Clowns are creeping across America, lurking in the woods and generally freaking out the general public.
Over the past few months, “clown sightings” have become a thing, occupying a dark crevice in the popular imagination that was once filled by UFO or Slender Man sightings. And like all viral trends, this one is spreading, with creepy-clown alerts popping up in England, Australia, Canada, and Scotland. Whether they’re teenage pranksters, a movie-marketing ploy, figments of the imagination, or really out to do harm (all possibly true in some cases), the clowns are universally described with one word: creepy.
But why are clowns so creepy? And why are they suddenly popping up all over? Luckily, scientists are giving this some thought, and clown sightings turn out to be a perfect case study on the nature of creepiness—and what makes an idea go viral.
“In many ways, clowns combine a perfect storm of freaky things,” says Frank McAndrew, a social psychologist who published the first large study of creepiness just this year.
Not only are they mischievous and strange looking, McAndrew says, but behind the makeup you can’t tell who clowns are or what they’re really feeling.
That has led some people to speculate that clowns are creepy because they fall into what’s known as the uncanny valley, a not-quite-human appearance often ascribed to robots. The idea is that we like and feel empathy for robots that look somewhat human-like (think C-3P0), but are repulsed by those that look too human.
So, the thinking goes, clowns scare us because they blur the lines of looking human, with heavy makeup distorting their features—not to mention those huge feet and bizarre hair.
But the uncanny valley seems at best a partial explanation for creepy clowns. For one thing, the idea normally applies to objects that resemble humans: robots, dolls, ventriloquist’s dummies, and whatever that Tom Hanks thing was in Polar Express. Clowns are clearly humans, just weird looking ones.
And clowns, let’s not forget, haven’t always been loathed. If the uncanny valley alone were the problem, we’d expect clowns and other heavily made-up actors to have always elicited feelings of creepiness. Yet there have been many beloved clowns (such as Clarabell and Bozo), and I remember when clowns were perfectly acceptable decoration for a child’s room.
According to McAndrew, what really makes clowns creepy is that they are ambiguous characters in so many ways. “If a person is willing to flout the conventions of society by dressing and acting as they do,” McAndrew says, “what other rules might they be willing to break?”
That tracks with what McAndrew found in his study, where he surveyed more than 1,300 people to figure out what behaviors and physical characteristics people find creepy. The common factor was unpredictability.
“It is only when we are confronted with uncertainty about a threat that we get the chills,” he writes in an article about psychology. “It would be considered rude and strange to run away in the middle of a conversation with someone who is sending out a creepy vibe but is actually harmless; at the same time, it could be perilous to ignore your intuition and engage with that individual if he is, in fact, a threat. The ambivalence leaves you frozen in place, wallowing in discomfort.”
Clowns, as pranksters, have always toed a line between entertainment and mischief. So it’s easy to flip the traditional, happy clown trope on its head—as we often do in literature and film. The opera Pagliacci debuted a murderous clown in 1892, and the evil clown took off in popular culture in the 1970s and ‘80s with serial killer John Wayne Gacy and Stephen King’s It. Today, clowns seem to be featured as scary more often than as funny.
And that brings us back to today’s onslaught of creepy-clown sightings. Why is YouTube suddenly flooded with them? Harvard computer scientist Michele Coscia studies what makes an idea go viral online—or not—and he says he’s surprised that the creepy-clown meme is being revamped so successfully.
He has shown that most memes—whether an image, phrase, or idea like creepy clowns—fizzle because they fail to differentiate themselves from the competition. And creepy clowns have already flooded the marketplace of ideas, starring in horror movies for years.
“My theory would say, Well, this meme is not novel, so it should not be likely to go viral,” Coscia says. “Yet, it did. So you could say that my theory in this case fails.”
But Coscia has a hypothesis. When he looks at a meme on social websites like Reddit, he can create a measure called “canonicity” for it—how unusual it is. Lower canonicity means the idea is more unusual, and more likely to go viral. In the case of creepy-clown sightings, “there were prank memes and creepy clowns, but not the conjunction of the two,” Coscia says.
And boom—a new, low-canonicity idea was born, primed to go viral.
Then social psychology kicked in. “Social media fans the flames by giving us a false sense of how widespread something is and how threatened we should be feeling,” McAndrew says. “Better to err on the side of caution by protecting your children from killer clowns than to err in the other direction. We now have the ability to sound alarms and spread rumors with a megaphone, and we never pass up the opportunity to do so.”
But when will we be rid of them?
“Usually I see that the higher the spike in popularity, the shorter the life of the meme,” says Coscia. “If creepy clowns become hugely popular, people will get tired of them quickly.” But, he jokes, if they “creep up” for a while, they might stick around for a while.
McAndrew’s study seems to support that. He asked people to rate the creepiness of different professions. The winner, by far? Clowns.