Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Halloween isn't much of a tradition there, yet they've been spotted year-round for a while now. What do they want?
If you find clowns terrifying, you might consider not visiting Britain or France in the near future. Both countries recently have been gripped by a wave of sinister clown-spottings, turning the year into one long Halloween. From city to city, people dressed up like circus escapees have been roaming the streets, getting into mischief, and generally scaring the bejeesus out of passers-by. Apart from young children and acute coulrophobics, the spooky-clown epidemic has been taken more or less in a spirit of fun.
Until last week, that is. On Monday, a judge in Northern France sentenced a 19-year-old clown imposter to a six-month suspended sentence for chasing some youngsters around a small town with what appeared to be a weapon. This being gun-controlled Europe, he was not mown down on sight. So terrified were his victims, however, that they ended up taking refuge inside the town’s french fry stand until the weapon was revealed to be a pepper spray.
This was not an isolated incident. Police in the Pas-de-Calais region have received 38 clown-related complaints in recent weeks. The region’s proximity to the English Channel could suggest a British inspiration—Britain’s clown epidemic has been running for several years now, and on a scale that makes the French look like amateurs. In 2013 alone, London’s Metropolitan Police dealt with 117 clown-related incidents. Admittedly some of these were more serious crimes in which someone had just happened to use the word "clown" at some point, but they include many assaults and robberies involving clown disguises, as well. Clowns have been seen roaming the streets in East Anglia, Northern Ireland, and The Midlands, while a clown in the city of Northampton became something of a cult figure, even getting his own photo galleries in a tabloid. These masked spooks have the locals so wound up that folks have been edging close to getting the pitchforks out and chasing the miscreants out of town. And the craze shows no sign of abating: Just this week, the city of Portsmouth reported its own clown infestation, with a masked figure lurking the streets, stroking passers-by with a single red-gloved finger.
So what’s behind Britain and France’s wave of unnerving buffoons? Given that it’s been a year-round phenomenon so far, it probably isn’t Halloween. American trick-or-treating traditions have certainly caught on in Britain in recent decades, but the holiday still isn’t nearly as big a deal over here, where ghostly storytelling remains equally associated with Christmas Eve. Some people have suggested the influence of the murderous clown on season four of the American TV show "American Horror Story." The problem is that Britain’s clown craze long predates the launch of this new season, while France, currently watching season three on pay-per-view, is still following the show's witch plotline.
It could just be that clowns are an obvious choice to freak out the neighbors. They have been culturally reinforced as being more than a little weird for over a century, at least. The clown as murderer has been a recurrent cultural motif, including such great figures as the cuckolded pierrot in the opera I Pagliacci, the mime Baptiste in Marcel Carné’s 1945 film The Children of Paradise, and the terrifying shape shifter in Stephen King’s It.
It’s also likely that the power clowns have to unnerve must come from their sense of forced jollity. How sour would you become if you always had to spark amusement in others? What resentful thoughts would lurk in your mind if your smile were painted into a forced, aching rictus? Doubts about clowns could be read as a mistrust of anything that only displays a sunny disposition to the world.
There’s one group that this is all bad press for: clowns. American clowns have been fighting their negative portrayal in shows like "American Horror Story." They’re right to point out that, beyond the murderous rampage of John Wayne Gacy (currently being tastelessly commemorated in an Illinois haunted house), clowns’ creepy reputation comes almost exclusively from fiction, and pushing the sinister clown idea isn’t doing much for their bookability as children’s entertainment. I see their point, but I suspect the rot set in a while ago. After all, an orange-wigged clown at a certain hamburger restaurant was already giving me the willies back when I was a kid.