What’s with all the clowns? IA critical thinker John Turnbull examines the latest viral fad and looks back at the history of pranking.

OVER THE last few weeks, there have been increasing numbers of media reports about people (usually young men, but not always) dressing up as clowns and trying to scare people. In some cases, the clown has been carrying a knife or other weapon and the first Australian arrest occurred a couple of days ago.

Why clowns?

The Smithsonian’s website has a great article on the history of creepy clowns, pointing out that they have been around since 2500 BCE in cultures as diverse as Egyptian, Chinese, European and Native American. Charles Dickens is credited with an early literary depiction of a creepy clown in The Pickwick Papers, while 1970s serial killer John Wayne Gacy provided a real world example of how scary clowns can be.

Coulrophobia (the pathological fear of clowns) saw a bump in 1986 with the publication of Stephen King’s It — the story of a shape-shifting clown that lives in the sewers and terrorises a group of children. The book was adapted into a TV miniseries in 1990 and the image of a creepy clown ready to drag you into the darkness was embedded into the consciousness of another generation.

When you search "Clown Pran"’ on YouTube you get approximately 3.6 million results, the most popular of which has been viewed a staggering 49 million times …

Skeptical author Ben Radford wrote the book Bad Clowns and claims that clown sightings become more common during periods of social anxiety, which certainly fits with the current American experience and the rise of Donald Trump. In a tome that is in turns scholarly and silly, Radford also lists the top 10 bad clowns, with Batman villain the Joker topping the list.

Pranking … is that like planking?

Not so much, except that a lot of people blame the internet for both. Known in the old days as practical joking, pranking has been a staple of low budget entertainers for ages. Back in 1809, a wag named Theodore Hook bet a friend that he could make a random house the most famous dwelling in London. In what became known as the Berners Street Hoax, Hook basically ordered every tradesman in London to turn up to the house, had a dozen pianos delivered, and even arranged for dignitaries including the Duke of York and the Archbishop of Canterbury turn up. Needless to say, Hook won the bet.

TV shows based on pranks range from the classic Candid Camera approach, to the lowbrow Punk’d and Jackass, and the slightly more cerebral Impractical Jokers. Movie bros Brad Pitt and George Clooney have a longstanding pranking relationship, while some people consider works of art like the Cerne Abbas Giant to have started out as a prank.

Of course, there is a significant difference between carving a 100 foot naked man in a field and hanging out in forests wearing a clown mask, but the basic principle is the same.

Police reaction to the recent spate of clown pranks has ranged from annoyed to incredulous. Queensland Police Minister Bill Byrne was quoted as saying “I find it incredible that people would do this in the first place” and promised to take a “zero tolerance” approach to clowning, which has certainly worked for the War on Drugs.

What’s the Purge?

The Purge is a trilogy of movies set in a dystopian future where one day a year all crime is legal. Naturally, this encourages a lot of people to dress like Insane Clown Posse fans and stand around menacingly, terrorising anyone foolish enough not to be in a secure location. The first film centred around a home invasion and starred Ethan Hawke, while the sequels took a more action-oriented approach and starred "best alternate choice for The Punisher" Frank Grillo.

As usual, Rick & Morty cover the concept in a sensitive fashion:

While masks do feature significantly in The Purge trilogy, almost none of them are clown masks. The connection between the recent spate of clown pranks and The Purge seems to be a wholesale creation of the mainstream media in an attempt to make a ridiculous internet fad seem a little more frightening. Nobody has been purged, Rupert. Calm the f**k down…

Isn’t this an American thing?

While there have been a number of clown pranks originating in the U.S., it’s not entirely accurate to say that Australians are copying Americans (despite what The Age would have you believe). The global nature of the internet means that fads, trends and memes aren’t restricted by traditional boundaries, and it seems that incidents of planking, twerking and the infamous fire challenge crop up simultaneously all over the world.

Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule; Tebowing is as specifically American as the Buckfast Challenge is British, if only because nobody outside the U.S. knows who Tim Tebow is and nobody outside the UK could stomach a glass of Buckfast, let alone a full bottle. Culture might be becoming international, but some things just don’t translate…

What about Pennywise?

Perhaps coincidentally, the remake of It is slated for release in 2017, although studio Universal has stridently denied being involved with any viral marketing campaign. As the film is still a year from release, this makes sense, as the trajectory of internet fads means that clowning will be as dead as disco by September 2017.

By the same token, it wouldn’t be unheard of for a viral marketing company to conduct a campaign like this with the tacit but plausibly deniable knowledge of the stunt — I can attest from experience that the world of film marketing is a shady place.

So what should I do if I see a creepy clown?

Ignore them. Report them to the police if they’re hassling kids or you genuinely feel threatened. Don’t punch them in the face, as attractive as that idea may sound.

Do not post pictures of them on Facebook. Do not film them and put the videos on YouTube. Without the oxygen of social media, this trend will fade as quickly as krumping.

Unless the media keep talking about it. Oh, crap.

Think for yourself!

Like what you read? John Turnbull's books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame, action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Check them out!

You can also follow John on Twitter @blackmagicjohn.

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