Of Patriotism, Creepy Clowns, and Halloween

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Creepy clown masks/Getty Images


What to wear this Halloween in a cultural climate fraught with anger, anxiety, fear, and suspicion?

The New York Times recently observed that “Clowns, Candidates and Other Halloween Costume Missteps” are being committed everywhere from New York City to Nebraska.  The article quotes Frank Oglesby, receiving manager at New York costume shop Ricky’s, “We try and stay as free from controversy as possible.”  Yet, as I observed last Halloween, the occasion is carnivalesque and therefore necessarily accompanied by ambiguities and transgressions.  Folklorist Jack Santino observes, “The whole idea of pushing boundaries or crossing lines is that there always is a line, but different people will cross it at different places.”

Racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes are the most conspicuously unimaginative costume options for someone wishing to push boundaries or cross lines.  A clown costume, by contrast, is a much more mischievous option for the person who aims to unsettle all.  For the past several months, creepy clowns have been sighted across the country.  (One hopes a folklore graduate student is on the scent and will write a paper on the topic directly.)  It is difficult to know where the clown fire is and how many sightings are so much smoke.  The silent clowns’ uncertain intentions, their seeming ubiquity, and the general unease clowns instill in so many make for an infectious tale, especially among school children.  According to The New York Times, some cities have even banned clown costumes.  When something is taboo it becomes an obvious choice for the transgressor.

Waldos 2009
Waldos on Bourbon Street (2009)/Image L. Hall-Araujo

In 2009, while conducting Halloween costume research on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, I came across a large group of Waldos of Where’s Waldo? fame.  Waldo, in his striped shirt, knit cap, and heavy framed glasses, is everywhere and yet notoriously difficult to locate in the colorful illustrated children’s books.  The group costume was evocative, easy to copy, and readily identifiable—all qualities I associate with enduring costumes.  A group of clowns would share these qualities.  Given this year’s creepy clown sightings, a group of clowns—regardless of whether they were made gruesome or cute—would powerfully unsettle adults and children.    The clown costume for Halloween 2016 is the perfect costume: it is easy to copy, is instantly recognizable to everyone, and is evocative of current events.

Clowns traditionally entertain and perform a kind of trickster role.  Certainly their outsize body parts—large feet, large inhuman noses—paired with their painted-on, immovable expressions contribute to what so many people find disturbing about clowns.  They are inscrutable in their perpetual happiness or perpetual sadness.  One wonders if, among those who fear clowns, sad clowns are more tolerable than happy ones.  That would seem to make sense as unwavering happiness is the quality people in the US seem bound to enforce.  The clown’s permanent smile is something we both seek and fear.  The clown lives our nightmare.

This past September when I first read about clown sightings in Columbia, Missouri, I was not aware that clowns had been appearing across the country.  I laughed at the absurdity of such reports making their way into my local newspaper’s police blotter and wondered why community members were contacting the police over such matters.  After living in Los Angeles for three years, I was charmed that clown sightings counted as crimes in the Midwest.  When I learned several weeks later that this was a nationwide phenomenon, my interest grew.

The clown has become our shared scapegoat.  For months we have heard and experienced how divisive the country is at this moment.  The Black Lives Matter movement continues to grow and in response resentment has increased among those who claim “all lives matter.”  Some want to build a wall along our southern border to keep out the imagined threat posed by would-be immigrants.  An antigovernment group took up arms and seized an Oregon wildlife preserve earlier this year, putting out a call for like-minded people to join them.  It seems the middle ground is rapidly shrinking.  Debate and nuance have given way to hashtags and extreme positions.

The creepy clown unites us because he (isn’t it usually a he?) is blank enough to contain every demographic’s greatest fears—whether fear of Mexican criminals or a Trump presidency.  The clown is in disguise and could be anyone.  When we fear the clown, we fear whatever sinister quality we imagine he is hiding behind his painted-on smile.  We need the creepy clown sightings because they give us something to dread in common.  Regardless of how the presidential elections turn out, there will be a large swath of the population who is horrified.  For now, the only thing we can agree on is that we do not want to cross paths with a creepy clown.

Let us stand united.  This Halloween the most patriotic costume you can wear is the clown. 



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