others. Clowns have always been scary. They are the perfect embodiment of Freud‘s idea of the ’uncanny’: something which is familiar — like a face — but not quite right, and therefore deeply disturbing. Their makeup hides their emotions, making them seem unpredictable. What might they do next? It is enough to keep anyone up at night.

You Decide

  1. Are you afraid of clowns?
  2. What is driving the wave of clown sightings to spread through the USA, Australia and Britain?


  1. Think of something (other than clowns) which scares you and discuss it with the person sitting next to you. Is it a common fear? Where does it come from? Is there anything you can do to overcome it? At the end of your talk, write a short piece of advice for your partner.
  2. Sad or scary clowns have appeared throughout literature for centuries. Write your own short story about the phenomenon.

Some People Say...

“Clowns are a reflection of ourselves.”

What do you think?

Q & A

It’s just some idiots pulling pranks. Why take it seriously?
Perhaps, but it could have real consequences. For one thing, carrying weapons is clearly extremely dangerous — and illegal in the UK. In America, the public has been warned not to react violently against the clowns; in Greenville, for example, the hysteria reached such a fever pitch that locals began shooting randomly into the woods.
So what should I do if I see a creepy clown?
Try not to be alarmed. They may look scary, but they are just people in masks, and no one has been hurt or kidnapped so far. If you think they have a weapon, or if they are deliberately scaring people or acting suspiciously, you should call the police on 101 (UK). And it goes without saying that you should not speak to them or follow them anywhere.

Word Watch

In It, Pennywise is a shapeshifting, eternal being that landed on Earth on an asteroid long before humans arrived. Now it mostly takes the form of a clown, sleeping for around 30 years at a time before waking to terrorise the American town Derry — including murdering its children.
Joseph Grimaldi was Britain’s most popular entertainer in the early 1800s, and the first clown to use the white make up and red lips that have become standard. Off-stage, he lost his wife to childbirth and his son to alcoholism, before dying in poverty. His memoirs were ghost-written and edited by a young Charles Dickens.
King Lear
The fool is the only character from whom Lear allows criticism, and the fool is extremely loyal in return. Shakespearean fools are well known for swinging between nonsense and the most insightful lines of the play.
One of the most notorious villains from the Batman comics.
Sigmund Freud discussed the uncanny in 1919. Now it is often used in reference to humanoid robots or animated movies. How can designers avoid falling into the ‘uncanny valley’?

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