As I was walking up from the train station at night, through the long, steep and winding path back to my house I was a little scared not only because it was night (with the deep shadows lurking in the woods flanking the path), but because I was warily anticipating the appearance of that most disturbing of creatures, the clown. The recent clown craze has created an atmosphere of paranoid hysteria, first in the States, then in Britain, and apparently now in Australia (at least that’s what I think is the chronology, but I’ve seen differing reports). What is going on? What does this mean? Most news outlets refer to it as ‘clown pranks’, a practice of scaring and intimidating people (mostly children) with creepy costumes and threatening behaviour. ‘Prank’, however, feels inaccurate. Pranks usually have an element of comedy, even when the main intent Is to scare someone – after the scare the victim quickly acknowledges the lack of danger/their own safety, and it’s laughed off. These clown sightings, though? No laughing matter. Children are traumatised, parents are paranoid, schools are shaken, police departments are taking action. Framing these events as ‘pranks’ suddenly seems wildly inappropriate.
So what could this mean? Is it a craze proliferated by social media? Most definitely. Do these people want to send any kind of message, political or otherwise? I’m not sure. Is this just a new form of delinquency? Perhaps, but that kind of anti-social behaviour is usually practiced in groups, the familiar and dreadful mob of ‘hoodies’ Cameron so eagerly wanted to hug. The clown craze is something altogether more unsettling, more horrifying than a group of threatening boys or girls. At least gangs can be explained; there is a simple logic of rebellion and power at work. But with the single, companionless clown? What possesses you to go out alone? What are you thinking as you stroll aimlessly at night? Why are you doing this? There lurks a mystery about the clown that’s absent in the traditional gang; and considering there’s more footage of gangs of people ‘hunting’ and attacking clowns, it creates a neat image of the rational violently suppressing the irrational. The ‘irrationality’ of it touches on why they are scary. It’s not just the anonymity and the grotesque exaggerations of the mask, it’s the horrible lack of context surrounding their presence. The horror of the clown derives from the absence of its proper context – amusement at a birthday party or a circus/carnival. The ridiculous juxtaposition of a clown costume and the woods near somewhere you live is jarring, especially if they are carrying a weapon. There exists an unreality behind them, that though we know them to be human, our brains can’t quite process this wholly.
So, why does this fascinate me? Probably because we’re not talking about a horror film or game, but real life. At least in fiction we can analyse the design and intentions behind the horror, but not so much here. Are these people a collective? Do they share motives? Or is this a differentiated practice? Is it just a new pastime for bored teenagers? I wonder what China Miéville thinks of this phenomenon, considering he gave a talk on ‘Marxism and Halloween’ back in 2013 discussing the commodification of Halloween, and how it should be reclaimed for socialists. He talks about the value of fear and dread which can be used to conceive alternative futures, and how Halloween in its current form neuters these possibilities: ‘This is about the domestication of dread; the whole point of the model of dread that is constitutive of human consciousness is that it is ultimately ineffable, it cannot be quite contained’ (Miéville, 1013). I’m not sure if he would see any potentiality in the clown craze (especially when he later claims slasher films and torture porn films are not true horror), but I reckon he would have something interesting to say. They certainly are inspiring genuine dread.
Maybe the clowns from Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984) can help. These clowns, sitting themselves to dinner, ‘possessed the formal lifelessness of death masks, as if, in some essential sense, they themselves were absent from the repast and left untenanted replicas behind’ (Carter, 116) So far, so creepy. It further confirms the idea of the clown as something which shifts between the real and unreal, and in this case between life and death. An even creepier description of the clowns comes from a conversation they have which suggests the autonomy of the clown mask:
Sometimes it seems […] that the faces exist of themselves, in a disembodied somewhere, waiting for the clown who will wear them, who will bring them to life. Faces that wait in the mirrors of unknown dressing-rooms, unseen in the depths of the glass like fish in dusty pools, fish that will rise up out of the obscure profundity when they spot the one who anxiously scrutinises his own reflection for the face it lacks, mean-eating fish waiting to gobble up your being and give you another instead (Carter, 122)
I think this haunting description applies to any form of identity creation. If we adopt postmodern conceptions of the self, then we’re always inspecting our own reflection for the face we lack, filling up this interminable void with a multiplicity of personae (but that’s a different discussion). As for the clowns, what void is this filling? Is there a ‘disembodied somewhere’ creating the real life clowns? Which Is to say, are there any overarching implications about this craze? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m strangely interested in this surreal rupture of the real which seems to be gaining global traction (although, like most crazes on social media, will be transient). For now, though, I feel like we’re currently living inside a J.G. Ballard novel, those worlds where bored, frustrated communities dip into a collective id – only now it’s in costume.
Carter, Angela. 1984, Nights at the Circus (Picador: London)
Miéville, China, 2013, ‘Marxism and Halloween’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paCqiY1jwqc