Police Psychology | Killer Klowns! Who Are All These Bozos?
by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
Killer Clowns! What evil lurks behind the mask and the florescent green hair? I saw one down the street and he had a big knife to hack teens into little bits that can be fed to the street dog and cats. Sound like a summer campfire story. An urban legend at it’s best. Well they’re here, in Long Island New York, in Fishers Indiana, in New Orleans Louisiana, Albuquerque New Mexico and even in Hollywood California where the theatric meets the macabre. Why are they here? What do they want? Who are these BOZOS?
The clown comes from the Commedia dell’arte which derived it from a character called the “rustic fool”in Greek plays. In it’s original derivations, the fool depicted a low socioeconomic class peasant who was stupid or a dolt in modern terms. From there, the Italians positioned him to be clumsy and more of a slapstick kind of figure. Somewhere around the 1600’s the word “clown” was used and Shakespeare put the clown character in a couple of plays like Othello and The Winter’s Tale. The clowns appearance that we are used to with the big red nose and the painted face developed in the early 1800. He was turned evil in late 1800’s with the opera Pagliacci (“Clowns”) where the main character was an angry, jealous clown, with a great tenor voice, who was looking to kill the person who cheated with his wife. Then you have Bozo’s Big Top Circus and Ronald McDonald who associate clowns with children, and serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Batman’s Joker, and Pennywise from Steven King’s It who associated the clown with murder and torture. And you thought the clown originated in American politics!
Psychology of Clowns
Now let’s talk the psychology of clowns. A fear of clowns is called “Coulrophobia,” that is at least the irrational fear of clowns. Why irrational do you say, because the clown face, green hair and all the stuff is naturally unsettling. Most kids are afraid of clowns when they first see them. It is the natural instinct. They are not afraid of most animals, but they are afraid of clowns. It is a human-like character that is very different — the face is masked, the hair sticks out to the side, or they look like a hobo, and you can’t tell their true intentions. This last piece is probably more the reason people fear clowns, their true intentions are hidden behind a mask of makeup or a physical mask. You can’t read micro-cues in their face, you can’t see subtlety in their expression. That’s why clowns who work kid’s parties immediately do a prat fall to bring some kind of humor forth which combats the fear. So clowns create a natural fear in people, but what is an irrational fear? When you get older, the initial fear abates and a person waits to see what the clown is offering, but if you suffer from coulrophobia you don’t wait and see, you run. You get overly anxious and run. It’s that simple.
So, am I saying that Mardi Gras and the Carnivale of Venice all put people on edge because of the masks? Then why do people flock to them? The answer is yes and they want the thrill. We watch scary movies for the thrill. And we ignite mass hysteria like all these clown sightings for the thrill. Drama makes the world go around, at least for many. Just ask a Kardashian how far drama can get you. It is possible it started as a publicity stunt or one criminal act, but it is continued by the drama. We streaked in the 70’s for the thrill. It’s part of life, to many it is life.
And why is it continued by people? Why are people continuing to dress up like clowns knowing the risk? Why are they scaring children? Because of the thrill. The thrill to copycat something that is very “sexy” by it’s nature and continues the contagion, a psychological or sociological principle of something catching on. That is something that will be remembered all their life if they get away with it. How many things can you say that about in life? I have faint memories of my high school and even college graduation, and almost no memory of getting my doctorate degree awarded. I remember everything about the night we let a skunk in the high school cafeteria and rerouted traffic through the school parking lots all for a senior prank. Or climbing up a ten story building in a gorilla suit on a dare. Or….I better stop there.
Why Scary Clowns
So it’s a contagion, like a viral video, with a big thrill factor for the actor and we keep it alive by our instinctual fear. Why are they clowns acting badly and carrying around large knives and guns and have evil painted faces? Do you think we would be afraid of clowns reading to children or ready to play ball? Nah. Take something associated with kids and turn it scary and every police department and school is on alert. We have had numerous pick-ups on Long Island, most are teenage boys and sometimes girls or early 20’s “teenagers” just trying to scare people. Toy knives, some have real stuff but they are not trying to use them. Maybe some of the original clowns were really trying to harm a few individuals, but real criminals know to say away from the clown outfit now. Most criminals don’t want to stand out and say come and get me.
Now how do you arrest them? Each state or country would have different rules for that. I know in New York Penal Code 240.35 there is law on the books about it being illegal to wear a mask. But judges have said hoods by the Klu Klux Klan could be worn, so that law would have problems being enforced. Other laws about Inciting a Riot, but that would be questionable because they would have to show they wanted to be beaten by ten or more people. Disorderly conduct is another possibility but it would have to reach that level. It tough and it would be a state decision to have some law on the books that could be used.
So the clown thing will be gone soon and maybe they can get back to circuses and the theater. It going to be awhile for the kid’s parties to come back though. But maybe it will.
However, we have a bigger clown issue in America. After watching the presidential debates last night, I know where the scariest clowns are, and I am not going to be thrilled looking at any of them for four years.
Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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