Ronald McDonald is laying low.
And with Halloween just around the corner, school districts have banned clown outfits, police departments have begun cracking down on clownlike activities, professional jesters have reported a dip in their funny business, and some costume sellers have reported a spike in sales, while others have refused to offer clown gear.
Amid a rash of scary clown sightings around the country, McDonald’s Corp. announced Tuesday that its red fright-wigged mascot will be keeping a low profile because of the “current climate around clown sightings in communities.”
The fast food chain didn’t say how many public appearances the clown will make, but said it was being “thoughtful in respect to Ronald McDonald’s participation in community events.”
Mostly hoaxes and pranks, creepy clown sightings have become the latest craze, bolstered by social media, with scores of reports in more than three dozen states since August.
The trend has even spread to England, where 14 clown sightings were reported within a 24-hour period this weekend, and to Australia, where police in Victoria have bemoaned “copycat” clown crimes from the U.S.
Dustin Kidd, a sociology professor at Temple University, says he first thought the current craze was a “passing footnote in the human interest section,” but society has proved him wrong.
“These are coordinated attacks or even coordinated hoaxes,” Mr. Kidd said. “It’s a sort of perfect storm where our longstanding fascination with fear, as illustrated by the success of horror films, meets with the new possibilities of social media.
“It’s clearly more than a footnote at this point,” he said.
It all started one evening late August in Greenville, South Carolina. A group of children were playing near the woods at their apartment complex, enjoying the last few hours of summer vacation. Suddenly a clown emerged from the trees — and almost daily accounts of clown-related disturbances have been reported since.
Mr. Kidd says the clown craze has “spread like contagion” because people enjoy the hair-raising thrill of fright.
“Being scared gives a physical rush to our bodies and makes us feel a stronger sense of solidarity with others who are feeling the same fear,” he said. “When we hold hands walking through a haunted house, we walk away feeling more connected to each other.”
Clowns have amused the masses for centuries with their makeup-hidden faces and unpredictable (and sometimes antisocial) antics, becoming some of the world’s best-known entertainers and characters — Charlie Chaplin, Emmet Kelly’s Weary Willie, Red Skelton’s Clem Kadiddlehoffer, Willard Scott’s Bozo, Bob Keeshan’s Clarabell and Bill Irwin. Children squealed, adults laughed and everyone had a good time.
But somewhere clowns — and clowning — took a dark turn as they moved from circuses, vaudeville shows and children’s TV programs into the primal corners of the collective unconscious. For anyone who’s read the Stephen King novel “It” or remembers John Wayne Gacy (the 1970s serial killer who had worked as Pogo the Clown), such comics provide anything but relief.
Horror films presented the menacing clown in the early ‘80s, forever changing how clowns are perceived. (By the way, New Line Cinema, which is producing a 2017 movie version of the 1990 TV miniseries “It,” has said it is not involved in the clown sightings, stressing they are not a part of some viral marketing scheme.)
Today, with the speed and connectivity of the internet, the fear generated by a clown-related incident can spread like wildfire via social media, said Rich Hanley, a journalism professor and social media expert at Quinnipiac University — the site of a clown sighting this month.
Mr. Hanely said that posts on Twitter, Instagram and other sites often contain videos, images and statements without any context or details that would be in an actual news report. In a closed social situation, such as a school or university campus, that can easily lead to a less-than-rational response, he told The Associated Press.
He compared the situation to an episode of “The Twilight Zone” titled “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which “the monsters were all in peoples’ heads,” he said. “People respond, looking for pitchforks to get the monsters.”
Though the vast majority of creepy clown reports have been hoaxes and pranks perpetrated by young people, some have noted serious situations:
• On Oct. 5 police detained David Anthony Talbot-Smith, 21, who had dressed up like a clown and harassed customers at a Wal-Mart in Amarillo, Texas. After his arrest, officers discovered he had two outstanding warrants.
• The FBI is offering a $1,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of a man accused of wearing a clown mask to rob banks and hotels in and around Detroit. Todd Raymond Keith, 37, is considered armed and dangerous, the FBI said.
• In Portland, Oregon, police arrested a 55-year-old grandfather wearing a clown mask and boxing gloves who threatened an assistant principal and terrorized children at Floyd Light Middle School.
The White House has weighed in, with press secretary Josh Earnest saying last week police should take the clown frenzy seriously and “thoroughly review perceived threats to the safety of the community.”
Meanwhile, Pam Moody, president-elect of the World Clown Association, says the recent outbreak “deeply frustrates” professional clowns.
And organizers have scheduled a “Clown Lives Matter” march Saturday in Tucson, Arizona. The group plans to dress up in full clown regalia and use a peaceful approach “to show clowns are not psycho killers,” according to a flier for the event.
With no end to the mania in sight, Stephen King has said it’s “time to cool the clown hysteria.”
“Unless there’s actually a terrorist clown cell somewhere, there is really not much to most of these events in terms of actual threats,” Mr. Kidd said. “The hoax is the epidemic here, not the creepy clowns.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.